Dennis Mitchell, one of the longest-tenured coaches in the league and a 31-time Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year, is in his 26th season at The University of Akron in the fall of 2020.
In all, he has received the league’s top coaching honor 16 times for his men’s teams and 15 times for his women’s Teams. Mitchell has earned Great Lakes Region Coach of the Year recognition from the USTFCCCA on seven occasions; twice for the women’s teams and five times for men’s teams.
Known for his high-energy home track meets, Mitchell has not only made Akron’s Stile Athletics Field House the home of Mid-American Champions, but a destination for some of the top indoor talent in the northeast United States with the annual Akron Invitational.
Since 1998, Mitchell’s teams have produced 48 individual (includes 1 for cross country) All-Americans (40 first-team), who have garnered a total of 125 All-America honors. Of that esteemed group, six have gone on to win NCAA Championships. Shawn Barber is a three-time NCAA Champion winning the indoor and outdoor pole vault crowns in 2015 as well as the 2014 indoor title. Christi Smith captured the heptathlon crown in 2000, Stevi Large won the hammer in 2009, while Annika Roloff won the 2014 outdoor pole vault title.
Clayton Murphy became the Zips first-ever NCAA Champion in a running event when he captured the 800-meter crown at the 2016 NCAA Indoor Championships. He then went on to earn the 1,500-meter title at the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Championships.
In the spring of 2017, Matt Ludwig became the latest Zips’ NCAA Champion capturing the 2017 men’s outdoor pole vault title eclipsing 18-4.50 (5.60m) at the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore.
Additionally, a total of 399 Academic All-MAC honors have been bestowed upon Akron student-athletes during Mitchell’s tenure, including Mary Varga, a three-time CoSIDA Academic All-American, seven-time MAC Champion and five-time USTFCCCA All-American.
In 2016, high jumper Claudia Garcia Jou, the Zips’ indoor and outdoor school record holder, was selected as a CoSIDA First-Team Academic All-America honoree.
In the summer of 2016 a trio of Zips in Barber, Murphy and Roloff represented the Zips and their respective home countries in the XXXI Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Murphy shined on the worldwide stage earning the bronze medalist in the 800 meters. Murphy’s finishing kick propelled him to a become the first United States men’s 800-meter runner to win an Olympic medal since 1992, chasing down the bronze medal over the final 100 meters on the strength of the fifth-fastest time, 1:42.93, in American history.
Murphy was able to shatter his previous career-best time of 1:44.30 set in the semifinal round, and enabled him to be the third-fastest American ever. Murphy became the first United States men’s runner to win an Olympic 800-meter medal since Gray in Barcelona, Spain in 1992, three years before Murphy was born.
Battling through tough weather conditions in the men’s pole vault final Barber surpassed 18-0.50 (5.50m) to place 10th in his first Olympics.
In qualifying round competition in the women’s pole vault, Roloff eclipsed 14-7.25 (4.45m) on her third and final attempt at the mark en route to earning a 21st-place finish.
Mitchell helped Barber become Akron’s first-ever World Champion capturing the gold medal at the 2015 IAAF World Track and Field Championships in Beijing, China, with a winning jump of 19-4.25 (5.90m).
Barber cleared 19-0.25 (5.80m) on his first attempt and was the lone competitor to surpass 19-4.25 (5.90m) besting defending world champion Raphael Holzdeppe, France’s Olympic champion and world record holder Renaud Lavillenie and Poland’s Piotr Lisek and Pawel Wojciechowsk.
In December 2015, Barber was in San Antonio, Texas, where he was one of three finalists for the Bowerman Award.
Not to be overshadowed was the breakout performances of Murphy on the American and World scene in 2015 and 2016.
After finishing fourth in the 800 meters at the United States Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., Murphy went on to win the 800-meter title and gold medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto, Ontario in July 2015. He then earned a silver medal for the United States in the 800 meters at the North American, Central American and Caribbean Championships (NACAC) in 1:46.38 in San Jose, Costa Rica in August 2015. A late addition to the United States squad at the 2015 World Championships, Murphy reached the semifinal round in the 800 meters en route to becoming the top American finisher in the race.
He continued his dominance in the 2016 indoor campaign where has unbeaten in the mile, including set a school record at the Akron Invitational (Feb. 5), running the first-ever sub-four-minute mile (3:57.11). His victory in the 800 meters at the 2016 NCAA Indoor Championships was the catalyst to capping an unbeaten spring campaign capturing the 1,500-meter title at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., in a school- and MAC-record time of 3:36.38. Following the NCAA’s he turned pro and won the 800-meter title at the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 4 crossing the line in 1:44.76.
Mitchell has orchestrated a historic rise on the men’s side that saw the program capture 16 MAC Indoor and Outdoor team titles since 2008, including four consecutive indoor titles in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 as well as consecutive titles in 2012 and 2011.
The men’s rise follows a dominating run from the women’s program that featured five consecutive indoor titles from 2005-’09 and four straight outdoor championships from 2006-09. Furthermore, Akron became just the second school in league history to sweep the men’s and women’s outdoor championships in 2008 and then repeated the feat in 2009, 2017 and 2019.
The Zips entered the 2018 NCAA Outdoor Championships as one of five Division I schools to win an NCAA Outdoor Track and Field national title in each of the last four seasons (2014-17). The Zips joined Georgia, Florida, Oregon and Texas A&M. Akron narrowly missed extending its streak as Jordan Latimer and Matt Ludwig each posted second-place performances in the men’s long jump and pole vault, respectively.
In 2018, Akron tied for 16th in the men’s outdoor competition with 16 points, while finishing tied for 46th place tallying three points in the women’s field.
The Akron men’s track and field team finished ahead of 11 teams ranked in the pre-NCAA Championship USTFCCCA top-25 poll including No. 6 Oregon, No. 7 Brigham Young, No. 12 Texas, No. 15 Kansas, No. 18 Northern Arizona, No. 19 Illinois, No. 20 Nebraska, No. 22 Tennessee, No. 23 Penn State, No. 24 Indiana and No. 25 Southern Mississippi. Additionally, the Zips bettered the efforts of 24 other Power-5 conference schools in the final team standings.
In 2018, Akron was one of only four non-Power-5 Conference schools (Akron, Brigham Young, New Mexico and Northern Arizona) to earn men’s and women’s team points at both the 2018 NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships, and one of only two from a Northern State.
In 2017, the Zips garnered both the men’s and women’s MAC indoor and outdoor titles in the same year for the first time in program history and Mitchell was rewarded as he was named the MAC Men’s and Women’s Coach of the Year for both the indoor and outdoor campaigns.
The Zips’ sustained dominance under Mitchell is even more impressive over the past six seasons (2014-19) as Akron has won seven of the program’s nine national titles en route to earning 31 indoor and 50 outdoor All-America awards. The 2020 NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships were not contested.
From 2014-19 span, Akron was one of only 10 programs nationally to score in both the men’s and women’s team competitions at the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships. The Zips were the lone non-Power-5 Conference institution included on that list.
Akron joined Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana State and Texas A&M from the Southeastern Conference, Oregon and Southern California from the Pac-12 Conference and Texas from the Big 12 Conference. Not represented on the list were schools from the Atlantic Coast and Big Ten Conferences.
Over the five-year period, Oregon won six indoor NCAA titles (three men and three women), while Texas A&M, (M), Florida (M), Arkansas (W) and Georgia (W) own the remaining men’s and women’s championships. In the outdoor competition, the Gators and Oregon have registered a pair of men’s team titles, while the Ducks, Razorbacks, Aggies and USC own two, one, one and one women’s championships, respectively.
In 2015, Akron completed a record-setting campaign as the Zips rewrote the history of the program as the men’s and women’s squads recording the 10th-best combined finish in the country for the 2015 indoor and outdoor seasons. On the strength of a program-best 12th-place performance at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship, the Akron men’s track and field concluded 2015 with the ninth-best combined finish in the country.
The Zips’ men’s squad earned its highest-ever finish at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championship, placing ninth in 2015 with 16 points, while the women’s team wrapped up 2015 with the 22nd-best combined national showing. The Zips posted their best-ever indoor team performance matching Kansas State and Wisconsin for 18th place with 12 points at the NCAA Indoor Championship, while finishing tied for 32nd place at the NCAA Outdoor Championship.
The streak of championships began in the 2005-06 as Akron women’s cross country team won a MAC championship to proceed the indoor and outdoor track and field championships, marking the first time a MAC women’s team had won the league’s “Triple Crown.”
Mitchell overseas Cross Country as well where they have won two cross country MAC Team titles as well.
Fresh after winning the triple crown Mitchell was named the United States head men’s track & field coach in the Norwich Union International meet, which was held in August of 2006 at Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, England against Russia, China, and Great Britain. USA men’s team finished first, of the men’s teams, winning 11 of 16 events and scoring 177 points with Russia’s men 146. The coaching stint was his second on a national team as he served on the staff at the 2003 Pan American Junior Championships, working primarily with the throwers and decathletes.
While winning the MAC’s Triple Crown in 2005-06 was a notable first, the crowning achievement of Akron track and field occurred in June 2000 when Smith captured the NCAA championship in the heptathlon. After earning the first national crown for Akron, Smith went on to represent the University at the 2000 Olympic Track and Field Trials in Sacramento, Calif.
The 2008 Akron women broke the all-time scoring record.
Then, in 2009, Stevi Large followed suit by becoming the program’s second national champion in the hammer after finishing as the national runner up during the indoor season in the weight throw. Large set a number of school and MAC records under Mitchell’s tutelage as she was named MAC Outdoor Field Performer of the Year for three-consecutive years while becoming the first MAC female student-athlete to win a league title in a field event four times.
After making her first appearance at the NCAA Championships in 2007, she returned in 2008, earning All-American honors in the weight throw (indoor) and hammer (outdoor), while winning the NCAA Mideast Region title in the hammer.
A former pole vaulter himself and widely regarded as one of the top vault coaches in the nation, Mitchell, who also coaches the UA multi-event athletes, is overseeing a new era in Akron track and field. The Zips have one of, if not the, premier indoor facilities in the nation to call home with the opening of the $20 million Stile Athletics Field House in August of 2004. Stile Field House features a 300-meter, six-lane Mondo track, a 100-yard astroplay field as well as throwing cages, jumping pits and several pole vault apparatus.
In addition to the numerous All-America honors garnered by Akron student-athletes, Mitchell’s Zips have also produced 257 individual MAC crowns and 13 relay champions.
In recent years, it has been the achievements of Mitchell’s pole vaulters which has propelled the program into the national spotlight. Matt Ludwig and Cole Wigal added to the title haul in 2019 winning the 23rd and 24th consecutive titles (indoor and outdoor) in the pole vault for the Zips eclipsing 19-0.25 (5.81m) during the indoor campaign and 17-0.75 (5.20m) outdoors. In 2016, Matt Rowland won both the indoor and outdoor MAC titles.
John Russell became a five-time All-American with his performance at the 2006 NCAA Indoor Championships. The league’s indoor champion that year, Russell finished third in the men’s pole vault, clearing a MAC-record 18-02.50 along the way. In 2004, he was the first MAC student-athlete ever to clear 18-feet indoors.
Kira Sims, who completed her eligibility in 2004, became a three-time All-American in the pole vault and was the first female in UA and MAC history to clear the 14-foot plateau both indoors and outdoors. Sims placed fifth at the 2004 NCAA Indoor meet after winning the league’s indoor crown. During the outdoor season, she again won the conference title, adding the Mideast Regional title before placing fourth at the NCAA Outdoors. She closed out her career in the Blue and Gold by placing fourth a second time at the NCAA Outdoors and 11th at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Carrie Kayes was a two-time outdoor All-American in 2009 and 2010, while Michael Uhle became pole vault first-team All-American in 2010 during the indoor campaign.
A six-time first-team All-American, Barber captured three NCAA titles during his illustrious Zips’ career, culminating with winning both the indoor and outdoor crowns in 2015.
As a true freshman in 2013, Shawn Barber became the next great Zips pole vaulter, shattering school indoor and outdoor records en route to becoming Canada’s national pole vault record holder with a jump of 18-08.75 at the Texas Relays. In all, the Texas native, who owns dual citizenship, swept both indoor and outdoor MAC pole vault titles, placed fifth at the NCAA Indoor Championships, then took third at the NCAA Outdoor Championships as part of a phenomenal freshman campaign.
As a sophomore in 2014, Barber garnered titles at the MAC Indoor and Outdoor Championships. He culminated his efforts during the indoor campaign clearing 18-10.25 at the NCAA Indoor Championship in Albuquerque, N.M., to defeat 2013 NCAA Outdoor Champ Sam Kendricks of Ole Miss to became the first-ever Akron men’s individual to claim a national title. Barber and Kendricks met again at the NCAA Outdoor Championship in Eugene, Ore., as Barber earned a runner-up finish after jumping 18-6.25.
In 2015 as a junior, Barber won championships at the MAC Indoor and Outdoor Championships in addition to his NCAA titles and in the process established new school- and conference-records in the pole vault. His winning clearance on his final attempt broke at the 2015 NCAA Indoor Championships not only broke his own collegiate record but also set a new NCAA Championship meet standard besting Jacob Davis’ record of 19-2.25 (5.85m) set in 1999.
Barber turned of one of the greatest individual campaigns in the history of the Akron track and field program in 2015 winning 17 of the 19 competitions he competed in, including winning outdoor titles at the Drake, Mt. Sac and Texas Relays, respectively.
Sophomore Annika Roloff captured the 2014 NCAA Championship in the pole vault with a jump of 14-05.25, defeating Indiana senior Kelsie Ahbe in Eugene, Ore., to become the fifth individual national champion and fourth female athlete in school history to win a national championship. NCAA Championship medalist, placing third in the indoor pole vault with a jump of 14-07.25. She swept the MAC Pole Vault titles for the season, winning the event with a MAC Outdoor Championships Meet record jump of 14-01.75 after recording a league Indoor Championships meet record jump of 14-01.25.
Not to be diminished, Beata Rudzinska earned All-American recognition both indoors and outdoors in 2004 and ’05 and completed her career with a total of five national honors. A middle-distance specialist, Rudzinska, an 11-time MAC Champion, had eight victories in the MAC 800 meters and four victories in the MAC mile, not to mention a 2005 MAC individual championship in cross country.
The 2005 season saw the women win its first MAC indoor title, tallying 97 points to top the 13-team field, defeating second-place Eastern Michigan by 1.5 points. The men’s squad placed fourth, which was the best-ever finish for the men indoors. For his effort, Mitchell earned his first MAC Women’s Indoor Coach of the Year honor. During the 2005 outdoor season, the women finished in second place, falling seven points short of their second outdoor MAC title. However, the Zips women’s squad came all the way from 10th place on the final day of competition to have a shot to pull the indoor-outdoor title sweep. On the men’s side, Akron took fifth place, moving up three places from its eighth-place showing in 2004.
In 1999 the women captured Akron’s first-ever outright women’s MAC team championship by claiming the league’s outdoor title. Seven school records were set at the meet, led by Smith’s 5,528 points in the heptathlon. Additionally, that season, three athletes snagged indoor and/or outdoor All-American honors. Smith earned both indoor and outdoor recognition after finishing ninth in the long jump at the indoor meet and second in the heptathlon at the outdoor championships with a UA and MAC-record 5,773 points. Varga was ninth in the outdoor high jump, and Chad Bullett became the first male from the track program to earn Division I All-American honors with a 10th-place finish in the 100 meters.
Accomplishments like these were almost unimaginable prior to Mitchell’s tenure. He was hired during the summer of 1995, and inherited a program mired in the MAC basement. The men had finished last that spring at the league’s championship meet, 22 points behind ninth-place Ball State. The UA women’s team had also finished last, 30 points out of ninth place. Four years later, the women earned almost seven times as many points on their way to the league title. The men have also made great strides, increasing their point production each year.
For 10 years, from the fall of 1985 until his appointment at Akron in 1995, Mitchell gained invaluable experience as an assistant coach at Texas (six years) and North Carolina (four years).
As field events coordinator under 1995 NCAA Men’s Indoor Coach of the Year Dennis Craddock at UNC, Mitchell helped direct the efforts of 20 Atlantic Coast Conference champions and 13 All-American performances. In his first season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heel men won their first ACC track and field title (1992) in more than 30 years, and followed that with three straight titles over 1994 and ’95.
North Carolina won ACC outdoor crowns each year sandwiched around an indoor championship in 1995. In the meantime, UNC’s women followed a 1992 ACC outdoor team championship with indoor-outdoor conference sweeps for the next three seasons (1993-95).
His prize pupils included: 2000 Olympian Lynda Lipson, who finished runner-up in the javelin at the 1992 NCAA Championships; Ingrid Hantho, who placed fourth in discus at the 1994 NCAA Outdoor Championships; and pole vaulter and former Akron assistant Kevin Brown, the first collegiate athlete in the state of North Carolina to clear more than 18 feet.
Prior to serving with the Tar Heels, Mitchell served as assistant field events coach under legendary coach Stan Huntsman at Texas from 1985-91. He tutored four All-American pole vaulters, aiding hurdlers and decathletes as well. The Longhorns captured Southwest Conference titles in 1986 and ’87, and finished in the NCAA Outdoors top-five from 1986-89 and again in 1991. During Mitchell’s time in Austin, Huntsman was tabbed as head coach for the 1988 U.S. Track & Field Olympic Team.
Among Mitchell’s other track & field-related responsibilities is his national-level involvement with USA Track & Field and the U.S. Track and Field Coaches Association.
Mitchell is currently on the USATF Rules Committee and served for 10 years at the Olympic Training Center with the Junior Elite/Emerging Elite Camp. Was on the National Task Force for improvement and Retention of the College Track and Field. Served on the USTFCCCA Strategic Planning Committee.
Name 2013-14 College Pole Vault Coach of the year by USATF pole vault development.
Was an active member of the USATF pole vault development committee and was the National Junior Elite Coach. He also served on the USTFCCCA/USATF Joint Task Force for the Improvement and Retention of College Track and Field.
Mitchell is a native of Rialto, Calif., and a 1985 graduate of Abilene Christian University. While at ACU, he was a pole vaulter on the Wildcats’ 1985 NCAA Division II Championship team. Mitchell began his collegiate career at the University of Utah, where he was twice the Western Athletic Conference runner-up in the pole vault.
Mitchell and his wife, Cindy, reside in Portage Lakes. Cindy is a pole vault official, has graduated from the Leadership Akron program and is a graduate of the University of Akron. The couple has two sons; Matt and Chad (a graduate of Akron) and a pair of grandchildren.
Dennis Mitchell, one of the longest-tenured coaches in the league and a 31-time Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year, is in his 26th season at The University of Akron in the fall of 2020.