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Don Owen: From near extinction to total redemption, NKU cross country reflects Kruse’s perseverance

Steve Kruse isn’t just a head coach at Northern Kentucky University. No, he’s more of a reluctant landmark on the Highland Heights campus, a statue of adaptive perseverance and impassioned longevity.

A nearly six-decade association with the NKU cross country program — both as a runner and head coach — has made Kruse a modern connection to the infancy of the athletics program. It wouldn’t be accurate to say he’s a walking history book, simply because Kruse’s best known in the area of running. And, in 26 years as cross country head coach, he’s built a program that’s successful both academically and athletically.

The affable Kruse is also inconspicuously linked to Hollywood giants Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman from an NKU perspective. Ever hear of the Academy Award-winning movie “Rain Man” and a place called St. Anne Convent?

Steve Kruse was a member of the 1979 NKU cross country team that advanced to the Division II nationals.

Having been around NKU since 1979, he’s seen it all in Highland Heights.

How much? Consider that Jimmy Carter was in the White House when Kruse enrolled at NKU in 1979. Mote Hils was still the NKU men’s basketball head coach. Jane Meier (née Scheper) was entering her second season as the head coach of the Norsewomen volleyball team. And a gentleman named Mike Daley was in charge of the NKU cross country program.

One of Daley’s recruits was Kruse, a standout runner from Oak Hills High School in Cincinnati.

“The mid-1970s were the start of the running boom. That’s when I got hooked into it while in high school,” Kruse said. “When Northern came calling and gave me the opportunity to compete, I was very thankful. The guys who were my teammates at NKU were the best. We had a blast.

“They’re still my closest friends today. It was a lot of fun because we were good. It was a lot of fun because it was new. You show up for practice, go to class and then you compete on the weekend, and that was it.”


How good was NKU cross country in 1979? The Norsemen (then the school’s nickname for men’s sports) qualified for the NCAA Division II national finals by finishing fourth at the Great Lakes Regional meet at Charleston, Ill. It marked the first time the NKU harriers had earned a trip to the nationals.

“When I was a freshman, the coach (Mike Daley) was talking it up,” Kruse recalled. “He said we had a chance to make history with the upperclassmen and talent level. All local. Johnny Lott was from Owensboro, and he was really the only guy from far away. Everyone else was from within the 275 loop.

“We all had success in high school, so we didn’t know any better as far as the nationals, and if the coach said we can do it, we can do it. The training we put in…we pushed each other very, very hard.”

Johnny Lott became the first athlete in NKU history to earn All-America honors with his performance at the 1979 Division II nationals.

The diligent training paid off in big-time fashion, especially for Lott. At the meet in Riverside, Calif., Lott ran into NKU history by posting a 19th-place finish at the nationals with a time of 30:45. Exactly 40 years ago, the Owensboro native became the first athlete in NKU history to earn All-America honors with his performance at the nationals.

“I’ve trained with a lot of really talented runners, but Johnny had a gift and was a great athlete,” Kruse said of Lott. “He was small in stature, kind of bow-chested and you look at him and say, ‘This guy is all that?’ But Johnny had a year that very few people I’ve worked with ever put together.

“He had an inner–drive that he willed himself to be the runner he became. Johnny showed all of us how to work out. Myself, being a freshman, it seemed like every practice was a race. It took its toll on me and some of the other freshmen that year to try and be in the top seven runners. But that competition made us an outstanding team.”

NKU placed 19th as a team at the nationals. Daley was named the Division II National Coach of the Year. All was well with the NKU cross country program as the decade of the 1970s gave way to 1980.

The feel-good atmosphere, though, would totally disappear in 1981 for all Norsemen harriers. The NKU cross country program vanished as well, with the stroke of a pen.


Kruse today is the undisputed champion for NKU cross country, a bundle of endless energy and enthusiasm for the sport. He’s devoted most of his adult life to the program and loves the university. The transplanted Cincinnatian now lives in Fort Thomas. He even married a former NKU volleyball player (Kate Arnzen).

But there’s a darker NKU backstory many don’t know, one that Kruse can chuckle about now while still feeling a twinge of betrayal. And no one could blame him, given the fact his world was shattered by a round of budget cuts in 1981 that forced NKU to eliminate cross country as an intercollegiate sport.

That’s a big enough problem in itself. Try to explain to any 20-year-old you’re closing shop on something they cherish. But it’s how Kruse learned his team had been unceremoniously torpedoed that led to years of hard feelings.

“No one at NKU called to tell us,” Kruse said. “I learned about it hearing a report on WLW radio, that NKU had eliminated several sports because of massive cutbacks. They said cross country was one of the sports NKU had cut. It took the entire team by surprise. It was the end of July before my junior year. It was devastating.

Steve Kruse’s world was shattered by a round of budget cuts in 1981 that forced NKU to eliminate cross country as an intercollegiate sport.

“I was bitter for many years because of that decision to eliminate our sport. They had broken up a really great team. Even today, some bitterness still lingers about that whole situation.”

Facing a budget crisis because of state funding cutbacks, NKU administrators eliminated all of the individual sports in 1981. Coaches of the surviving programs also worried about their jobs. A monstrous financial uppercut had been delivered to the chin of the NKU athletics program. The remaining coaches were floored. Would it be a permanent TKO?

Dr. A.D. Albright, NKU’s president in 1981, made no guarantees. “Unless we said we’re going to discontinue all athletics,” Albright said after cutting the individual sports, “it’s the dilemma we’re in.”

As a result of the stunning events at NKU, Kruse enrolled at the University of Cincinnati. He became a member of the Bearcats’ cross country team as well as a steeplechase specialist for the track & field squad. “My years at UC were great, just a tremendous situation, and it helped me grow up,” he said.

Kruse graduated from UC in 1984 with a degree in communication arts. An excellent speaker and the ultimate people-person, Kruse worked in several professional positions and began a family. It seemed as though college athletics were just a distant memory.

“It was quite the journey, and I changed jobs several times,” he said. “You have family obligations, and that can be stressful with three very young kids and my wife working full-time as well. I was working for the Hamilton County Probation Office. It was an interesting time.”

But his hidden passion remained running.


That passion eventually guided him back to NKU in a most unexpected and ironic role, given what had transpired 13 years earlier. But times had changed dramatically. A different administration was in place at NKU. The school had revived the cross country program in the mid-1980s and was now a member of the Great Lakes Valley Conference at the NCAA Division II level.

After the 1993 fall season, then-head coach Tim Schlotman resigned his part-time position at NKU. Kruse, a former NKU teammate of Scholtman’s, inquired about the opening and interviewed. He was offered the job by Meier (who had become NKU’s athletic director in 1988) and entered a domain he had previously never considered — the coaching world.

“After I graduated from UC, I had no intention of ever being a coach,” Kruse said. “I was still pretty bitter about NKU and the way we were treated. When you’re young, you take things personally. When business decisions are made, you don’t always understand. You just look at it as a slight, ‘This is an attack on me personally,’ when you’re young.

Jane Meier

“[Eliminating cross country in 1981] really had nothing to do with me or my teammates. It was a numbers game. So I called Jane — who had coached my wife in volleyball — and interviewed. I had no prior coaching experience at any level. I certainly had the passion and the knowledge, but I didn’t think I had a chance to get the job.”

Meier, however, knew after the interview process that Kruse was the person to lead the cross country program.

“My first impression of Steve? He’s someone you can trust, very genuine,” Meier recalled. “His love for cross country was very evident. He sold me right away. It was actually an easy decision.”

Though it wasn’t the deciding factor, being married to one of Meier’s former players certainly didn’t hurt Kruse’s chances at landing the job. “Kate and Steve are very similar in that they are caring people,” Meier said. “They both go 110 percent at anything they do. That’s what makes for highly successful people, and that’s Kate and Steve.”


Now in the role of head coach, Kruse made a quick impact on the NKU campus, implementing the Brian Rohne 5K Memorial Run in 1995. Rohne, a former NKU runner and All-Great Lakes Valley Conference performer, was killed in 1993 by an automobile during a training run on the AA Highway in Cold Spring.

“Brian was an extremely talented runner, and I only knew him from racing against him, because I was still running competitively in some meets,” Kruse said. “Brian was this little guy that could just fly. Coach Scholtman had told me about him and what a game-changer he was for the program.

“It was tragic what happened, very difficult for the team and the NKU community to handle. I got to know Brian’s family and I wanted to keep his name with the program. We decided to have a 5K race in Brian’s honor, and it was very successful for many years.”


In 1995, NKU had no home course. But that didn’t stop Kruse from finding a way to host the GLVC Championships that fall, and in a famous location — St. Anne Convent in Melbourne, Ky. The same exact grounds that Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman had walked during the filming of “Rain Man” seven years earlier.

“Those iconic shots you see of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman walking among the trees in that movie,” Kruse said, “it’s the same place we held the GLVC Championships.”

But it was a more complicated situation than most can appreciate. First of all, Kruse had to sell the idea of holding a meet on the grounds to the administrators at St. Anne. He credits Meier for that, as her distant relative — Sister Margaret Stallmeyer of the Congregation of Divine Province — was one of those administrative decision-makers at St. Anne.

“Jane Meier had a lot to do with making the event successful. She had experience on how to host events, and how to do it in a first-class way,” Kruse said. “Jane also had a connection with one of the ladies in charge at St. Anne, and that really helped us.”

Kruse also had to play the role of salesman to other residents in Melbourne. “It was a 10K course, and it used not only St. Anne’s but six or seven different properties down there,” he said, chuckling at the memory. “I had to go door-to-door, knocking on doors at mobile homes, farm houses, talking to farmers. I spent months putting that together when I found out that we were going to host it.

“They had a wonderful trail system throughout the woods, and we really didn’t have to do anything. But it was a little bit of a challenge constructing a course and then putting it all together.”


The 10-kilometer race at the 1995 GLVC Championships featured one of the nation’s top runners in Charles Mulinga from Lewis University. A native of Zambia, Mulinga finished his career as an eight-time national champion at the NCAA Division II level in both track & field and cross country.

Charles Mulinga from Lewis University won the 1995 GLVC Championships individual title at St. Anne Convent. (Lewis SID photo)

To no one’s surprise, Mulinga easily won the GLVC individual title at the St. Anne course, covering the 10,000 meters in 30:50 — more than two minutes ahead of second-place finisher Tom Boyd (33:00) of Lewis.

“There’s no question Mulinga was the best collegiate runner of any division that year,” Kruse said. “He would take on the best Division I runners and just destroy them. It was amazing to see him run for a couple of years. He was Division II national champion several times over. I don’t know that he ever lost to anybody in a college race. Mulinga was a phenomenal runner.”

In that same event, NKU runner Brian Flaherty finished eighth to earn All-GLVC accolades. It still means a great deal to Kruse. “Brian was the first All-GLVC runner I ever coached, and he was outstanding that day,” Kruse said. “I get choked up just talking about it. Brian’s performance that day was very special for our program.”

It capped a stressful — but highly successful — week for NKU’s cross country program, thanks to the tireless efforts of Kruse, his runners, plus the many volunteers and Norse alumni who were on hand to help out. And he enjoyed the challenge of constructing the course at St. Anne.

“St. Anne was a tough course. All up and down hills, a lot of switchbacks,” Kruse said. “While the coaches in the GLVC wanted something different, I don’t think they were banking on what they found at St. Anne. It was fun, it was stressful, but when you’re young and in your 30s and you have plenty of energy, you can pull it off and make it work. But it wasn’t just me. We had a lot of people involved that helped make it successful.

“It was a grueling race, and it was really fulfilling. I was absolutely hooked after that event. Watching Brian Flaherty finish in the top 10 that day, it brought me to tears. He was running not just for himself, but in memory of Brian Rohne as well. I was determined to build this program into something the university and community would be proud of.”

And, just like Cruise and Hoffman on the same grounds several years earlier, Kruse had directed an ultra-successful production at St. Anne Convent.


Having built both the men’s and women’s teams into solid units, with multiple All-GLVC, All-Region and All-America performers, Kruse later became the head coach of NKU’s track & field program in 2012. He guided the cross country and track & field programs during NKU’s transition from Division II to Division I.

NKU cross country head coach Steve Kruse has built a program that’s successful both academically and athletically. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

From a patchwork Division II squad of six men and one woman in 1994, Kruse had nurtured the NKU cross country program into a respected unit as the Norse joined the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Since moving to Division I, Kruse has coached J.J. Webber, a two-time Atlantic Sun Conference cross country champion who was twice named the A-Sun men’s Runner of the Year (2013 and 2014). In addition, Kruse oversaw the development of Andrew Schille, the 2017 Horizon League cross country champion and 2017 Horizon League cross country Male Athlete of the Year.

Schille was also the first runner during NKU’s Division I era to earn NCAA All-Region status, earning the honors for his 22nd-place performance at the 2017 NCAA Southeast Regional.

A new challenge awaits for Kruse this Saturday. Well, sort of. NKU is hosting the Horizon League Championships. But not at St. Anne Convent. Unlike 1995, NKU now has its own legitimate home, a wooded area known as the Valhalla Cross Country Course.

Located just across Johns Hill Road from the NKU main campus, the Valhalla course boasts clear trails and rolling terrain to help the Norse prepare for their events.

“Valhalla was actually farm property that was eventually sold to NKU years ago,” Kruse said. “It was a nice piece of land, and some trails started to develop and we started running on them. They were just animal trails, just one-track paths.”

Now, it’s the site for the 2019 Horizon League Championships. The men’s 8,000-meter race begins at 11 a.m., followed by the women’s 6,000-meter race at noon. The awards ceremony is scheduled for 12:45 p.m.

While neither Tom Cruise nor Dustin Hoffman have graced the Valhalla course, there is a connection to the 1995 event Kruse engineered for the GLVC Championships. It’s Norse standout freshman Megan Cole, whose parents, Jim and Karen, both ran cross country for Kruse at NKU.

Jim Cole, in fact, was a member of the 1995 NKU squad that competed at St. Anne Convent. He posted a 23rd-place finish in that race with a time of 35:22. Now, 24 years later, Megan Cole is the top runner for the NKU women’s squad.

And there’s a funny story involving her parents’ involvement with NKU cross country two decades earlier.

Megan Cole is the top runner for the NKU women’s cross country team. (NKU Athletics Communications photo)

“Jim (Cole) approached me while he was a student at NKU in the 1990s, told me he ran in high school and that he would like to run in college,” Kruse recalled. “I told him absolutely. He also had a girlfriend, Karen Armbrecht at the time. She was more of track runner and really didn’t want to run cross country. But to be close to Jim, she ran for our women’s team. And they got married shortly after graduating from college.”

Kruse said part of what has made Megan Cole so successful as a freshman is the fact the NKU women’s team has so many competitive runners.

“That’s a big part of why she chose us,” he said, noting Cole was part of an outstanding recruiting class this fall. “Megan committed right around the time several of the others girls like Nelle Yankovich and Sophia Delisio also committed. We knew that was going to be the start of something really special for our women’s team.”

After 26 years as head coach, not to mention his years of competing as a runner, Kruse knows when something is special. He’s seen it all at NKU. From near extinction to total redemption, Kruse’s legacy is far-reaching and undeniable.

In other words, keep an eye on the finish line this Saturday in Highland Heights.

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

The 1979 NKU men’s cross country team qualified for the NCAA Division II national finals by finishing fourth at the Great Lakes Regional meet at Charleston, Ill. NKU freshman runner Steve Kruse is pictured standing in the back, third from the left.

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