Pat Tyson is a bus driver.
When Tyson was named director of cross country and athletics at Gonzaga University in 2008, he not only coached the men’s and women’s team, but he had to recruit, network with alumni and maintain compliance to the NCAA, while trying to raise funds in an effort to make GU one of the nation’s leading running universities.
The cross country program was more like a Division III outfit with only two total scholarships for the men’s and women’s teams when Tyson took over. There was no dressing room, no team uniforms, and no chance to compete nationally.
Not only did Tyson have to pilot five separate buses, but the buses may also have had their brakes cut and windows smashed.
Fresh off the program’s second-straight finish at the NCAA National Championship cross-country competition, Tyson is at the center of a dramatic paradigm shift not often seen at the Division I level. Cellar dwellers to lead runners, GU and Tyson have become beacons for racing excellence in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Tyson got his start in racing as an under-the-radar prospect at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash. An avid reader of Track & Field News, Tyson discovered the University of Oregon in these pages. By chance, he met OU assistant coach Bill Dellinger at a college meet and asked if he could join the team. When Dellinger finally said yes, Tyson was off to Eugene, no questions asked.
At UO, Tyson won a national championship alongside Steve Prefontaine under Dellinger and Bill Bowerman. Daytime coaches, Dellinger and Bowerman were two key people in the process of creating Nike when they weren’t on the track.
After graduating, Tyson returned up north to Kellogg Junior High School in Seattle, Washington for his first official coaching gig. In his suitcase was the training “program” he had inherited from his college coaches and their fashionable flair on the track.
“When I was coaching in college, we were the first team to wear Nikes in the world outside of college,” Tyson said. “Nobody wore Nike shoes, but my 1973 teenagers all wore these waffle-bottomed nylon shoes, Kenyan red and Finnish blue, that no one had ever heard of before.”
Tyson’s middle schoolers stuck to the same strenuous diet he followed at the UO, albeit a pared-down version suitable for 12-year-olds. Her team was also made up of girls, something unheard of in the mid-’70s, as many high schools, not to mention colleges, sponsored women’s sports.
“Everyone was included,” Tyson said. “We dropped out for inclusion. I was coaching women before anyone else. We had college girls beating our boys, which is pretty cool.
Tyson moved briefly to Shorecrest High School in Seattle, winning two state championships before packing his bags again, this time heading east to Mead High School in eastern Washington.
During his 19 years at Mead, Tyson coached the Panthers to 12 state cross country titles. Over a span of nine years, Tyson’s runners haven’t lost a single encounter, as he was nominated for National Coach of the Year when Mead was ranked No. 1 nationally.
By 2005, Tyson had turned Mead into a distance running business, continuously producing state titles and collegiate runners.
Meanwhile, her beloved UO’s remote program was in turmoil. During the 2004-05 school year, Tyson fielded calls from another OU alum, Alberto Salazar, then Galen Rupp’s coach at Central Catholic in Portland.
Salazar spoke of upheaval in Eugene and urged Tyson to take over as interim coach when the current coach was fired or left. In March, Tyson left his position as the most decorated cross-country coach in Washington State history to become the men’s running coach at UO.
When he arrived in Eugene, a rainbow broke through the clouds over Hayward Field before Tyson addressed his new team for the first time.
Without an official head coach, the Ducks would win the PAC-12 championship in track and field. After the season, UO hired Vin Lananna as head coach, and Tyson returned to Mead. Former OU football coach Rich Brooks had taken over at the University of Kentucky and his OU colleagues encouraged him to apply.
Tyson did so, mostly as a joke, and was soon named the Wildcats’ men’s cross-country running coach. Despite his successful year in the UK, Lexington’s horse farms were incomparable to the forests of the North West.
“I got run over and nearly killed on a morning run near the campus football stadium,” Tyson said. “It kind of changed my perspective. I started to realize how much I missed the energy of the West. There’s something about the smell of an evergreen tree. When you come down from “A plane in Portland, Eugene or even Seattle you can smell the air. It’s different. I like the West and I even think I like the Inland Northwest better than the Northwest coastal.
Tyson has since resided in Spokane, building the GU distance program from ground level, laying additional bricks year after year. Under his leadership, the cross-country ski program experienced a multitude of firsts. Tyson landed GU’s first five-star recruit for any sport in James Mwaura. There was the first team trip to the NCAA Championship as a team, fueled by runners who rewrote every best time in the annals of GU distance running.
When asked about the biggest hurdles the program has had to overcome on its way to success, Tyson’s tone of voice becomes nostalgic as he becomes poetic about Spokane’s long-departed runners.
Willie Milam is the first name that came out of Tyson’s mouth. Although he wasn’t heavily recruited from Jesuit High School in Portland, Milam proved that Tyson’s program did indeed work, avoiding injury and illness to qualify for the 2015 NCAA West Regional in 5K.
Troy Fraley relied on Tyson’s proof of concept by Milam. During his senior redshirt season, Fraley won the NCAA West Regional in the 3K steeplechase in poor conditions before becoming an NCAA Championship All-American two weeks later in the same event.
“It’s not easy,” Tyson said. “It’s so hard to be in the top eight in your individual event. And this is Troy Fraley, no water pit on campus, no obstacles, no track. He’s from Kalispell, Montana and he’s us made All-American.”
Tyson told the Bulletin in a 2019 interview that his goal was to make GU distance running iconic. Sixth-year senior Ben Hogan set foot on campus just as Fraley was leaving, experiencing the heartbreak of missing out on qualifying for the Nationals by one point, until triumph when the team finally managed to get rid of the monkey and qualified for the elusive championship race.
“I think we’ve come a long way towards becoming iconic,” Hogan said. “When we’re in a race, we’ll always have guys up front pushing the pace. I would still say right now, we’ve got a long way to go. We still haven’t had that defining cross-country moment.
More than anything, Tyson takes pride in the steady improvement of both the men’s and women’s teams. In his eyes, no program has regressed from one year to the next since its inception.
GU is no longer the little brother of Washington State and the University of Washington in cross country, having long since outgrown punching bag status. This does not mean that they are economically equal, as GU’s funding is not equivalent to the funding of the five PAC-12 power institutions.
“I’m jealous of other schools that have everything they have, I wish I had it,” Tyson said. “But, you know, I have to keep telling our guys it’s not about gimmicks. It’s about coming to Gonzaga. We have this great brand of basketball here with men and women …we may not be basketball, but we are Gonzaga.
Tyson has been running since realizing no one could catch him at neighborhood floatplane races in seventh grade. His legs may no longer turn the way they did alongside Prefontaine in Oregon, but his mind contains decades of knowledge necessary to guide any runner with a work ethic and a pulse to the promised land.
“It was my life journey,” Tyson said. “All my friends who were good coaches always thought that if I got married and had kids I probably wouldn’t be such a good coach, and that’s probably true. But I didn’t. , I have decided to be like Queen Victoria. I am married to my people and I will give all my energy to my people.