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From the ground to the top

Tanner Cook • Dec 15, 2017 at 10:28 PM

Getting any kind of athletic program to flourish is hard enough. Building an athletic program, one that’s been nonexistent for nearly two decades, from the ground up is a much taller order.

Milligan College head cross country and track & field coach Chris Layne came aboard in 1999 and had almost instant success. The program has been going strong ever since.

“The biggest obstacles were being at an academically focused small school with no credibility and not having resources like facilities,” Layne said. “I kept a close eye on Fred Warren and what he did on his own at ETSU with golf. He was always a guy that always had a team that superseded the athletic department, in my eyes. From that, I learned to sell myself and the program.”

The 2001 arrival of Philip Rotich, who was runner-up in the indoor mile, outdoor 800 meters and an All-American in cross country, provided Layne a nice building block.

“We saw right away that we had gotten some kids that could compete on the national level,” he said. “In Philip’s case, we saw some really consistent development and growth. Marta (Zimon) came to us in a pretty good state. That national championship that she won in the 5K in 2003 was the big spark for us.”

The women’s cross country program has won 14 out of the last 15 Appalachian Athletic Conference titles, and that says a lot about the consistency Layne has established through the years. The program has also produced numerous All-Americans on both the men’s and women’s side, including four-time national champion Hannah Segrave (800 meters). 

Layne worked with Flynn Sports Management, but now has his own company, representing professional athletes and traveling around the globe to watch some of the greatest performances in the history of track and field.

“I have two fond memories from working as an agent,” he said. “The first is watching Haile Gebrselassie’s world record of 26:22 in the 10K in 1998. That’s what really turned me into a distance fan. The second is watching Michael Johnson break the world record in the 400 meters in 1996 in Atlanta. I was in the photographer’s row and that was awesome.”

Layne says that everything goes back to coach Dave Walker when he started working with Ray Flynn as an intern, and then how Walker helped make East Tennessee a great place to train beginning in the 1970s.

“One of my proudest moments as a coach was being able to coach my wife through her career,” he said. “I was with her in the summer where she ran personal bests at the 5K in Heusden, Belgium and the 3K in Stockholm. I was still learning at that point and helping her get to another level was rewarding.”

Layne conveys that selling the program to athletes and trusting the process is one of the keys to his program nowadays. Moreover, he says he is constantly changing his program to accommodate the kids that he has every year.

“If I could give some advice, it would be always challenge yourself,” Layne said. “Don’t feel like you know everything. The second thing I would say is to know your assets, know your kids well. Create an environment that is positive, organized and structured.”

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