By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – The University of Virginia’s new head coach for men’s cross country needs no map to get around Panorama Farms, the site of the team’s home course. Jason Dunn and his wife, Ann, have lived on the property in Earlysville since 2016.
Dunn knows his way around UVA as well. He was an assistant coach in track & field and cross country at Virginia for four years before taking over as head cross country coach – for both men and women – in 2004.
In 2007, Virginia placed 12th at the NCAA men’s cross country championships, and that remains the second-highest finish in program history. In 2008, Dunn, looking for a new challenge, left UVA to become head cross country coach (men’s and women’s) at Stanford.
Eight years later, he moved back to Charlottesville, ready to head down another career path.
After coaching distance runners in the NCAA’s Division I for more than two decades, Dunn felt himself burning out. He still loved the sport and still loved helping runners reach their potential, but something in his life had to change.
“I think I needed a sabbatical,” Dunn said. “They do that in the academic world, and [college athletics] is sort of the academic world. I think of myself as an academic person. I just needed a reset.”
And so Dunn and his wife, a former All-American in track & field at Wisconsin, decided in 2016 to leave the University of Oklahoma, where he was associate head coach in cross country, and start a business together.
Their plan? Open a fitness studio in a place where they really wanted to live.
Their choice? The college town where Dunn had coached for eight years and where his mother lives.
“He came back to Charlottesville because he loved Charlottesville, which is a great story,” said Bryan Fetzer, who directs UVA’s cross country and track & field programs.
Dunn, who grew up in Cleveland, has a bachelor’s degree from William & Mary, where he was a distance runner. He has a master’s from Arizona State, where from 1997 to 2000 he was an assistant coach in cross country and track & field.
After four years at Stanford, Dunn spent the 2012-13 school year at Kentucky, where he was head coach for men’s cross country and an assistant in track & field. Then he and his wife joined the staff at Oklahoma.
Kentucky “just wasn’t really a place for Ann to be able to coach,” Dunn said. “Oklahoma provided an opportunity that we thought could lead into more of us coaching together, and that’s not an easy thing to do: to find places we could both work together.”
Ultimately, however, “I think I needed a break,” Dunn said, “and I needed to live in a place I was really excited about. And that’s what drew us back to Charlottesville.”
He returned with no intention of working at UVA again. But when Emily Eads, director of operations for Virginia track & field, left before the 2016-17 school year to join the football staff at Rutgers, Fetzer had an opening to fill.
Dunn was an obvious target. He knew the Cavaliers’ coaches, and they knew him.
“We were friends,” Dunn said. “It’s a small community.”
Fetzer called Dunn to see if the operations position interested him. The pay wasn’t great, Dunn said, “but it certainly covered benefits and things like that. And it kind of kept me involved [in the sport]. But I had no interest in coaching. I never went to a practice.”
At the end of the 2017-18 season, however, another job at UVA opened for which Dunn was well-qualified. Pete Watson, the Cavaliers’ head coach for men’s cross country, left for the University of Texas.
“My first thought was Jason,” Fetzer said. “He’d been in our program for two years. He had great familiarity with the school and the program. It was an ideal situation.”
Dunn agreed, and his second stint as a UVA head coach began last month.
In his first, Dunn guided the UVA men to ACC cross country titles in 2005 and ’07. He also helped established Panoroma Farms as the Wahoos’ home course.
At Stanford, his teams won three Pac-12 cross country championships and finished in the top five at the NCAA meet three times. Under Dunn, Oklahoma men placed 15th at the NCAA cross country championships in 2015. He’s helped scores of runners earn all-conference and All-America honors.
“Obviously he was a tremendously successful coach before he decided to take a hiatus,” Fetzer said.
He’s a much better coach now, Dunn said, than when he arrived in Charlottesville in 2000. He’s also refreshed after two years away from the coaching grind.
“It’s almost like a second career, but I’m only 45,” he said. “I have a lot of experience behind me. But I’m energized and excited, and it’s been such a smooth transition thus far, because I know all the guys, and more importantly because they know me.”
Dunn, who’ll also work with men’s distance runners during the indoor and outdoor track & field seasons, inherits a men’s cross country program that prospered under Watson. At last year’s NCAA championships, Virginia placed 16th. The Cavaliers finished 13th in 2013.
“Pete was awesome,” Fetzer said. “He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever worked with. He also was a big fan of Jason taking over.”
The top two returning finishers from last year’s ACC cross country meet are Cavaliers. Brent Demarest was second, Lachlan Cook was fifth, and UVA has “some other guys that I think can develop well,” Dunn said. Moreover, he said, the ‘Hoos have a strong freshman class.
The program “is in really good shape,” said Dunn, whose coaching philosophy is similar to that of Watson.
Distance runners are unique, Fetzer noted, in that they can qualify for NCAA championships in three sports: cross country, indoor track & field, and outdoor track & field. That makes elite distance runners enormously valuable.
“Cross country is definitely a point of emphasis that we’re really excited about,” Fetzer said. “I’m a firm believer that to be great you have to be consistent, and we’ve been consistently one of the better teams in the country.”
When Dunn was an 11th-grader, he moved with his family from Ohio to Northern Virginia and enrolled at Park View High School in Sterling. At William & Mary, he majored in government and minored in history, but his future lay in neither of those areas.
“I started coaching right out of college,” Dunn recalled. “Immediately. My [cross country] coach at William & Mary left late in the summer, and instead of trying to go out and hire a [successor], the head track coach at that time had myself and one of my teammates, who had also just graduated, coach the team. So it was kind of crazy.”
Dunn was 23 years old. “I graduated, and three months later I was trying to coach my teammates and friends, so that was interesting,” he said.
As Dunn gained more experience, his stature in the profession grew, but “coaching both genders was pretty challenging. I wouldn’t go down that path again. I just want to be able to focus on one gender. It just happens to be the men [at UVA].”
The Dunns own Formula Complete Fitness, which Ann runs. “We’re about 11 months in, and it’s going well,” Dunn said.
That statement holds true for UVA track & field and cross country, too. His previous experience at the University gives Dunn a unique perspective, and he says there “are a lot of things that are better” than during his first stint as a head coach.
Fetzer has a full complement of coaches, for starters, and the “budget, resources, salaries are certainly different than when I was here before,” Dunn said.
All of which should bode well for Dunn’s program.
“We were 12th at nationals my last year here,” he said. “I was disappointed with that. We were disappointed with that. We thought we could be in the top 10. We should have been, and I feel like hopefully we’re at a place now where we can finally move into that. That’s certainly the goal.”