Galen Rupp just made a genius move to hire Northern Arizona University’s Mike Smith as his coach heading into the 2020 Olympics and it seems a bit diabolical. I am not saying that Alberto Salazar is the kind of evil genius that is still behind the scenes orchestrating this whole thing, but would it surprise you? Say what you want about Salazar, but he knows what it takes to win and I believe that Rupp is the big winner in his new relationship with Coach Mike Smith.
Don’t get me wrong, before Coach Smith even wrote a single workout for Rupp, he already watched his own career take a monumental step forward. Coach Smith started his career by winning 3 straight NCAA team championships; pretty hard to top that. But having arguably the best American distance runner over the last decade cold call you after never meeting you to ask you to coach him in an Olympic year is a pretty big deal. Smith is set up to go wherever he wants to go with his career from here. But make no mistake about it, he was on this trajectory already. Sure, I think this move accelerates the progress, but Mike Smith was well on his way to coaching high level elites with or without this.
So, why did Rupp seek out Smith and not an already established coach of professional marathoners? I believe that Rupp (and Salazar) thinks that Smith is the kind of coach that can help him get to where he wants to be physically. However, I also believe that Rupp (and Salazar) thinks Smith is the kind of coach that can help him start to win back the court of public opinion. And I think he’s right.
I, like many fans out there have been less than supportive of Rupp in the past. Maybe it’s unfair that I wasn’t crazy about Rupp because of his nasal strips and pollen masks; that he didn’t exactly seem like the hero who was going to save the fate of American distance running. It probably would have been more fair to have disliked Rupp because of his long time association with the new (or maybe not so new) villain of the sport, Alberto Salazar. And whether you like it or not, if you are closely associated with Alberto Salazar, your reputation is going to take a negative hit and people are going to make speculations.
So, Rupp (and Salazar) brings in someone very different than his former coach. The cool, young gun who is focused on team building and striving for greatness, yet humble in defeat. One of the biggest up-and-coming names in the sport who is widely liked, trusted and respected by athletes and coaches alike.
I got to be honest, I already find myself rooting a little bit more for the Mike Smith version of Galen Rupp. I mean, in his interview with runnersworld.com, Smith made it clear that he trusts that Rupp is guilty of nothing other than association. He even stated, “If Galen Rupp is found to violate the rules of our sport, I’m the first one out, and he knows that”. Maybe I am naive, but I tend to believe that Smith trusts his guy. He is a smart coach and I think he knows that if he were to gamble on this and lose it could be very bad for his rapidly progressing career.
Mike Smith’s stock is at an all-time high. The problem is, what if his stock has (brace yourself, I am going to do it…) peaked too early? If Galen Rupp runs great, is that really evidence of Mike Smith being a great marathon coach, or is it just the top American being a great runner? Plus, there would always be that lingering credit for that coach who has been developing him since he was in high school. Worse off, what if the guy that Smith has just vouched for gets exposed as being guilty in the Salazar Saga? That would be a terrible look for Coach Smith. Rupp has everything to gain and Coach Smith has everything to lose.
I guess what I am saying is Galen (and Salazar), don’t ruin Coach Smith for us please. This decision was calculated (by Salazar) to bring honor and trust back to America’s marathoner, and I think it was a brilliant move. I wish the absolute best for Coach Smith and when it comes down to it, when Galen puts on his USA singlet, I will be rooting for him to win gold. This could end up being a beautiful thing for us in 2020. Or it could be a disaster. Unfortunately, either way we may have Alberto Salazar to thank for the outcome.