By Erin Madden

BEREA, Ohio – Baldwin Wallace University Coordinator of Cross Country and Track and Field and Head Cross Country Coach Joe Eby started running cross country in order to get into shape for basketball season, “his true passion.” And it worked.

When the time came for basketball conditioning and all that running, he was always in really good shape.

It wasn’t until his junior year of high school - when Eby was making the state meet as a member of the cross country team and then sitting the bench on the junior varsity basketball team - that he realized he was better at running than basketball.

Around that same time, Eby also realized his collegiate potential as he began to compare himself to some former teammates that had college careers themselves.

“We had a bunch of kids from my high school team that ran in college,” Eby explained. “I looked up to those guys. By the time I became a junior or senior, I realized that I was running as fast or faster than they were. If they were able to run in college, I figured that I could run in college.”

Knowing that he wanted to continue his competitive running career, Eby began to search for his second home as he mostly visited smaller Division I schools in North Carolina and South Carolina.

“I didn’t want to stay in Ohio,” Eby joked. “I’d rather go where there was nicer weather.”

The southern-based college search was going well until some family friends started talking up the University of Mount Union - a Division III school in Alliance, Ohio.

“Their kids had gone to Mount Union and played football and just had a really good experience,” Eby said. “Then my dad started doing some research on Mount Union’s track program. He realized that they also had a really good track team too and that their coach was a really good mid-distance coach who had a bunch of national champions.”

Still hoping to attend college in warmer climates, Eby was “dragged” to Mount Union for a visit. However, it wasn’t long after he stepped on campus that the school started to grow on him.

“I really liked the tour guide that we had,” Eby remembered about his first visit. “I didn’t even get to meet with the coach. I just really liked the campus.”

A second campus visit and a meeting with legendary head cross country and track and field coach John Homon “sealed the deal” for Eby, who had a successful career as a Purple Raider. By the time he crossed the stage at graduation, he was a four-time Ohio Athletic Conference and Division III All-Ohio champion in the 800-meter and 1,500-meter runs; an All-Ohio champion in the 1-mile run; and a Division III indoor All-American in the 1,500.

While finding his niche on the track was easy, picking a major proved to be a different story for Eby. He started out as an athletic training major before finding out that he would have to miss a season of competition in order to do observation hours. Eby then switched over to exercise science but struggled in anatomy class and so he finally landed on physical education for his major.

“I had never thought of doing college coaching,” Eby explained. “I always just wanted to be around athletics and that’s how I landed on athletic training. I thought that would keep me in athletics and I could be around teams and so on.”

Eby began to consider coaching as a possible career after meeting Doug Brown at the 2001 OAC Indoor Championships. At the time, Brown was a graduate assistant at NCAA Division I Western Carolina (N.C.) University who had come back to cheer on his alma mater - Mount Union - at the conference championships. Following the first day of the meet, Brown joined the Purple Raiders for team dinner where a freshman Eby managed to snag the seat next to him and began to pick his brain about coaching.

Two years later, Brown had joined the Purple Raider staff as an assistant coach and started becoming a great mentor and influence on Eby. Brown encouraged him on his resume and cover letters and also suggested that Eby write letters to every school that he thought might be a good fit.

“I probably sent out 15-20 different letters to all the schools and coaches that I thought very highly of,” Eby said. “I got a couple of letters back. Things progressed from there on actually becoming a college coach.”

After beginning his career as a graduate assistant at DePauw (Ind.) University, Eby moved all across the country and coached across multiple different NCAA divisions, including stops at three NCAA Division I institutions in Wichita State (Kan.) University, University of Nebraska and Sacramento State (Calif.) University.

Eby was all the way out in California when legendary Baldwin Wallace University coach Dr. William Taraschke retired back in 2015. With the BW head cross country job open, a number of different factors played into his decision to return to Division III and the Ohio Athletic Conference. Eby and his wife Becky had always wanted to return to Northeast Ohio. Matthew Cole - a former Mount Union teammate - was also on the BW coaching staff. The city of Cleveland was right down the street, which was great for Eby’s love of Cleveland sports and live concerts, and even more.

“Honestly, Baldwin Wallace had always been a place that I felt could be really successful,” Eby said. “Obviously, Taraschke was tremendously successful on his end and what he had done. I just felt like this was a place that could be really, really good. Having Cleveland right down the street and I’m a huge Cleveland sports fan. Coupling all those things together - family, location, school, being back in Division III - all those things, it was a no-brainer really.”

Now in his sixth year at the helm of the cross country teams, Eby has seen continued success on both the men’s and the women’s sides. His student-athletes have notched a total of 21 All-Ohio performances, 15 All-OAC finishes, 14 All-Great Lakes Region performances and, most recently, an All-American finish from Kelly Brennan ‘20. Off the course, Eby’s student-athletes have received a total of 36 Academic All-OAC recognitions and 16 different United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) All-Academic honors while six teams have also landed on the USTFCCCA All-Academic Team.

The most memorable moment in Eby’s six-plus years, however, and perhaps in his entire career, came back during the 2018 season when the women’s team won the Great Lakes Regional Championship, the first regional crown in BW cross country history.

It had been a crazy fall. Eby had just been named the Coordinator of Cross Country and Track and Field on top of his head coaching duties. BW hired a new head track and field coach in Jordan Hill ‘09. One of his previous student-athletes from Sacramento State had passed away from cancer in the middle of the season. And, in his mind, the team had under-performed in just about every meet.

“It was almost a season of shoulda-coulda-wouldas,” Eby recalled. “All of a sudden, we just put it together at the right place at the right time on the right day and just had this pretty magical moment. I think all of us knew that we were capable of doing that. We just hadn’t done it yet. For whatever reason, we just hit the release valve and went and had a lot of fun.”

Eby added, getting teary-eyed about “the joy and elation after the regional championship, going into the bullpen with them laying on the ground having no idea and telling them that they had just won the regional. They didn’t believe it. Then they started screaming and hugging each other. That was pretty incredible, a pretty incredible moment for everybody.”

Along with the fond memories that the student-athletes will carry with them after graduation, Eby hopes that the program has also instilled a sense of grit and determination.

“I think that is the one thing that will ultimately serve them well once the real world hits and that daily grind happens,” Eby explained. “There’s so many things they can learn through athletics that are very applicable to going out into the workforce and being a productive member of society as an adult.”

One other lesson, though, that he hopes his student-athletes have learned is that Eby will always be there for them, no matter what. Getting random text messages or emails from former athletes means the world to him, “that I still have those relationships with a lot of those kids and I still stay in contact with them.”

Meanwhile, past and present student-athletes alike have taught Eby a lot of lessons in return, most especially growing in patience and the importance of balance.

“I have to be able to meet people where they are and understand that this isn’t the ‘be all, end all’ for every single kid like it is for me or was for me,” Eby explained.

For now, Eby will keep his lifelong passion for running and competing alive as he looks to lead the Yellow Jackets in a return to the cross country course in 2021.