Covey still going strong after 41 years of coaching

Seth Nidever

Bob Covey has been at it for quite a while.

This year marks his 41st at Bakersfield College as health instructor and head coach of men’s track and cross country.

It’s not that there haven’t been plenty of opportunities to go elsewhere. Over the years, several Division I schools came calling with offers to take over their prestigious programs. He turned them all down. Now, it’s difficult to imagine BC track and cross country without the 65-year-old Covey at the helm.

After a successful sprinting career at the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in health education from Oregon State, Covey started at BC in 1963 with only one year of coaching experience under his belt.

“It was kind of unusual,” he said. “The stars were aligned, I guess.”

Covey chose Bakersfield partly because he wanted to coach and teach. He said he has enjoyed the classroom as much or more than the coaching. That’s something he couldn’t have done at a Division I school.

His teams experienced their heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, winning nine Southern California titles (six in track, three in cross country) and two state track championships.

The track and field community took notice, and Covey began his long-standing involvement in national and international track circles. As a coach, manager, or official, he participated in marquee meets like the Eight-Nations Games (1982), the Pan-American Games (1983), the World Juniors Championships (1996) and the Los Angeles and Atlanta Olympic Games.

During these years, Covey’s BC track teams never regained the dominance of his ’60s and ’70s squads. He attributes the decreased success to a number of factors tied largely to the decline of track and field as a whole.

For one, elite track and field meets take days and involve hundreds if not thousands of competitors. Sports like football and basketball – which have the added advantage of established popularity – are much more television-friendly. Thus, the financial support these sports enjoy simply isn’t there (professional track athletes make the lion’s share of their money on the European circuit). Add to that the explosion in popularity and number of other sports, and you have a recipe for the decline in quality and quantity Covey has seen over the years.

“Track and field is struggling because it is its own worst enemy,” he said. “Track doesn’t fit sound bites.”

Covey has experienced the same pinch with his cross country teams, albeit for somewhat different reasons. (Unlike track, cross country has never been much of a spectator sport.)

“My first good team was in ’65,” he said. “From ’65 on up to the late ’70s and ’80s we could have six, seven, 10 athletes as good as only one, two or three now.”

Covey blames much of this trend on the greater number of “distractions” he sees facing today’s runners. Prominent among those, he said, is car ownership.

“It’s been proven that the athletes who walk to school are better runners than the athletes who drive to school,” he said. “And back in the ’60s a lot of the parents didn’t have cars, so we had a lot of athletes walk. Today, hardly anybody walks very far.”

Still, Covey isn’t down on the current crop of competitors.

“For the kids who want to come out, they have the same desire to excel,” he said.

“They really work hard and they’re really neat to work with. And so you ask me what keeps me going, that keeps me going.”