The sixth coach to be inducted into Keene State ‘s Alumni-Athletic Hall of Fame, Robert Taft was responsible for putting the college’s cross country and track teams on the map as a regional and national power.
“Like Ron Butcher in soccer, and Glenn Theulen in basketball, Robert Taft should be recognized for building the cross country program at Keene State, ‘said Peter Hanrahan, one of Taft’s first runners. “He started with nothing and developed a national caliber team in just a few years.”
Taft, a native of East Hickory, Pa., wasn’t even thinking about coaching when he came to Keene State in the fall of 1968 to take the position of financial aid director. However, impressed by the dedication of the small group of runners that comprised the club team at the time, Taft took over as coach when the College sanctioned the program in the fall of 1969.
“My philosophy is anything worth doing is worth doing for all your worth,” said Taft, who set out to build the cross country and track teams at KSC.
Building on a small stable of runners already on campus, Taft hit the recruiting trail and began attracting talented athletes to the school. It wasn’t long before the Owls were seeing results on the trails. The combination of increased talent and better competition had the Owls off-and-running as a team to be reckoned with around New England.
Already a terror on the trails at their home course at Robin Hood Park, the Owls were soon preying on the region’s elite including Springfield College and Boston State. “It got to the point where the kids believed they could compete with the best,” said Taft.
In 1970, the Owl cross country team became not only the first KSC squad to represent the College at a national championship, but the first team from New England to earn a berth to the NAIA Meet at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo. Under the direction of Taft, Keith Woodward became the college’s first cross country All-America in 1974. A year later Kurt Schulz had the distinction of becoming the first Owl athlete to earn All-America in two sports, finishing fourth in the mile at the outdoor national track championships and placing 14th in the NCAA Division III Cross Country Meet that fall. Schultz’ s performance helped lead KSC to a surprising sixth place finish, the teams’ best showing during Taft’s nine-year tenure.
Taft, who never had the opportunity to compete in track and field, was a self-motivated coach. Absorbing advice from coaching great s as an undergraduate at Penn State or reading countless books on the subject, Taft was determined to become the best coach he could. “From a scientific point of view, he was a real student of running,” said Hanrahan. I considered the type of training we did was quite advanced by the standards of the day.”
“If you didn’t’ know him, you didn’t know how intensely competitive he was. That was all under the surface,” Hanrahan added. “He pushed us physically and mentally too. He just saw the potential and the things we could do.”
But what also set Taft a part was his devotion to his athletes. If an athlete had a problem his door was always open. “I felt more strongly about them as individuals than how they did as competitors,” Taft said. “I suffered right along with them if they had a tough meet.”
The good days however far outweighed the bad ones. Taft got the Owls track and cross country programs off the ground and takes pride in the fact that the teams still continues to flourish. “I took something and just tried to make it better all the time,” Taft said. “I just put a major emphasis in improvement, and the guys bought into it.”
“Peter (Thomas), (the current KSC coach who ran for Taft) has carried it on, and I’m really proud about that.”