July 5, 2012
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - There's a passion deep inside Harlis Meaders that for the past 18 years with the Florida State track & field program has manifest itself in a variety of ways.
Quiet and reserved on the outside, Meaders is very much the technical teacher; a coach who finds ways to connect with his athletes in a manner that draws out their competitive best. His rare public displays of passion are reserved for those moments just before one of his throws is about to unleash a competitive toss in the shot put, discus, hammer or javelin, usually in the form of a loud and supportive, `Let's go, Mike!'
Privately, in those team meetings before the Seminoles prepare for a big meet, Meaders can deliver the kind of impassioned message usually reserved for a pulpit on Sundays. With his voice rising to a crescendo, those messages resonated throughout the room, inspiring the most successful Florida State teams to their greatest feats.
Meaders' passion officially found a new home today, when he was introduced as the head track & field/cross country coach at the University of North Carolina. After nearly two decades as one of FSU's longest-tenured assistants, the last eight as the Seminoles associate head coach, Meaders is going home to be a Tar Heel again. He replaces Dennis Craddock, who retired after 38 seasons as one of the most distinguished coaches in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
"It was never my strongest desire to leave Florida State," Meaders said. "I love the kids here and I love the environment, but the opportunity to go back to Chapel Hill at this point in my life is absolutely amazing; it's absolutely overwhelming. I had a chance to interview for the job. I walked through the campus; walked back out to the track and was just overwhelmed with emotions of joy in just remembering what it was like to be a Tar Heel. At this point it was 1 o'clock in the morning.
"Just preparing for the opportunity; knowing that the opportunity could come to fruition, has kept me up at night. Now that it's a reality, I'm just overwhelmed with joy."
North Carolina's gain is certainly a loss for the Seminoles.
"Harlis Meaders could have very easily been our head coach the last 12 years instead of me," said FSU coach Bob Braman, who promoted Meaders to associate head coach in 2004. "He's more than ready to be a head coach and this was a dream opportunity for Harlis. We hate to lose him but we completely understood that if he had any chance to go to North Carolina, as an alum where he was a phenomenal student-athlete, this was going to be too big for him to pass up. North Carolina is getting a great coach and somebody that I think can continue what coach Craddock has done for the last three or four decades."
Since joining retired FSU coach Terry Long's staff in 1994 as the throws coach and later the recruiting coordinator, Meaders' development as a coach has closely paralleled the rise of the `Noles as a perennial national power. Though he graduated from UNC and spent his first three years of coaching at Western Carolina, it didn't take long for him to embrace the FSU culture.
"I started at Florida State in '94 when Terry Long took a chance on a young coach and invited me into the FSU family," Meaders said. "I actually stayed in his home the first couple of weeks and my goal was to actually beat him to work. Since that first impression I've always felt like I was a part of the Florida State family. We've worked tirelessly to create a championship environment and a family environment at Florida State. ...
"The same bond our kids feel amongst each other, we share as a staff. We're brothers and sisters and it's just an amazing environment."
That work has paid dividends. Over the course of his tenure, the Seminoles have won 18 men's indoor or outdoor ACC team titles and strung together three consecutive NCAA Outdoor championships from 2006-2008. They just won their second consecutive USTFCCCA National Program of the Year for comprehensive excellence. The FSU women have won three ACC championships and along with Oregon, are the only schools to have placed in the top four in the women's National Program of the Year final rankings.
"Harlis is as good an associate head coach as a guy could ask for," Braman said. "He was always a team player. It was like, `Harlis, what are we going to do about it?' It was almost like being co-head coaches. You always knew Harlis had your back.
"We always operated as a team. I just felt like I had a really good assistant who shared my program design ideals and we shared the same beliefs. That was an extraordinarily successful formula, to have somebody that was that bought in."
In addition to his coaching duties Meaders had oversight responsibility of the daily operations, including team travel and budget and was the squad's liaison with the athletic department administration, compliance, facilities, admissions, financial aid and the business office. He also found time to coordinate the R.E.A.L. Men mentoring program that encompassed the entire athletic department.
"His learning curve was very, very sharp and steep," Braman said. "It didn't take him long to learn how to do the head coach stuff. Most people don't want to do that stuff. If you're an assistant coach, you want to work with the kids, you want to coach. Harlis always sunk his hands into running the program."
Meaders' opinion was deeply valued by the entire staff, in part because of his measured approach to tackling challenges. Braman credits him with helping maintain staff continuity.
"And, oh, by the way, he's coached some really, really great people," Braman added.
That much is indisputable. Meaders' throwers have won 22 ACC indoor or outdoor individual titles, with 11 different men or women combining for 22 All-America honors. The men and women he has coached in the four throws events dominate the school's top 10 lists, with 32 of the 40 women's spots and 29 of the 40 men's positions. Meaders has also worked with FSU's multi-event athletes, including 2012 All-American decathlete Gonzalo Barroilhet, who will represent Chile in the Olympics for the second time later this summer.
Meaders coached Garrett Johnson, who in 2005 won a pair of NCAA titles in the shot and became the first FSU student-athlete to be named a Rhodes Scholar. Meaders was named the NCAA East Region Assistant Coach of the Year in 2005.
"When coach Braman took over as the head coach he retained me and gave me the opportunity to continue to grow as a person and a coach," Meaders said. "His mentorship and leadership has played a great role in where I am today. Without his blessings I would not have been able to grow as a coach and to play a significant role in the team as a whole. It's his program but he's allowed me to play a major part and I'm grateful for that."
And the Seminoles he has coached, like All-American Michael Putman, are especially grateful for what Meaders has brought to the program.
"He's a very laid back coach but at the same time he's very competitive," said Putman, who has earned All-America honors each of the last three seasons in the throws. "He keeps you motivated, keeps you alive, keep you focused. With him wanting to make you better, it makes yourself want to do well, too." Meaders' reach extends beyond just the throwers. His emotional pre-meet sermons have been a source of great inspiration.
"Everybody looks up to him and just waits for him to boost the energy on the team," Putman said. "Without coach Meaders our team will not feel as whole. ... His speeches are so inspirational. They make the goose bumps go through your body. There's so much energy and passion; it comes from the heart and it's so real."
Braman couldn't agree more.
"You've seen the effect he's had on the athletes," he said. "He's the emotional speaker, that really fiery guy, which is out of his daily character. ... That's going to be a huge loss. No matter what we do, we're not going to replace that. Harlis was a leader of team and that made my job so much easier."
Now Meaders, who will celebrate his 42nd birthday on Sunday, will be the leader of his own team at a place that's very special to the Monroe, N.C. native. He competed for the Tar Heels from 1988-92, winning ACC titles in the weight throw and discus, and was also a member of UNC's 1992 ACC championship squad.
It's his dream to rekindle that spark.
"I know what Carolina could be and I know where we are," Meaders said. "I don't know that at this juncture that there's anybody out there willing to give more back to the program than I am. I've taken so much from it. I learned how to win at Carolina and I learned how to lose without being a loser. I grew as a young man. It just means so much.
"It's not a professional move as much as it's a personal move. When you get that perfect combination of the right person, the right school, at the right time, I think amazing things can be accomplished. I think we're on that track."