In a three month span, from September to November, we witnessed history. Northern Arizona secured their third-straight national title, cementing themselves as one of the greatest cross country teams of all-time. Their win was a defining moment for the NCAA as it validated the unexpected coaching shift from Eric Heins to Mike Smith, the shocking leap in fitness from Peter Lomong, and the decision to redshirt superstar freshman Brodey Hasty.
What's interesting about NAU is that there always seemed to be a sense of excitement from the running community throughout their title run. While most sports fans eventually grow tiresome of redundant victories by a single team, that didn't always appear to be the case for the Lumberjacks.
Like most cross country dynasties throughout history, Northern Arizona had all of the qualities you could ask for. Limitless firepower, crucial training adjustments, endless depth, ability to overcome adversity, mind-blowing consistency...the list goes on. Yet, none of those aspects were able to capture and, more importantly hold, our attention for three straight years of dominance (at least, not on their own).
However, what did contribute to the mystique and fascination of the three-peat wasn't necessarily a result of Northern Arizona's performances. In fact, it actually had everything to do with their rival: BYU.
Don't get me wrong, Northern Arizona's success can be attributed to themselves and themselves only. Their ability to not only win, but do so in such a convincing fashion is the result of hard work and discipline. Even so, to keep every title as compelling as they were required more than just commanding wins.
The dramatic element of the NAU and BYU rivalry (which was more or less created by the media and eventually embraced by both groups) was what added such a fascination to this era of distance running. A team that established themselves as a dynasty had legitimate pressure from a BYU program that was more than capable of winning a national title in most years.
The Cougars walked away from the 2018 National Championships with four All-Americans and the best overall lineup of any team in the field with all seven men finishing in the top 60 scoring spots. The last team to have their entire lineup inside the top 60 scoring spots was 2008 when the Oregon Ducks won the national title, but did so with only three individual All-Americans compared to BYU's four. It's crazy to think that just a decade later, similar depth and an additional All-American wouldn't be enough to win you the national title...
However, what truly made BYU standout wasn't just the success they had in 2018. The realization of their talent in 2017, as well as their struggles at the national meet, helped shape an entirely new attitude for this squad. In 2018, they were far more cautious, precise, and hungrier than ever to prove that they deserved their national recognition.
Maybe that's why the rivalry was still alive and well this year. The men from Provo, Utah seemed calmer, more aware of what they needed to accomplish. Their approach towards peaking for Nationals was modified, and their priorities regarding the postseason seemed to be adjusted. They appeared to be focused more on bettering themselves than being concerned with other teams. In a sense, it was an outstanding sign of maturity.
Legacies are tricky to talk about. People are always more excited about what is in front of them compared to what has happened throughout history. Still, we have to start asking ourselves if BYU is the greatest team to never win a national title. I'm sure the 2002, 2003, and 2004 Wisconsin Badgers would have something to say about that, but did they ever have to face a team as overwhelmingly strong as NAU? Twice? Most would probably say no.
The designation of "Best to Never Do It" is flattering at it's core, but it's a title that no team ever wants to hold. While that may be true for most programs, there has to be a sense of comfort for the Cougars knowing that the only team they couldn't beat was arguably one of the greatest ever (or at least in the modern era).
Whether they like it or not, their legacies are interconnected. Northern Arizona isn't the team we know and love today without BYU. Similarly, BYU doesn't have the same identity without the wake up call they received from Portland who upset the Cougars at the 2017 National Championships.
When we look back at this title run 20+ years from now, we will remember NAU for their supremacy. However, when their story is told, it will be impossible to leave out Brigham Young.