Oct. 3, 2015

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Former University of Notre Dame cross country and track and field coach Joe Piane admits he wasn’t above . . . “schmoozing” . . . in order to take the Notre Dame Invitational from a cross country meet with regional stature to one that stands tall on the national cross country landscape.

When U.S. Olympic track and field coach Vin Lananna was at Stanford in the 1990s, Piane called Lananna to persuade him to bring his powerhouse team to the Notre Dame Invitational.

“I said, ‘Vinny, here’s the deal, I’ll get you football tickets, because we’re playing Stanford the next day,'” Piane recalled. “So he said, ‘All right.’ That gave him a guarantee to come, football tickets.

“I said, ‘How many do you need? He said, 15. Then, two weeks before the meet, he said, ‘I need 20 tickets.’ And another week later, he said 25. I said OK.

“I get him 25 tickets, together. Together. That’s like the miracle of loaves and fishes.”

Now, the nation’s elite teams are calling Notre Dame for a spot in the prestigious cross country invitational, which has been renamed the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational.

On a sun-splashed and windswept Notre Dame Golf Course, the 60th running of the event Friday drew 10 nationally ranked teams. The Fighting Irish women’s team placed third, and the Notre Dame men’s team finished 10th.

“Coach Piane being the second-longest tenured head coach in Notre Dame history–that means a lot,” Notre Dame track and field head coach Alan Turner said. “He’s a great guy, and this is a great way to honor him forever. I’m indebted to him, and so is Notre Dame cross country and track and field.”

Piane sculpted a distinguished legacy at Notre Dame. He coached 189 All-Americans and was named the national cross country coach of the year twice. In 18 seasons in the Big East Conference in track and field and cross country, Piane’s teams won 26 championships.

Piane said he was touched by the meet being named for him.

“It’s really an honor,” Piane said. “I certainly didn’t anticipate that. Hopefully that means some people think I did something for the program along the way. It’s been very exciting.”

In the past 20 years, Piane has seen his invitational grow into an elite event.

“It used to be a really nice local meet,” Piane said. “If you notice, now, you see the University of Pennsylvania here, UC Santa Barbara is here, the University of Texas El Paso. It has more of a national flair to it.”

Cross country runners and teams need to earn at-large points to qualify for the chance to run for an NCAA championship. The Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational offers an early start to that pursuit.

“You’re going to have people here who help you get at-large points,” Piane said. “If you’re fortunate enough to beat a team like New Mexico or Penn, UC Santa Barbara, UTEP, that’s going to help you get to the NCAAs.

“You also want to find out how you compete against the best. It’s fun for kids from the Midwest to compete against kids from all over the country. That doesn’t happen in all sports.”

Turner said Notre Dame offers a powerful attraction for top programs across the country.

“This has always been one of the early big meets,” Turner said. “This really gets the cross country season going in earnest. The earlier meets, if you beat people, you don’t earn at-large points. What Joe tried to do with this meet was get teams to come from different regions across the country, and we’ve accomplished that. We have Arizona State, New Mexico, North Carolina State, Clemson and UTEP. Runners get a chance to face teams they don’t run against in their own region.

“We have a great course, and we have a great athletic department and facilities that help us put on these kind of competitions. People love coming to Notre Dame, not just for football, but for all of the sports. Look at all of the teams from the Power Five conferences running here. This is special.”

Notre Dame’s Molly Seidel, who won the outdoor 10,000 meters NCAA championship last spring, said the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational is a great opportunity for the Irish runners.

“This meet is huge for us,” Seidel said. “Getting the No. 1 team in the country here . . . everyone has been talking about New Mexico. Getting teams like that to come out here and run early in the season is so important.

“It’s really cool to see all of these teams from all over the country come out to South Bend, Indiana, to come run with us. It was a really fun day to go out and test some early-season fitness. Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of running yet to be had, but it was a beautiful day and we had a great time.”

Notre Dame cross country associate head coach Matt Sparks echoed the thought that the event is elite.

“New Mexico, the No. 1 team in the country (is in this meet), and that just speaks volumes for what the tradition of this meet is,” Sparks said. “It’s really neat to be able to honor Coach Piane. It’s his meet now. To bring the No. 1 team in the country, New Mexico, the first time the meet is run in his honor is kind of a cool thing.

“Year after year, this weekend, we always get five to 10 nationally ranked teams. It’s a comforting thing for our kids to have their first big meet at home, and it’s always neat to bring some of the best team in the country here for them to do that.”

— by Curt Rallo, special corresponden