If you ask Sacramento State cross country head coach Joe Eby about achieving personal goals in the face of adversity, he could tell you a thing or two about doing as much – and then some.
The first-year head coach from Ravenna, Ohio began his pursuit of a cross country career when he was a junior in high school. He had been on the basketball team but saw little playing time, so he found an opportunity to excel in running.
“I ran in track and realized that if I run fast, I get to run, and if I don’t run fast, then I don’t get to run,” Eby said. “That was kind of an eye-opening experience for me, and I decided at that point cross country and track was the route I wanted to go.”
At Mount Union College , Eby became a four-time champion in the 800 and 1,500 meter run for the Ohio Athletic Conference and was named to the All-Ohio Division III list. Additionally, he was an All-Ohio champion in the mile and was a Division III All-American in the 1,500 meter indoor in 2002.
Eby was in his senior year when everything came to a sudden hault.
“I was leading the nation in the 1500 for division III when I broke my leg and cracked it straight through,” Eby said. “The end of my collegiate career was me collapsing on the track because my leg completely gave out on me.”
He remembered the emotions he felt, and the impact the injury had on his outlook for the future.
“I really struggled with things after that,” Eby said. “Here I had trained this whole time, trying to win a national championship, but I came up just a couple of weeks short.”
Eby said there were times when he started to doubt whether he wanted to continue pursuing his ambitions in the sport.
“I had some moments where I struggled with, (the thought) ‘Man, do I really want to keep running?’ because it’s tough getting out the door every single day and putting in the miles and doing the work that’s necessary,” Eby said.
Eby would not run again as an athlete, but stayed involved when he took a job as a graduate assistant at DePauw University.
It was head coach Kori Stoffregen who helped Eby hone his skills as a coach.
“[Stoffregen] helped me with taking a step back and realizing that not all the kids were quite as passionate as I was about this,” Eby said. “That’s kind of why I think I am where I am today, because a lot of people said that my coaching style and passion would probably be best suited for Division I.”
After a brief stop at Wichita State, Eby coached his McPherson College team to the NAIA championships in the 800, 3K, 5K and 10K.
Even with success, Eby had to work through struggles.
“I had some times at McPherson where things were really tough,” Eby said. “I had some pretty serious discussions with my dad about whether I wanted to continue coaching or not.”
Eby said he remembered telling his father that he was planning to move back home and work for the business his grandfather had started.
“He pretty much told me no way,” Eby said. “He said I needed to keep doing what I was doing if this is what I was truly passionate about. He told me I was going to have bumps in the road, but I would need to learn how to handle those.”
He would prove to handle those bumps, and continue his chase of becoming a successful head coach with some help from his former coaches along the way.
“Each of them has had their own influences and changed my thinking in very positive ways,” Eby said. “They helped me grow as a coach and as a person.”
He said his assistant coach at Mount Union Doug Brown and Stoffregen are the two biggest influences in his career.
Eby left McPherson and continued his journey when he landed at the University of Nebraska for the 2012-2013 season as the team’s recruiting intern.
After Nebraska won the 2013 Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championship, Eby’s talents as a recruiter caught the eye of Kathleen Raske, Sacramento State Cross Country and Track and Field Director, who offered him the job of head cross country coach and assistant coach for track and field.
Raske’s evaluation of Eby yielded a number of positive conclusions, which eventually led to the decision to hire him Aug. 1.
“Coach Eby has high character and is a quality person who cares about the athletes and their overall development as students, athletes and people,” Raske said. “He’s a good coach and recruiter who has a strong skill set for the job at hand here at Sac State.”
Eby had a number of expectations before taking the job, and to this point those expectations have been met.
“They were very upfront with me about what the job was and how we were going to have to work, but I love challenges like that,” Eby said. “As in any school, there’s obstacles here, but I think that this staff in general just does a really good job.”
Like he has in the past, Eby will do whatever it takes to get the job done and ensure his team’s success.
“I’m a guy (who) doesn’t mind working hard, staying up late, and doing what I have to do,” Eby said. “I’m just trying to help the kids on the team have a wonderful experience and enjoy their time while they’re in college, while at the same time learning life lessons along the way.”
Reesey Byers, a senior for the Hornet men’s team, said Eby was the right hire for the team and could tell he would work well with the runners.
“We clicked right away,” Byers said. “We had lunch together, and I got this immediate feeling that he was going to be a good fit.”
From having to shoulder the burden of making tough life decisions and not knowing where his future would take him, Eby has managed to find balance at Sac State.
“This has been a wonderful experience for me so far, and I’m really looking forward to the future,” he said. “There haven’t been any surprises; I knew what I was getting into.”