Campus Highlights

Staying the Course

Cross country and track and field coach leans on lessons learned from mentors

A man standing with the "Elaine Leigh Track and Field Complex" sign behind him

Photos by Robert Hall


icon of a calendarMarch 5, 2024

icon of a pencilBy Kristina Lindberg

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There is a photo that’s always close to the heart of Oakland University Cross Country and Track and Field Head Coach Paul Rice, CAS ‘97. Signed by the 2002 OU men’s cross country team, the picture shows the group on a memorable day in November after winning the program’s first conference championship in Indianapolis.

“It’s definitely something I’ll look back on and remember,” says Rice. “I’ll remember the scene. I’ll remember the colors. I’ll remember the smells. I’ll remember the excitement. It's something that's burned in my brain.” After coming close to victory the previous year, the men’s win was earned after years of hard work and believing in the right things, setting the stage for incredible milestones: Numerous conference titles, like the women’s first victory in 2010, countless accolades and amazing accomplishments.

While the photo stirs memories of a shining success in his career, Rice believes the most important aspect of being a coach is developing personal qualities that athletes can draw from.

“Winning championships is amazing. I mean, you can't replace that feeling,” Rice says. “But the bottom line is that those moments don't mean anything to me unless these athletes are really coming out of our program as responsible individuals ready for adulthood.”

Over the course of his career, Rice has gone the distance for OU athletics. From Pioneer student-athlete in the 1990s to head coach of cross country and track and field, Rice has leaned on mentors and implemented their lessons into his own coaching, knowing the key to a successful program is a strong bond with athletes, alumni and coaches. “We're successful when we build strong relationships and when we can continue to foster those relationships,” he says.

Starting Line

Running never crossed Rice’s mind until he was a junior in high school. A passionate wrestler, Rice was weighing a college career on the mat until his speed in the mile run in gym class spiked the interest of East Detroit High School Track and Cross Country Coach Wayne Brown. Rice was approached by Brown the day after his run, who convinced him to join the school’s track team.

“At first, I wasn’t really excited about it,” Rice recalls. “But I thought, ‘Seems like a nice guy. We'll give it a shot.’”

Rice quickly fell in love with running. Brown became Rice’s mentor, staying in touch with him even after graduation. Dedicated to the sport, he was a strict coach who taught his athletes self-discipline and led the cross country team to a fifth-place finish in the state championship during Rice’s senior year — a massive accomplishment for the school.

“You don't think about those things until you reflect back on it,” Rice says. “If [ Brown] hadn't walked into that room and convinced me to run track, I wouldn't be here … I never would have thought about running and never would have thought about track or cross country. It's definitely that moment in time when you realize your life was just altered forever.”

Successful Strides

In 1990, Rice’s high school running success landed him on the OU cross country team. Rice remembers his coaches and athletes going the extra mile for the incoming athletes, supporting them every step of the way. From senior Ken Osmun, OU’s first NCAA cross-country All-American, to his coaches Hal Commerson and David McCauley, Rice found mentors throughout his college journey, learning leadership lessons he would apply throughout his career.

“They just created an environment where we had a nice balance between chasing success, working hard and having fun, and our personalities all meshed really well,” Rice says.

Mirroring his mentors, leadership came naturally to Rice, who was voted team captain during his sophomore year. “I was highly motivated as an individual to see some big success, but also had big goals and big dreams for our team to try to do something we've never done before,” he says. During his four years as a student-athlete, the team hit memorable milestones, such as adding the women’s team in 1993 and finishing runner-up in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference his junior year — a first in the team’s history at that time.

Crossing into Coaching

OU became an essential part of Rice’s life on and off the course. Working at Meadowbrook Health Enhancement Institute after graduation, he was approached by OU’s new cross country head coach, Shawn Butler, who asked Rice to tell him more about the program — a conversation that resulted in Rice volunteering to be an assistant coach. For two years, he helped coach, recruit and travel with the team before he was spring boarded to head coach in 1998. “It just became immediately so rewarding for me to be giving back to a program that, just a couple years ago, I had been in their uniform,” Rice says.

In his new position and throughout his coaching career, Rice has been able to draw from his own student-athlete experience. “It adds a unique quality to what you do when you can fully relate to the experience students are going through,” he says. “Because even though it was 30 years ago, it's still something that we have in common.”

Going Strong

In his 25+ years as head coach, Rice has transformed OU’s program from a small cross country team to a full-fledged and highly successful operation that includes both cross country and track and field. The addition of track and field in 2006 opened the door for a full athletic experience. With nine assistant coaches — seven of whom are OU alumni — and between 55-75 student-athletes on the annual roster, the programs have produced astounding accomplishments, from winning 12 team conference titles to countless accolades, NCAA qualifiers, NCAA All-Americans and establishing the program’s reputation well beyond Michigan’s borders.

The Hollie L. Lepley Hall of Honor inductee — who has received conference coach of the year honors 13 times — credits his career to more than just working hard, knowing it was the people along the way who believed in, supported and trusted him. This support system shaped his coaching philosophy and vision for his athletes, then, now, and for years to come. “I want them walking shoulder to shoulder, side by side. And our coaches walk behind them,” Rice says. “We're never out in front of our athletes. We're always behind our athletes because that's what's helped me get to where I've gotten, which is knowing I have people behind me supporting me and catching me if I fall.”

A hand holding a stopwatch

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