On a sopping wet Wednesday morning at the end of November, I met James Snyder, Temple University’s Head Men’s & Women’s Cross Country Coach/Assistant Women’s Track Coach, for an early chat. The plan was to meet at 11 AM in the lobby of McGonigle Hall, the large glass building across from the famed Liacouras Center, in the heart of Temple University’s campus. I left with ample time to find parking in that part of the city, knowing full well the swift and accurate action of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. With the running gods in my favor, I found free parking on Broad Street right outside the hall’s front doors.
Stepping through the front doors of McGonigle Hall, I was quickly reminded of how enormous Temple is, especially compared to other schools in the region I have visited. For the few moments I lingered in the lobby, I felt a buzz of activity swirling around me. Streams of students passed by me in every direction. It did not take long for me to figure out McGonigle was not only conveniently located, but houses most of Temple’s athletic programs. So many of these students looked to be in peak shape; many of them clearly in sport-specific conditioning. 6’1”, exhausted, female icing a knee… probably Women’s Basketball. A skinny gaggle of 5’10”, 130 lb guys… probably cross country athletes (check out the book bags… USATF- YEP!)
I had the honor of getting to know James Snyder at a young age. He was one of the studs toeing the line against me in many local high school meets. In our hometown, nicknames tend to stick for life. At the time, James went by a nickname that encompassed the swagger he would be seen warming up with, often because he was the favored guy-to-beat: “Sny-dog”. Now, in a professional setting, I laugh to myself because it is so hard it is to call him by his given name. The guy is a legend and on a path that is writing history almost daily. The interview that follows is a paraphrasing of what was discussed, his philosophy and, of course, the Sny-Dog swagger.
The Temple Owls get their name from their founder, Russell Conwell, who was quoted saying “The owl of the night makes the eagle of the day.” He is referencing the origins of a school that was originally a night school. Those Owls, who were willing to work a full-time job and go to night school after punching the clock, were undeniably hard workers. And the same is true today. In 2013, Temple hired James Snyder as the Head Cross Country/Assistant Track and Field coach. A quick review of his bio on the Temple Owls website will leave no questions as to why they hired him.
Just shy of thirty years old, James has brought a focused effort to accomplished so much in no time at all. After earning varsity letters for his running accolades and graduating George Mason University’s Exercise Science Department as the class Valedictorian, Coach Snyder felt Appalachian State University was the best fit for which to pursue a Masters in Exercise Science. During his two years in graduate school, he served as the graduate assistant for the both the men’s and women’s distance programs.
Immediately follow his time in Boone, Coach Snyder was offered a Operations Assistant position at Florida State. Or as James recalls: “A glorified equipment manager and travel agent, is what it was…”
Busting his butt for the Seminoles for a year was more than enough time for James to gain the attention from the Temple athletic administration. They had an opening for a Head Men’s & Women’s Cross Country Coach/Assistant Women’s Track coach. Having only interviewed over the phone, James was offered the job without setting foot on campus. July 2013, Coach Snyder moved into his new office.
Coach Snyder has found himself at the helm of two very different programs. The women’s team has three full seasons: cross country, indoor and outdoor track. Whereas the Men’s program was recently reduced to a cross country season and its nontraditional counterpart. How he approaches both teams are different, but the focus is the same: winning.
The women’s team has the ability to secure elite female runners graduating high school from all over the world. Coach Snyder has built a roster full of many regionally dominant athletes, along with powerhouses from as far as Spain and England joining the ranks. After this past season, Coach Snyder’s recruiting efforts will be a little easier and internationally respected with a recent All-American honor earned by a talented Temple student-athlete under his tutelage. This was a huge honor and first, not only for Temple’s Track and Field but, Temple Athletics!
The men’s team has the unique recruiting aspect of an XC only program. Coach Snyder has mastered connecting with top male runners who know they will excel under his guidance. He has a keen eye to attracting the Division I quality athlete often overlooked by larger, three season programs. Because of this, these athletes have enjoyed podium finishes against some pretty big schools (IE: St. Joseph U.)
My favorite subject; and it felt like Coach Snyder’s too. I wasn’t trying to take up his whole day, but I was fascinated by how they approach training. Given Coach Snyder’s education, experience, and expertise I knew this was going to be a “clinic.”
Temple Distance does a lot of the same things as other programs. Coach Snyder said it best, “What we do is no secret. We all run long, tempo, threshold, intervals, and hill workouts.” Where they vary are the details like lifting, rest days, and something he likes to call “Be a better athlete day.”
James, being well versed in the importance of lower leg stiffness, incorporates an aggressive lifting program into each team’s training programs. He is such a large proponent of endurance athletes lifting that he has his athletes lift year round. Even during their competition phase, the teams are in the weight room at least once a week.
Furthermore, Coach Snyder is a firm believer that hard days should be hard. He likes to pile on AM lifting and PM workouts in the same day. The caliber of athlete he is working with can take this level of work.
The teams average 50-65 miles per week on the women’s side and 65-85 miles per week men’s. Temple’s athletes were identified during recruiting as being genetically gifted and coached to their peak adolescent abilities. Coach Snyder has perfected the ability to guide them up to the capacity necessary to compete at the Division I level; dosing the volume, intensity and rest to achieve the greatest results. He utilizes the NCAA required day off (of practice and competition) in a way best suited for the student-athlete.
NCAA Bylaw 220.127.116.11 Required Day Off-Playing Season: During the playing season, all countable athletically related activities (per Bylaw 17.02.1) shall be prohibited during one calendar day per week.
Many programs around the country opt for Sunday to be the required day off. However, Wednesdays are practice-free at Temple, allowing student athletes the chance to catch up on school work, take the necessary labs for their sciences, and serves as an office admin day for Coach Snyder. This is genius! Distance runners are typically three season athletes and to balance school with that is extremely difficult; they are constantly trying to squeak labs and school work in around practice. They are at school to be students first; why not allow them a ‘break’ mid week to be just a student. Do you know many professors with office hours on Sunday? I don’t.
Be a better athlete day! We touched on this briefly, but I feel it is an aspect of Coach Snyder’s coaching philosophy that sets him apart. In exchange for an easy or ‘junk’ mileage day, Coach has the teams go for a light run followed by a comprehensive drill/multi-directional strength and flexibility session. Activities that build and support proper running mechanics, prehab injury risks and make unidimensional (forward) athletes stronger in every direction.
Following our lunch at Cosi, located in McGonigle, Coach Snyder was kind enough to walk me around the phenomenal athletic facilities. Rock walls, student support centers, two swimming pools, and a newly renovated weight room. Recent renovations to the 1100ft Olympic Sports Varsity Weight Room included 25 yards of turf, 16 Temple-logoed lifting platforms, and a snack bar for post training nutrition.
Coach Snyder finds it humorous the amount of food his athletes will consume following a lift, on their way to the cafeteria. “Two PB&J Uncrustables and a yogurt!? Come on guys! You’re headed to the cafeteria anyway!”
From the weight room, we made our way to his office. Walking in, it is exactly what every aspiring track coach dreams of: a little closet to call home. No windows, no couches, just somewhere you can have three or four filing cabinets full of recruits, fundraising, workout information. A desk with a stiff chair and two chairs for visitors. I wondered how many parent-recruit duos have sat in the very seat in which I was discussing life with Coach. Around the room, there was a pin-up board full of newspaper clippings, cliche running posters and administrative paperwork. Two shelves hung to my right, loaded to capacity with running, coaching, and physiology books.
Two male runners stopped by to inform Coach Snyder about their day’s efforts. James was grateful for the work they had put in and sent them on their way. One runner hung back to discuss which of coach’s books he should read next. From the tone of the conversation, it seemed this runner had a tendency to devour books, pushing Snyder’s catalog’s limits. Without hesitation, James was quick to offer a suggestion.
Following this interaction, a stinger of a question began to form in my head. One I hoped would not offend him, but had to be asked:
“Having heard the best way to improve a program is to recruit; do you [Snyder] have any evidence of actual coaching success to go along with the program’s results? What athlete have you developed from a freshmen to an upperclassmen with a measurable outcome?”
Straight-shooting Snyder responded with two examples of different athletes on his team. Yes, there is the naturally gifted athlete that will arrive on campus and dominate immediately. He used the recent All-American honors earned by a young Spanish student-athlete as an example. Yes, he would welcome 10 of them on the team. However, the majority of the roster likens to a Junior on his roster that came to Temple on minimal, if any, scholarship, and, at the time, was not in the “fight” at the end of the race. She worked her butt off and is now bringing in points at track meets.
Prior to his time at Temple, Coach Snyder’s goal as a coach was: to be the coach of his own athletes. He wanted to have four years to develop them, just as he did with the aforementioned Junior. Temple has given him this opportunity. Following my blunt question regarding roster development, it was reassuring to know this accomplished coach desires to identify, develop and nurture a team, not merely assemble one. You know, coaching!?