CMU track & field in disarray? Five athletes leave, assistant coach fired, others say program in 'downward spiral'
Five members of the Central Michigan men’s track and field team have left, an assistant coach has been fired, and now some current athletes are unhappy with program director Willie Randolph, according to a week-long investigation by Central Michigan Life.
Following the indoor Mid-American Conference championships last month, senior Greg Knaus and juniors Ross Parsons, Cory Noeker and Ryan Brooks quit the team within two weeks of each other. Redshirt freshman Derek Thornton left two weeks prior.
Knaus, a former captain, said Randolph has shown a lack of respect for his athletes, implemented poor training with a lack of results and believes more athletes will soon follow suit in leaving.
“Things are going so poorly at the top that I believe we won't be the only ones to leave the team,” Knaus said. “I think more people will leave at the end of the season.”
Parsons, another former captain, said he signed his letter of intent on Sunday to transfer to Michigan State to continue his track and field career. Brooks has been offered a preferred walk-on spot at MSU and says he has committed to run track there.
“While I have enjoyed competing for Central (Michigan) and cherish the great friendships I have developed, for personal reasons, it is time to take my passion for the sport elsewhere,” Parsons said Tuesday.
Parsons will be eligible in the fall and will have two years of outdoor eligibility and one year of indoor eligibility remaining.
All five former CMU athletes were members of the sprints and hurdles group — one of the largest on the track and field team, with 32 total members — before their leave.
“In the sprints and hurdles group, things have been going downhill for a while now, but we’ve stuck together as a group,” Knaus said. “This year, it’s cultivated into something really bad. We tried sorting out problems with Willie Randolph, but things have spiraled out of control.”
A current member of the track and field team, who asked to remain anonymous, said both the team’s results and individual results have been embarrassing. The men’s team finished last at the indoor MAC championships in February, while the women’s team finished ninth.
“I know I ran faster times in high school, and I’m at every practice doing the work,” she said. “It’s not just me; freshman year we ran our fastest times out of high school, and we’re getting worse. I don’t trust any of the workouts we’re doing anymore.”
Knaus said there are concerns about injuries as a result of what he says is poor training.
“Since the beginning of the year, there have been seven or eight hamstring injuries,” he said. “I, myself, have been hurt all year and had to redshirt indoors this year because my Achilles (tendon) got hurt."
Knaus said he reached out to different doctors and coaches about his injury, and many told him his training on hard and soft surfaces without transition periods might be a factor.
Brooks has suffered hamstring pulls in both legs and injuries to his knees, which kept him from competing throughout his sophomore year.
“I saw a doctor outside of CMU athletics, and he told me I pulled a hammy and it would take a while, but when I talked to coach, he said it would take two weeks,” he said. “Once we transitioned to outdoor, I re-pulled my hamstring in the first meet and took it easy throughout the year.”
The departing athletes said at least eight other track and field athletes, men and women, suffered hamstring or leg-related injuries.
Randolph, when contacted Wednesday, said, laughingly: “We’re really just focused on moving forward,” and joked about the poor weather the teams have recently had to deal with recently.
Two other former members of the team, who asked to remain anonymous, said a sign was posted in the Indoor Athletic Complex with photos of the four former athletes.
“Attention Desk Staff: Effective on Wednesday, March 20, at 1 p.m., the individuals below are no longer CMU athletes and are not allowed in the facility,” the sign allegedly read.
Randolph said he had no knowledge of the posting and said he could not comment.
Divvying of power
Randolph’s staff consists of three assistant coaches, an associate head coach and a volunteer coach.
Despite having multiple staff members for the men’s and women’s track and field teams, Knaus said Randolph doesn’t allow those coaches to work closely with athletes.
“We have sprints and hurdles coaches on staff, and they’re literally there for moral support; they’re not allowed to coach us at all,” Knaus said. “That’s a mess … and that’s been a huge issue for four years that we’ve tried to work through.”
Brooks said he would try to talk to assistant coach Glen Smith during his freshman year and Randolph would get defensive and approach him about it.
“We would go to ask advice from coaches he had hired – we’re asking these coaches for tips because they were, at one point, terrific athletes,” Brooks said. “When I did that, coach Willie told me, ‘You don’t need to worry about that; you need to worry about what I tell you.'”
Assistant coach Aaron Seminski was fired from the program at the end of February.
Randolph confirmed Seminski’s dismissal but wouldn’t comment on the reason he was fired, though multiple current and former members of the team said they did not agree with the decision.
“A lot of times, Coach doesn’t like us talking to other coaches; he was very controlling, and when coach Aaron was around, I would be talking to him after a race and coach Randolph would come up and make a point to keep Aaron away from the athletes,” said a female member of the team who asked to remain anonymous.
Seminski was fired after Brooks made his decision to leave, while Parsons, Knaus and Noeker came after.
“Our group respected him and loved him a lot, and to see him let go for basically no reason was hard on some people and not something we were happy about,” Knaus said. “He didn’t have anything to do with us quitting or transferring; things have just been a downward spiral since the beginning of the year.”
Knaus said he asked Randolph about Seminski’s dismissal, but he wouldn’t talk about it.
Volunteer coach Johnie Drake has stepped in to assist the coaching staff since Seminski's firing.
The female member of the team said more athletes will leave from the men’s side, but no one from the women’s team is brave enough to quit.
“I know our passion for track is pretty much gone, and we don’t care enough to transfer to another school,” she said. “We’re fine with getting our scholarships and just pushing through.”
First to leave
Derek Thornton was the first player this semester to depart the program in early February.
After missing a morning practice due to illness, Thornton received a text message from Randolph telling him he had to run a certain time to remain on the team.
“He told me I had to run between a 49.5 and a 51-second 400 meter in order to stay on the team,” he said. “I was a short sprinter who moved to a 400, and he asked me to run a time his 400-meter runners were barely running. I found that unfair.”
A 60-meter and 200-meter runner, Thornton, a redshirt freshman, was moved to different events after he didn’t place highly in the first meet he competed in unattached.
Thornton said a few seniors talked him into staying. The next day, he talked to Randolph, who told him he would know if he could stay on the team the following Monday.
“I got no answer on Monday, so I came Tuesday and asked for my release,” he said. “I was sent to Benjy Wilbur, and he sent me to Randolph’s boss and me and him talked, but nothing got resolved.”
Current and former student-athletes said they had meetings with Associate Athletics Director for Business Operations Brad Wachler but haven’t seen any changes.
“We haven’t gotten a direct meeting with the athletic director (Dave Heeke), but we’ve talked to Brad,” said a second athlete still on the team who asked to remain anonymous. “A few athletes have set up meetings and voiced our concerns that he’s not the right man for the job.”
Wachler said Thursday night he has had conversations with the departing athletes but declined to comment on the nature of the conversation. He said athletics administration fully backs Randolph.
"First and foremost, we 100-percent support our coaching staff," he said. "We're moving forward as a program, and we support (Randolph's) direction. We all need to improve in some areas, and we will continue to assess the program as we do every program moving forward. But we fully support the program."
When asked Wednesday if he was the right man for the job, Randolph responded, laughingly: "We're just moving forward. We have a young team, graduated a large number, and we're just focused on moving forward. That's where the team and the program are at."
Randolph, a 1998 CMU graduate and letter-winning hurdler, took the job as director of the men's and women's track and field and cross country teams in 2009.