Updated: Feb 4
Throughout the city of Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, there is a three word chant that residents of the area can't go a day without hearing. It's a phrase that represents progress, hope and an exciting future.
That chant is "Trust The Process".
The saying can be first traced back to 2013 when Sam Hinkie became the General Manager of a struggling NBA basketball team (the Philadelphia 76ers). Prior to Hinkie's arrival, the city and it's fans yearned for a winning franchise which had since been in a drought of talent after the departure of basketball icons Allen Iverson, Andre Iguodala, and Kyle Korver.
Of course, Hinkie knew that the rebuilding process would take time. He asked for the city to stay patient and to "Trust The Process" that he had planned out.
However, Hinkie's "Process" was not always a popular one. For three straight seasons, he traded away franchise favorites in favor of draft picks and left the team with no choice but to tank and prepare for the following year. His decisions were questionable at best and he left the city of Philadelphia only more irritated than they once were.
Fast forward to 2016 and the pressure from the outside world was starting to build against Hinkie. The 76ers had become the laughing stock of the NBA, the patience that he once requested had dissipated, and the Sixers front office began to lessen the power that Hinkie's position once held.
On April 6th, 2016, Sam Hinkie stepped down as the General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. In a 13-page, 7000 word letter addressed to the equity partners of the organization, Hinkie detailed his approach to "The Process" and explained why it would one day be a grand success. The letter held very few sentiments of regret. Instead, it preached of a bright and auspicious future where the Sixers reigned supreme because of Hinkie's long-term mindset.
When Hinkie stepped down from his position, many believed that "The Process" was over
But in reality, it had only begun.
Now, after years of injuries and delayed starts, the Sixers' draft picks are healthy and ready to take the floor. The constant addition of elite first-round draft picks has turned what was once condescending laughter, into chuckles of nervousness from opposing teams. Philadelphia basketball is now favored to make the playoffs and currently holds the 8th best chance in the NBA to win it all.
Three years ago, many followers of the NBA would've scoffed at hearing statements like that.
But now, fans all around Philadelphia are welcoming "The Process". What was once a bemoaned and embarrassing excuse for the 76ers downfall, has now become a rallying cry embraced by many - all because one man had the patience and bravery to sacrifice his job for the future success of a franchise.
So how does any of what I just explained tie-in to NCAA cross country? How does "The Process" apply to a group of collegiate distance runners?
In the fall of 2015, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks made a surprising announcement. The top two runners in their program, Futsum Zienasellassie and Nathan Weitz, would be redshirting the 2015 cross country season. The move was a puzzling one as many fans questioned why the Lumberjacks would essentially toss away a season. Some argued that the decision was intended to give Futsum more time to train and develop so that he could potentially take down his rival Edward Cheserek in 2016. Others weren't sold.
Throughout the fall of 2015, the NAU program had its fair share of struggles. At the Cowboy Jamboree, they not only lost to Oklahoma State, but they also lost to Kentucky on a tie-breaker. The team later placed 30th out of 36 teams at the Wisconsin Invite and failed to win the BIG Sky title (which they had previously defended for eight straight years).
In a season filled with learning curves, it would have been easy to focus on the negative. Yet, at the same time, there were still plenty of positives to take away. The Lumberjacks placed 9th in a stacked Mountain Region despite their leader Cory Glines not finishing the race. Tyler Day (a freshman at the time), consistently improved throughout the season and finished very well in the championship meets all while gaining crucial race experience.
With the 2015 season behind them and the 2016 season ahead, the reason for Heins' redshirting decision became more and more clear. Futsum Zienasellassie and Nathan Weitz would return to a team that had new-found low-sticks such as Tyler Day and Cory Glines with a pack of experienced depth. The team also made key additions to their roster such as Matthew Baxter and Geordie Beamish.
All of the sudden, the Lumberjacks had become a powerhouse program.
Sure enough, NAU went on to have an undefeated season with team wins at the Wisconsin Invite, BIG Sky, Mountain Region, and eventually the NCAA Championships. The Lumberjacks not only earned the right to raise the trophy, but they also gave validation to the long-term plan Coach Eric Heins had formulated two years ago.
In his last year of coaching with NAU, Eric Heins rode off into the sunset as the hero that gave the Lumberjacks their first national title simply because he had embraced "The Process". His departure was drastically different in comparison to how Sam Hinkie left the Sixers.
NAU will still be a team contender for years to come thanks to the forward thinking of Coach Heins. He has positioned this team perfectly for future success. The Lumberjacks will even be contenders to defend their title in 2017 despite losing Zienasellassie and Weitz.
Yet, more programs have caught on to NAU's success and have learned that maybe, they too, should "Trust The Process".
One of the programs that has fully enacted "The Process"? The Furman Paladins.
While Northern Arizona was seeing their patience come to fruition in 2016, Furman was following suit. Head Coach Robert Gary made the bold decision to redshirt five of his varsity scorers from the 2015 NCAA Championships leaving only Frank Lara and Josh Brickell to guide the team throughout the 2016 cross country season.
The move was certainly a surprising one, but unlike NAU, the reasoning behind the decision was now much more obvious: Robert Gary was preparing to blitz the NCAA with a pack of established veterans and never-ending depth.
Even without five returners from the 2015 National Championships, Furman still hung tough and progressed throughout the season thanks to outstanding efforts by Lara and Brickell. In fact, Furman came within one point of tieing UVA at Southeast Regionals and earning an auto-bid spot to NCAA's. It was one of the most impressive displays of depth by any team in the 2016 season.
Now the Paladins return their five redshirts and boast a squad that could scare even the most elite powerhouse programs. Their entire squad is filled with race-savvy veterans, rising low-sticks such as Frank Lara and Troy Reeder, and an unfathomable amount of depth. They were even able to recruit a 14:29 5k runner by the name of Daniel Bernal. Much like Baxter and Beamish, Bernal could be the missing piece that advances Furman far beyond what any fans thought was once possible. Spectators and followers of the sport may not realize it, but Furman could very easily win the NCAA team title this November.
If Furman succeeds in winning a national title this fall, they could be the team that alters the course of how programs structure and develop their teams. We could potentially see a revolution in how teams are built and how teams win...
And it all started because someone believed that they needed to "Trust The Process".