This Saturday, harriers from around the state of Florida will converge on Tallahassee’s Apalachee Regional Park for the 2014 Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Cross Country State Championships.
While it is at best a subjective opinion, there are certain states whose fall high school state tournaments are the envy of the rest of the nation.
With several performances contained within the NFHS’ online National High School Sports Record Book – as well as another not having an official category – Jim Tate of Mobile (Alabama) St. Paul’s Episcopal High School has set a very lofty standard for high school track and cross country state titles.
The 72-year-old Tate, who was inducted into the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame last summer in Denver, Colorado, has been at St. Paul’s since 1978. During his career, Tate has led the boys and girls track and cross country teams to an incredible 91 Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) state titles. Although the Record Book does not include that as an official category, it is highly unlikely that any other high school coach in the nation has ever accomplished that. Along with those 91 state championships, Tate’s combined teams have finished as state runners-up 40 times.
Among Record Book-listed accomplishments, Tate has led the girls cross country team to a national-record 16 consecutive state titles. Overall, the girls program has won 17 AHSAA state titles, and the boys program has won nine.
In addition, Tate has coached the St. Paul’s boys and girls outdoor track programs to a collective 34 titles (13 boys and 21 girls), and the boys and indoor track programs to 29 (11 boys and 18 girls).
After graduating from The Citadel (South Carolina) in 1963 and earning his master’s degree from the University of Alabama, Tate served five years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
Tate was then a head coach in basketball and track and assistant coach in football and baseball at Greenville (South Carolina) Christ Church Episcopal School, followed by three years coaching boys basketball, track and cross country at Atlanta (Georgia) The Lovett School. Upon arriving at St. Paul’s, he very creatively generated a youth movement to begin a 35-year tradition of excellence.
“The interesting thing is how it all started,” Tate said. “My first year, I was just beginning to resurrect the girls cross country program. During the summer, I sent letters to several rising seventh-graders who I saw in P.E. classes. We had a bunch of middle school kids with no place to go except to become a junior high cheerleader.
“We got many of those young girls to join the program. When we got to the state cross country meet that fall, all of our top scorers on that team were seventh-graders and we won the state title. That was the team that started the streak.”
Once that winning tradition started, success begat success and the girls cross country state title streak continued to grow. Along the way, however, there were some interesting finishes at the state meets.
“Around 1985 or 1986, I had a team that was perhaps not the best in our enrollment classification and we went into the state meet thinking it would be a challenge,” Tate began. “As luck would have it, we had the strongest meet we had all year, and as a result, we had a fairly convincing win – not the sort of thing you would expect.
“In the 1998 state meet, going into the final 10 meters of the race, we were in second place. We had two girls who passed runners from an opposing team down that finishing stretch to take our team from a losing margin to a winning margin. Turned a loss into a win.
“In 1999 – the year the streak ended – it was the same thing, but this time another team came from behind and unseated us by one point. But, that wasn’t due to lack of heart or effort on the part of our girls. The streak lasted perhaps longer than it should have. However, it was special and always will be.”
Tate’s great coaching ability and positive influence on the St. Paul’s student-athletes are a tremendous source of pride for The Cotton State, as attested by AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese.
“We are happy for Jim Tate and extremely proud of his many accomplishments,” Savarese said. “More important are the many young men and young women he has helped mold into outstanding adults through his dedication and service. He is already a member in our (AHSAA) Sports Hall of Fame. We thank him for his many years of service, first as an outstanding member of our military and later through his teaching and coaching.”
In October 2010, St. Paul’s dedicated the Jim Tate Track and Cross County Field House at the school’s track complex – a $400,000 facility to serve as home base for the school’s running programs. While he is clearly very honored to have the facility named after him, Tate feels that how it serves the school’s student-athletes is the more important aspect of it.
“The big thing was that the school decided to devote the funds to get that realized,” Tate said. “The fact that they put my name on it was extremely gratifying, and very humbling indeed. You usually get those sort of recognitions six feet under the ground or when you’re getting the pink slip.
“The facility has served as sort of an anchor – the kids feel like they have a home. Other sports have their homes. We were the most successful program in the school and we had kids having to change clothes in their cars. Now, the kids have a place to come with lockers and a place to meet. The foyer is filled with the championship trophies. It has been good for the program and it gives the kids the sense that we are appreciated.”
Last summer, Tate very deservedly earned the ultimate recognition that can be given a person involved with high school athletics or performing arts activities when he was inducted into the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame. In typically self-deprecating fashion, Tate views the honor from a more global perspective.
“I think I was just enormously fortunate,” he began. “As I stood on the stage at the ceremony, I had to ask myself ‘How in the world did I get up here with this group?’ I consider myself to be an average guy and I’m just coming to work and trying to do my best. I’ve always said that as the coach I’ve never scored a single point in a single meet, but that I’ve had an amazing number of great people around me to create our program’s success – many great athletes and inspiring coaches.
“I liked the fact that it (the Hall of Fame) was a mix of everybody – coaches, officials, performing arts people, etc. I thought it was very appropriate that it was a group of all the different people involved with high school athletics and activities brought together.”
The future – short-term and potentially long-term – looks bright with Tate at the helm of the St. Paul’s boys and girls cross country teams.
“I will be coaching cross country again this fall ‑ my 36th year here at St. Paul’s,” Tate said. “I would characterize this year’s teams (both girls and boys) as stronger than last year, but probably not contending for state 5A championships. We are relatively young and quality depth looks to be our big problem.
“There is strength at the top for the girls with Anna Braswell, a senior, who finished eighth in the state cross country meet in 2012, expected to lead our team. Incidentally, she swept the Class 5A state track and field meet this past spring winning the 800-meter run, 1,600-meter run and 3,200-meter run, as well as running a leg on our winning 4×400-meter relay team. She has put in a strong summer, and it is our hope that she can succeed our 2012 state individual champion Alana Babington, who will be running collegiately at Washington & Lee University this fall. Backing up Anna will be Gracie Whiston, a freshman who finished third and fourth, respectively, in last spring’s state championships in the 1,600-meter run and 3,200-meter run events.
“For the boys, two runners stand out – Reece Stevens and Brett Erickson, a junior and sophomore, respectively. Both put in great summers and should challenge for all-state honors (top 15 finishers in state meet) this fall. The boys team has good if not great depth this fall, and we hope that strengthens as the season progresses. Incidentally, we did not win state cross country last fall, with the girls finishing fifth and the boys eighth in Class 5A.
“As far as how long I plan to coach, I am moving one year at a time these days. I want to continue coaching as long as I enjoy it and feel as if I am still contributing by my own standards. Being able to step out at a time of my own choosing and turning the program over to someone or possibly others who can continue to build on what we have done to date is certainly my desire. Additionally, I would hope to be able to leave with a strong program in place for my successor(s) to work with.”