It was a rare morning when Ben Thomas was up before his wife and kids so the new Oregon cross country and distance associate head coach took advantage by going on a run.
He put on the first shirt he could find amid the unpacked boxes in their new house and headed out the door.
“Big mistake,” Thomas said with a laugh.
Later that day when he arrived at work, Thomas was met by Oregon coach Robert Johnson who had one question for his recent hire.
“What are you doing running around with an adidas shirt on?’” Johnson asked.
Welcome to Track Town USA, coach, birth-place of Nike and where members of the Ducks track and field program are as recognizable as members of the football team.
“What I had worn was this old, paper-thin, adidas T-shirt,” Thomas said. “If you looked at it you’d still be like ’Is that adidas?’
“So my second run in Eugene, somebody sees me, knows who I am, and reports me to Robert. I was like, ’Yeah, this must be Eugene.’”
It was a good reminder of something Thomas already knew: In Eugene, all eyes will be on him as he replaces longtime coach Andy Powell and attempts to put the Ducks back on an upward trajectory.
He’ll get his first look at some of his runners in action at 6 p.m. Thursday when the eighth-ranked Ducks host the Oregon XC Preview on Pre’s Trail in Alton Baker Park.
“I’m embracing it,” said Thomas, who took the Oregon job after 17 years in the same role at Virginia Tech. “One of the beautiful things about coaching here is you want that excitement around the sport. The sport is in desperate need of it. I want to soak that in and take the highs and lows of that and do some good things.”
Thomas inherited a cross country roster with limited experience but loads of potential.
The most accomplished returner is Cooper Teare, the 2017 Pac-12 freshman of the year who was eighth at the conference championship meet and 44th at the NCAA championships.
Redshirt senior middle-distance runner Blake Haney is also back, as is sophomore Reed Brown and redshirt senior James West, who was the 2018 Pac-12 runnerup in the 1,500.
All three have competed in an NCAA cross country championship meet.
Redshirt junior Matthew Maton, who was an all-American in 2016, is expected to miss his second straight cross country season because of unspecified injuries, Thomas said.
That means Thomas will need to develop some success stories among a collection of untapped talent, including juniors Levi Thomet and Austin Tamagno, redshirt sophomore Jackson Mestler and redshirt freshman Charlie Hunter, an intriguing newcomer from Australia.
“I have to get the guys feeling like what they’re doing is going to get them to the next step,” Thomas said. “Andy had a good bit of success here, but just like the guy replacing me at Virginia Tech, I’m sure he wants to make the program better. Same thing here. They were sixth at NCAAs last year in cross country, we’ve got eight weeks, can we do better? I think we can if all the pieces come together.”
That’s exactly why Johnson brought Thomas to Eugene, reuniting the two coaches who once shared an office at Appalachian State when they were both assistant coaches at the school between 1997-99.
Johnson praised the success Powell had in his 13 seasons at Oregon, which in cross country included four individual NCAA champions and two team titles, but he also said the goal is to always improve and he needed to find a coach who could deliver on those expectations.
“Obviously the distance piece of our program is supremely important, and the tradition and legacy that goes along with it is important,” Johnson said. “I wanted to make sure that whoever we brought in could, not only continue, but do it better than what was done in the past.”
Thomas had his share of success in Blacksburg. Most recently, he was the men’s national assistant coach of the year in 2017 and his men’s distance medley relay team won the NCAA Indoor title last March.
All together, Thomas coached 74 all-Americans while at Virginia Tech.
And still, he gushed about the potential on this season’s Oregon roster.
“The physical side, to me it’s like Christmas,” he said. “We’re a little short on numbers but the talent is unquestionable. Compared to the best guys I ever got coming in the door at Virginia Tech, that’s the slowest guy (at Oregon), just in terms of what they’ve done on paper.”
The mental side and getting the athletes to buy into a new coach will be the big challenge, Thomas said.
“But it’s the natural part of a transition,” he said.
As is finding the proper clothing after moving to a new town, as Thomas learned the hard way.
“That shirt,” Thomas said with laugh, “has been sent to Goodwill.”