Q&A with Academy of Art Coach Charles Ryan

Eight years ago, Charles Ryan never envisioned being a track coach. Instead, he had high aspirations to become a professional track athlete. After enjoying a solid college career as a hurdler for South Carolina, Ryan quickly packed his bags following graduation and made the four-hour drive from Columbia to Knoxville to train for the '04 Olympic Trials. In Knoxville, he met current Texas A&M coach Vince Anderson, who at the time was the men’s sprints and hurdles coach for the University of Tennessee. The two of them set out on a mission to prepare for the upcoming trials, with the hopes of Ryan making the Athens team in the 110 hurdles. Training was going exceptionally well for him, until two weeks out from the trials when disaster struck. Ryan had severely torn his hamstring and could not take part in the trials. The next week, he lost his coach. Anderson had called Ryan to let him know that he was taking a position with Texas A&M. Everything he had ever worked for was crashing down on him, and crashing down fast. Ryan had no money, he couldn’t train, and now had no coach. He was totally depressed, but the kids from the Knoxville Youth Track Club kept him in high spirits despite all the downfalls. It was then he realized his calling was in coaching. In 2010, Ryan was hired as the head cross country and track & field coach at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Since the hiring he has restructured the entire program to include some of the most talented athletes in the nation. MileSplit U caught up with him to discuss the revamping of the Urban Knights program.


MileSplitU: In just your second season of coaching at the Academy of Art, you have re-wrote the school's record book by signing some of the best talent in California and the nation. What do you think has contributed to your success on the recruiting trail?

Coach Ryan: There are a multitude of factors that contribute to what my staff and I have been able to accomplish in recruiting in such a short time. Hard work, dedicated assistants, a lifetime of contacts all throughout the nation built up over the years, attention to detail, an extremely supportive administration that is willing to invest in our programs future, my resume as a coach, etc. However the single biggest aid in our ability to recruit athletes here is what we affectionately refer to as our “secret sauce”, the ingredients that make us Art U. This is a school unlike any other you will find anywhere in the United States. We are unique, we are exclusive, a truly urban campus in the heart of a city like San Francisco where true STUDENT-Athletes can come to follow their passions both on AND off the track. Athletes who sign to run for Art U have the ability to obtain a professional degree in the fields of study that are on the forefront of the current and future economy. What we offer here academically is unlike any school in the NCAA, and there are thousands of athletes from all around the country who, until we came along, were going to have to make a choice: Track & Field with a major they could do but don’t really care about or Go study their passion in life and not run. Here you don’t have to make that choice. Here we offer the rare opportunity to do it all together, while living in one of our nation’s most amazing cities.




MileSplitU: How did you get into coaching?

Coach Ryan: Immediately after my graduation from University of South Carolina in 2004, I packed everything I owned into my car and moved to Knoxville, TN to train for the ‘04 Olympic trials with Vince Anderson, who at that time was the men’s sprints/hurdles coach for the University of Tennessee. I was humbled and very grateful that he was willing to work with me given the fact that I had chosen USC over Vince and UT, just two years before when I transferred out of UCLA. I was dead broke, lived out of my car for a little while but I had a dream and the sacrifice was worth it. I got a job bartending on the strip near UT and eventually had enough money for a small apartment. I also took a coaching job with the local track club (KTC) coaching the youngest group of boys and girls for some extra pocket money. I had no plans on coaching for real, I was focused on running fast enough to make it overseas and start my professional career on the track. Training was going amazingly well and then just a few weeks before the trials I severely tore my hamstring. The trials came and went on without me, and then VA called me to tell me that he had accepted the position at Texas A&M. My whole world was crashing around me, I had no money to relocate again, I had a lease, I couldn’t train, and now I had no coach. I was totally depressed, but those little kids became my daily escape for a few hours a day and the majority of my group qualified for the Junior Olympics. So, in the fall of ’04, the club asked me to take over the high school athletes along with a woman named Tyangela Sanders. In 2005, our athletes smashed records, qualified for Indoor Nationals, dominated the TSSAA State meet, and arrived as real threats on the national scene. After that summer, I decided to break off and start my own program and co-founded Track Knoxville. Our mission was to get kids into college, period. You could not just run for us, it had to be about the future. Our team started out small but those kids were so dedicated, and each athlete who graduated under us got college scholarship offers. It was a great time. Highlighted of course by the work we did with our highest profile athlete Jacquelyn Coward (ESPN Rise Track & Field All-Decade All-American) who redefined what a track and field athlete could accomplish in the state of Tennessee. Overall, our kids accomplished so many things that many folk told us was impossible. I will always be grateful them and to Vince Anderson for helping me understand where the best of my talents lived which is coaching.  

High School/Club Elite
2 National Records
5 Individual National Championships
6 All-American Athletes
17 National finalists
10 State Champion Athletes
9 State champion event titles
24 State finalists
1 State Team Title

MileSplitU: Who are some of the athletes on your team?

Coach Ryan: Currently we have a small but fantastic group of student-athletes who I could not be prouder of to have on my roster. Some are huge talent, high profile names that people would recognize all over the nation. The majority are just amazing, hard-working kids that will soon be crucial pieces to the foundation that makes history at Art U.

The Ladies:

Vashti Thomas - US Federation National Record Holder in the 100mH (13.03) for HS. Also an All-Time top 10 Jumper for CA high school in both the Long Jump and Triple Jump. Vashti was a D1 NCAA All-American at TAMU before she decided to transfer to Art U last January to study her passion for Graphic Design and compete. Vashti finished 9th at the US Indoor Championships this past February in the 60mH and 8th in the Long Jump. News Story

Briana Stewart - A local high school standout from James Logan HS who this past indoor season posted an 8.21 mark in the 60mH, #1 in the world at the time. Bri is also an accomplished Sprinter and Triple Jumper and is on track to graduate with a BFA in Fashion Merchandising next year. News Story

Jazmin White & Chantel King - Two athletes I inherited who will run through a wall if I asked them to. What these young ladies may lack in star power talent they make up for with their hard work and dedication. We could not do the things we are doing without them on our roster. Both run the 400m and seem to get better week by week and I believe will catch a lot of people by surprise before their time here is over. Jazmin is majoring in Fashion Merchandising and Chantel is in our Motion Pictures & Television (MPT) department focused on Directing.  

Dominique Berry - Dom was the CA JUCO State Meet runner-up last year in the 400mH in only her second year running track. Dom is one of those “diamond in the rough” type athletes and simply needs to gain understanding of her abilities. People won’t see her coming, just how I like it, but she is on her way. Dom is a Fashion Merchandising Student.

Alexus Dalton - Alexus was one of the nation’s premier High Jumpers last year while at Long Beach Poly. She jumped 5’8” and was tied for #1 in CA. On the track, Alexus is leaning the Multi Events and off the track she is learning leadership as a member of our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), and following her dream of working in front of the camera in our Multimedia Communications major.

The Fellas:

Jaylon Hicks - 2011 Texas 5A State Champion at 100m (10.15w/10.33 PR). Jaylon is a quiet assassin and an amazing artist. He desires to one day work for Pixar and is majoring in Illustration. An Olympic caliber talent who will be the face of this program and athletic department for years to come.

Johnny Carter - Former CIF State Champion jumper who we are red-shirting this season. Jumping unattached, Johnny has already surpassed his HS best marks and exploded to new PR’s of 24’9” in the Long Jump and 51’7” in the Triple Jump. Johnny makes music almost as well as he jumps and is sharpening those skills from real professionals in our Music Production & Sound Design for Visual Media department. One day Johnny might jump in the Olympics and produce the soundtrack NBC will use for the highlights.  

Shaquille Howard - 2011 CIF State Champion at 400m (47.01) for the famed Long Beach Poly Jackrabbits. Shaq is 6’5” and has not even scratched the surface of his abilities on the track. He will spend 2012 developing his skills as a redshirt and be unleashed on the NCAA next season. Shaq is choosing to major in Game Design.

MileSplitU: How do you convince an athlete to come to a D-2 school instead of going to a D-1 school?

Coach Ryan: The whole D-I vs D-II issue is really hilarious to me. I’ve competed and coached at DI. I’ve been an athlete in the SEC and the Pac-12. This is Track & Field, it’s not football. Our athletes do not lack for competition because they run for a DII school. Our athletes are not missing opportunities to run on the biggest stages. We have a better indoor schedule then most DI schools ever see and we run at the biggest meets is the country. Vashti Thomas lined up at the finals of Texas relays against women from TAMU, Baylor, Mississippi State etc. We run at Drake Relays, Mt Sac, Stanford, US Indoor Championships. We compete against the Pac-12, Big-12, SEC, ACC, Big-10 and others at every meet we attend. The difference is that after all that competition against the best of the best in the nation, our athletes have a real opportunity to show up and put rings on their fingers!!! Most Division I schools never tell the athletes when being recruited, or simply do not understand that 95% of the athletes at Division I schools will never have a real chance to win anything past a conference meet. The majority of Division I track programs are like the 99% movement in America, they are entertainment stepping stones for the 1% elites who really run the show. Unless you’re a part of the 10-12 elite programs in the country, your team will never have shot at a NCAA title at Division I, and if you’re at a mid-major, chances are that your school will never spend the recourses necessary to build a program up to national class. At Art U, our athletes get to travel the nation and compete against of the best at all the major, high profile meets, have fun, and THEN get to chance to build their own legacy, make their own history. So many Division I athletes could have served themselves better and had a much more rewarding college experience if they would have done some deeper research and chose Division II. I’ve always believed it was better to build your own brand rather than be the next in line at a factory, and our mission is to make Art U Track & Field the premier destination for student-athletes looking to be the FIRST, not the next. Video

MileSplitU: What persuaded you to apply for the job at Academy of Art? What interested you the most about taking this job?

Coach Ryan: Honestly, I was very happy at Louisiana Tech and was very proud of the work we were doing there. I had no intention to leave and I had never even heard of Academy of Art University even though I was raised in the Bay Area my whole life. The school had no profile, and I never even looked up the roster. The only attraction to the job was location, a chance to come back home from the south. I never thought I would have even been interviewed for a head coaching job as a 29 year old African-American coach. So imagine my shock when Dr. Jamie Williams called me asking how quickly I could come to San Francisco for an interview. I just so happened to be visiting a friend in Phoenix, AZ the day he called so I said I would just drive up the next day. Dr. Williams and I hit it off from the beginning and once I saw the school and understood the vision that he had for the program, I was very interested and impressed. My interview lasted about five hours and during that time, I realized what was possible, but I was not sure if the school saw it the way I did or even desired the direction that I wanted to take things. I simply said, “This is what I can do here, but I have to have the backing to do it my way.” Not only was Dr. Williams on board, but he seemed ecstatic to hear the vision of what I was speaking to. I remember driving out of the Bay Area thinking “I really want this job, but don’t get your hopes up, no way that interview went as well as your projecting it did.” But once the position was offered to me, it was a no brainier; a chance to come home and build a program from scratch, my own way, under the direction of an AD who believes in the sport and is willing to support it the way it needs to be.... Easy call!!! The only thing that was tough was to walk away from the relationships I had formed at LA Tech with the athletes and my bosses such as Shawn Jackson who is the one who put me in NCAA coaching, something I will always be indebted to him for.  






MileSplitU: What is your coaching philosophy?

Coach Ryan: The first time this question was ever asked to me was in 2005 at the Level 1 USATF Coaches Education Course in Atlanta, GA. Though my philosophy is about coaching and life live in a constant state of evolution, my core principles could best be described as old school discipline and work ethic combined with a fresh perspective and a work smarter training approach. It is my core belief that coaching is a privilege and consequently brings with it a responsibility to go above and beyond what the position calls for on paper. We are not just developing athletes, but people. So therefore you as a coach carry a responsibility to TEACH young people the skills that it takes to maximize not only athletic potential, but maximize the full potential of the person whom they will ultimately become. It was in the spirit of that premise that I developed a part of my coaching philosophy that I simply call DRIVE. (Dedication - Respect - Intensity - Vision - Education)

Dedication - Work hard everyday, in everything that you do. Nothing worth achieving in life is easy. Nothing will be handed to you. You must earn your way, and to do so takes effort, maximum effort. As long as the effort is there, results will be as well.

Respect - For yourself, your peers, and the process. Respect is tied to responsibility, and the best way to earn respect from others is to be a responsible, accountable individual. Respect is key in the development of an individual as well as any functional team.

Intensity - Be passionate in all that you do. You cannot go through life doing things half way. If you want to accomplish something “go hard” after it.

Vision - Have a plan, set goals, know what you’re doing before you do it. Visualize success in order to be successful. One will be surprised on how much more important it is to be competent rather than confident.  

Education - Academics will continue to serve you long after your athletic prowess ends. Remember the term is STUDENT-athlete and one’s #1 priority at the university level should be to learn how to think. Ask questions, take initiative, own your education. Remain tuned in and take full advantage of what is being taught to you every day, both on and off the track.

MileSplitU: Talk about the Academy of Art from an academic standpoint. What are some of the programs A-of-A offers?

Coach Ryan: The school is incredible!!! What students learn here is actually directly valuable in the real world. Professional degrees for jobs that are leading the way into the 21 century. Classes here are only taught by people who have done real work in the fields they are teaching. The curriculums here combined with the urban life that San Francisco offers to the students creating the perfect training for life after college. So many people hear the name of the school, Academy of Art University, and think all we do is paint and draw, but there is so much more to offer here. We have 18 undergraduate programs;  

Acting, Advertising, Animation & Visual Effects, Architecture, Art Education, Fashion, Fine Art, Game Design, Graphic Design, Illustration, Industrial Design, Interior Architecture & Design, Landscape Architecture, Motion Pictures & Television, Multimedia Communications, Music Production & Sound Design for Visual Media, Photography, Web Design & New Media

Our graduates get jobs. We had a thrower last year named Hannah Otey who was offered a job by the NFL network before she even graduated. She was a member of our Multimedia Communication department: Story

Graduating STUDENT-athletes is my #1 priority. It’s the biggest thing I can ever accomplish as a coach. We can win National titles and break records and all that cool stuff, but all of those are simply moments in time that will live in our memory. Your degree lives forever in real life. What you learn here will help put food in the mouths of your children. An education is more valuable than any trophy we will hoist or any medal that goes around the neck of one of my athletes, because without an education and a degree, that medal hanging around their neck will quickly become a noose. I will not allow that to happen to my athletes. If you want to wear my jersey, you must care about your future, not just your performances.  

MileSplitU: What has been the highlight of your coaching career to date?

Coach Ryan: That’s a tough question, I may be very young, but there have been so many I could point to. The opportunity to work here comes to mind, I could name any one of a dozen amazing things Jackie Coward accomplished in our time together, national records, making the US JR team, All-Decade All-American, etc., but my best work done with Jackie was off the track, seeing her develop as a student, graduate from HS and now set to graduate this spring from Central Florida.

Honestly, I think my greatest highlight as a coach could be summed up by two words and one person: ANTOINETTE COBB. Not because of anything great that I did with her as an athlete, but just the opportunity to work with and learn from such a special person is definitely the highlight of my coaching career and may always be. Everyone should know the Antoinette Cobb story and there is no way I could do her justice in this forum but to sum it up. This woman was a 14 low collegiate hurdler who had to leave LA Tech the year before I arrived to fight off stage 3 colon cancer. The fact that she returned to school period would have been enough. The fact that she still just wanted to be on the track team would have been doing much more than was necessary. But this woman became a 5x WAC Conference Champion, ranked top 10 in the NCAA in the 100mH (13.07), and won the 2010 Honda Inspiration Award. I’m sure I taught her many things, but not nearly as much as she taught me and she should be the poster child for what it means to be an NCAA STUDENT-athlete. Did I mention she maintained over a 3.5 and graduated Cum Laude and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Biology? Yeah, it will be incredibly hard to have a bigger highlight in my career as a coach then the experience that was working with Antoinette Cobb. Story | Video

MileSplitU: You were quite the athlete in your day, right? Can you talk some about your athletic days?

Coach Ryan: [Laughing] I was a very talented, yet tragically unfocused athlete. Like most athletes, I can sit here and say if I only knew then what I know now. I did almost every sport you can think of at some point competitively: soccer, swimming, baseball, I played HS basketball in that elite AAU traveling system, I had college offers for football, but track was always my passion because I hated the culture of football and loved the individual aspect of track. I relished the idea that it was me and me alone who decided my fate on the track. I held a national record in the HJ, in my junior high school (6”5.25”), but had to give up on that after I blew out my ACL & MCL in a high school dunk contest at a school I was not even playing basketball for. After surgery, I still wrapped up my HS career as #2 in CA in the 110mH, high school All-American. I took a full ride to UCLA where I became a Jr All-American, under Jon Smith. Once Jon left UCLA, I figured it was time I did too and I took my talents to the University of South Carolina. Many factors kept me from achieving my colligate goals, but I was an NCAA Semi Finalist, USA Semi Finalist, and while at USC, we broke the World/Collegiate Record in the Shuttle Hurdles in 2003. Had the talent to make it on the circuit, but I tore my hamstring in ‘04 and never recovered physically because I had lost the motivation to recover mentally. I learned many lessons from many different people along my path in life and it’s those lessons that make me a much better coach then I would have ever been an athlete. In the end, as an athlete, I had the physical gifts to be whatever I wanted, but I was not ready to fully give myself over mentally to become elite, I was willing to sacrifice but in the end too unfocused.   

MileSplitU: Talk about the members of your staff and the roles they play.

Coach Ryan: Currently I have three assistants on staff with me at Art U. Ben Deland is in his second year with me and handles the training for our endurance athletes. Ben is young (25), motivated, and has a great relationship with the distance runners. He allows me to be in many places at once and this job would be insane without someone like him. Ben competed for UC Davis in his college days and I think will be a dynamic coach in the NCAA one day.

Lamont Johnson just arrived this year after many years as a volunteer assistant in major programs such as Iowa State, New Mexico, and most recently Alabama. Lamont serves and my assistant with the sprinters/hurdlers and relays and also serves as our recruiting coordinator. He is the “old man” of our staff (37) and his presence is vital to the chemistry of what we are doing here. I was happy that I was able to officially put him on as an NCAA coach after his time spent as a volunteer. He does great work here and is a valuable member of the team.

Lauren Smith wears two hats out here. She is one of my assistant coaches, but also is still training to run on the professional track field circuit and hopefully for future USA Teams. Lauren is smart, dedicated and assists me both on the track and in the office with whatever is needed. She also monitors the academic progress of many of our athletes and serves as a much-needed calming influence; she is the yin to our yang.   

MileSplitU: What do you envision for your program in the future?

Coach Ryan: This program only has one mission..... win NCAA Titles, period. I’m not the sort to stand in line and ask permission to be good. No, we are going to kick in the door and take our seat at the head of the table. 2012-13 will be our inaugural year competing for NCAA titles and the mantra is “Make History, Not Excuses”

In my time here, I want to establish a reputation for Art U Track & Field as a place where student-athletes can choose to run fast and get a great education, following their dreams both on the track and in the classroom and not having to choose one or the other. A program that does things the right way, but our way, the ‘Be Artist. Be Athlete.’ way. It’s exciting to work somewhere with so much potential and so much support from administration. Dr. Williams and President Elisa Stephens only a few years ago only had an idea, now they have a real NCAA athletic department. Now it’s my job to make sure their work is solidified by delivering success. Success in the classroom and on the track. This program fits me because it lives every day in a constant state of evolution and I’m proud that I will be the coach of the Urban Knights when we deliver the first NCAA All-Americans next year and maybe, just maybe, we can deliver a few other historic accolades as well..... Stay tuned!!!