New cross-country coach looks to get off to a fast start
Jason Stormer | Sports Editor
Cramped in the basement of the Hagstrom Center adjacent of the mailroom, the windowless office bares a resemblance to solitary confinement. The walls, made of cinder block, are painted a ghostly white. The room is illuminated by a single bank of fluorescent lights that make the monotonous shade on the walls glow bright enough to cause a headache.
There are no awards and trophies to display. All that stands out is a poster promoting the upcoming Bethel cross country season, pictures of family and friends, knickknacks on the desk and carpet on the floor.
Joe Stephens, Bethel’s new cross country coach, doesn’t have much to look at in his office at the moment.
Keep in mind he’s only lived here since he was hired in June and maybe hasn’t been able to find a good interior decorator. Although he doesn’t excel in interior design, Stephens possesses an impressive coaching pedigree.
He’s built up a resume so long even his best runners would have a tough time conquering such a distance, which makes sense, when you consider the man figured out what he wanted to do with his life before he passed the 12th grade.
“At 17 years old was about the point where I was very confident I was going to be a college coach,” Stephens said. Stephens, 34, began running cross country and competing in high school meets his freshman year, but he didn’t wear a mascot-themed singlet. He didn’t have a mascot to represent.
Stephens was homeschooled by his parents throughout high school. He competed in meets independently and didn’t even have a permanent coach. That still didn’t stop colleges from recruiting him during his senior year, and he chose to start his undergrad and cross country college career at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In fact, he attributes his love of running and coaching because he had a unique high school experience.
“I think it was my lack of a coach,” he said. “I think my lack of somebody to be there to guide and mentor me really spurred my focus into that area of occupation.”
Coaching wasn’t the only thing he was interested in, though. Going into college, Stephens was intending to study ministry, but claims the Lord had other plans.
“After a short period of time, I felt the Lord leading me into something a little bit different,” Stephens said. “I was passionate about my own running in college, but with the help of my dad and other mentors, I steered my undergrad and graduate work into coaching.”
After transferring from Oral Roberts to Mount Marty College in Yankton, South Dakota, Stephens graduated with a bachelor’s degree in recreational management. He was named a Daktronics NAIA Scholar Athlete and earned Academic All-American honors his senior year. He clocked the seventh fastest time on the men’s 10,000 meters in Lancers history. Fast forward a year-and-a-half, he earned his master’s degree in sports administration from Fort Hays State in Hays, Kansas.
By the time he graduated in winter of 2004, that resumé was already growing. Stephens was hired immediately in the fall of that year at Fort Hays State as a graduate assistant track and field and cross country coach where he coached two NCAA All- Americans and claim his first title as a coach at the Outdoor Track and Field Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference men’s and women’s championships.
In 2005, he was hired to be on staff at Black Hills State in Spearfish, South Dakota. There he coached two NAIA national qualifiers, two school-record holders and three Dakota Athletic Conference champions.
Then Division I called in 2008.
For four seasons, Stephens was the assistant cross country coach at Colorado State, where he helped produce four Mountain West women’s runner-up finishes and four nationally ranked women’s teams.
Stephens then spent three years as the cross country coach at the University of Wyoming. He was able to get the Cowboys to 40th in the national rankings for the men’s team and, last season, the women to place third in the Mountain West, their highest ranking in program history. He also served as the primary distance coach for the track and field team and helped the women’s team go from eighth in the conference standings in 2013 to second the next season.
And now he’s at Bethel, even after an establishing credentials at the uppermost level of college sports.
Sometimes it’s matter of if the glove fits and Stephens just wasn’t feeling right about Division I.
“For me, it was just a stage of my life,” he admitted. “At that point, I wasn’t necessarily looking to be at a Division I program. I just wanted to be at the right place at the right time and develop a winning program.”
After a little soul searching and consulting with his mentors this last spring, Stephens came to the conclusion that he accomplished everything he wanted up to this point in his college career, except one thing.
Be a head coach. It just so happened Bethel was looking for one.
On June 23, 2015 the university officially hired Stephens as the new cross country and assistant track & field coach.
“I am thrilled to have Joe as a part of our athletics staff, as his passion for coaching is fully evident,” Athletic Director Bob Bjorklund said in a press release on Bethel athletics’ website. “Joe is a gifted leader who casts a compelling vision for the future of our cross country programs. The holistic approach he brings to leadership will produce a first-class experience for our student-athletes.”
Stephens is replacing former assistant track and cross country head coach, Jim Timp, who was released from his position on March 26 after 18 years for reasons that the university has not publicly released at this time.
The move sparked an outcry among cross country and track athletes, who demanded in a letter signed by more than 50 athletes to President Jay Barnes, Vice President Deb Sullivan-Trainor, Provost Deb Harless and Director of Human Resources and Title IX Coordinator Cara Wald that Timp’s release be reevaluated.
“We believe that the appropriate steps were taken before making this coaching change and are therefore not going to revisit it at this time,” Wald wrote in the letter responding to the student-athletes in April.
Stephens claims he doesn’t know anything about Timp’s situation, but was informed of his release prior to accepting the job.
“Any time you get a new coach, there’s going to be a new philosophy,” said senior cross country captain Matt Berens, who voiced his dissatisfaction when Timp was released and was consulted during the hiring process of a new coach.
“Obviously, this will be a big change for him to come to Division III,” Berens said. “I think it will take some getting used to for everybody.”
By the time he was hired, Stephen’s résumé was already miles long and Berens was impressed with what he initially saw.
“The first thing you look at is athletic background,” Berens said. “We saw that he was coming from several Division I schools, so he certainly has the experience that we were looking for.”
Despite having completed three meets with two more to go before the MIAC championships on October 31, Berens and his teammates are optimistic of what they have seen from his new coach so far.
“I was definitely impressed by him. I thought he had very good control over what’s been going on. He’s very driven to make us the best runners we can be. He also has a strong faith background, which I think the team thrives off of,” Berens said.
Now begins the Joe Stephen’s era at Bethel and he’s ready to face his first head coaching gig with marathon-sized aspirations.
“I look at Bethel University and I think can we be a team that can be as good as some Division I programs,” Stephens said. “All I can do is the best I can do and to make this program grow into one of the best in the United States.”
So even if his office isn’t adorned with pictures of current and former athletes, shelves stuffed with books, glistening awards or even a window, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be someday.
Hopefully he’ll find a good interior decorator along the way.