Interview with Cassandra Harbin of FGCU


Four years ago, when they hired Cassandra Goodson, Florida Gulf Coast University Men’s and Women’s cross country was given a new life. Evidence of that is easy to find: female athletes that she has coached hold all of the top five school records in the Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior class, and two of five (1st and 5th place) in the Senior category. With the men, the evidence of her influence is even more irrefutable: in the 5K (all ten), 4 mile (all), 8K (all ten), 8K Freshman (all 5), 8K Sophomore (all 5), 8K Junior (3 of 5; 1st, 3rd, and 5th,), and 8K Senior (all 5) occurred while she was coach. Today, thanks to the efforts of its now veteran coach, the Eagles are one of Florida’s most promising collegiate running programs.

Goodson-Harbin—she has since gotten married—is a dedicated and knowledgeable leader, who brings with her a successful career built from the spikes up. While in high school (Chaminade College Prep in Chatsworth, California), she was a four-time All-Conference selection, during which she steadily lowered her 5K time until it was 18:53.

Next came two years at Diablo Valley (Junior) College, where she placed second at the NORCAL XC Championships in her second year, and was voted MVP. In track, she was the school record holder in the 10,000, and won the 2003 NORCAL Outdoor 10,000 Championship.

Upon ending her junior college career, she went on to the University of Southern Mississippi (2003-2005), and had an immediate impact on their cross country team, finishing as the first Eagle in all but one meet. (Coincidentally, FGCU has not only the same mascot, but the same logo.) In two years, she had nine top-ten performances, and ran a cross country lifetime best of 18:01.7, winning the UNO Invitational on October 2, 2004. In track, she still holds the school’s outdoor records in the 5000 (17:31.81) and 10,000 (37:01.65), and led Southern Mississippi to their highest finish ever in Conference USA, 2nd

Upon graduating from USM, with a degree in psychology, she decided to become a full-time runner.

“I trained and ran at USATF races,” Cassandra explained in a recent interview, “devoting all my time to running. My training had noticeably improved. I wasn’t racing as much, so I got much better. It was definitely a good experience, but it was humbling. I got to race against the best, and it taught me a lot, especially about rest and how important it is.

An example of these races is one of the most competitive road races in America, the (September 17, 2005) Cow Harbor, L.I. 10K. That morning 3265 men and women tested their breaking point on an extremely hilly course, and Cassandra finished 36th overall. Casandra, then 23, was 6th among the elite women, in 37:15.3. At a distance that favors the more experienced athlete, she was at least eight years younger than anyone ahead of her, which hinted at a promising future.

“At the end of the year, I was in the best shape of my life. I was ready to PR big. My quarters were much faster than in college, like 65s for ‘hammer quarters’ (every fourth one), and running the others in 69 to 70s. But I got hurt, a tendon in my heel (peroneal tendonitis), which I call the ‘IT band of the lower leg.’ It felt like a rock in my shoe, so it really hurt to the point where I couldn’t run. Obviously, I ran a bad race that day.

 “Now I tell this to my athletes: ‘it’s better to train a little less and still be able to compete, than to be in the best shape of your life and on the sidelines,’ especially when I think they’re getting greedy and pressing it.

“Protecting athletes, up front, is something I think about. I don’t hold a big roster to see who survives. Every athlete matters, and so has value to the program. I really do my best to individualize training, within reason. There are so many variables that a coach can manage: mileage, intensity, and density of training (for example, the amount of rest between quality—read: hard--sessions).

“This is the main problem. They (the athletes) think that the coach has all the answers. But I encourage them to read about the sport, about how to gain the knowledge that will help them; research, be a student of the sport. Don’t jump into anything like a blog. A guy will say anything. Find out from credible people and come back to the coach with that newfound information, and share it. If you told me that this cue works with you, let’s integrate the information into your running program, use it in drills and help to improve your running. Most of it may have to do with the psychology of the sport, which you can research. Different approaches will take hold and resonate.”

What she experienced as a result of her short “professional” career was indeed unfortunate for the athlete, but was instrumental to her development as a future coach, because, soon after that, Cassandra the runner, became Cassandra the coach.

“Wayne Williams, who was the head coach while I was running at Southern Mississippi, hired me. He was the best. He’d been there for years, and at Alabama before that…he’s been around a long time. I coached there for two years, and he taught me a lot. I liked Hattiesburg, and it was fun.”

Keven M. Stephens, who was Williams’ assistant coach, and is now Southern Mississippi’s head coach, still remembers Cassandra and her importance to their program.

 “As a cross country coach at Southern Miss Cassandra did a great job getting the best out of her athletes,” he wrote me. “She was very passionate about distance running and used that passion and hard work to improve her team. It doesn't surprise me that she has been successful at Florida Gulf Coast University.” 

One of those “improvements” alluded to by Stephen was a young lady named Parris Hodges. Cassandra remembers her well.

“I had a girl at Southern Mississippi.Her name was Parris Hodges.  She was very injury prone. She had (chronic) compartment syndrome. Our trainer suggested that recruiting her might be a gamble. But I researched compartment syndrome, and found that she should not have a lot of impact with the ground.

“She came in running 19:48 (for 5K). I had her doing only 25 miles a week, supplemented with a lot of functional strength training, and cross training. After a year and a half, she ran around 17:45 (17:46.16, taking 2nd at the April 19, 2008 LSU Alumni Gold Meet)  and nearly broke my school record. That was a good feeling; helping someone do that. Less was more with her, which, of course, is not true with everyone. Everyone is different. Some like high mileage; they thrive on it. But others don’t need it, and in her case, could get hurt and not reach their full potential.”

“Parris, after I left, transferred to Idaho State.”

After two years as an assistant at USM, a position opened up at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“With this opportunity (at FGCU) popping up, I saw that I could be head of an entire program. It was a relatively new program and school. It was exciting. I could build a legacy. I told the kids: ‘Every time you run, you make history.’

“It was a big change. The program was poorly funded, so I was worried about that. However, the way the school was growing, I hoped that cross country would grow with it.

“In my second year, my girls won their first Division 1 race in history. That year, my men also won their first. Photographers were there, taking pictures and documenting it.

“Every year, the team has gotten better, but so has the (A-Sun) conference with it.”

Last year (2010), despite all previous meet results to the contrary, the team’s A-Sun Conference performance—the Women finished sixth, the Men eighth—was disheartening.

“For the Men (and to a degree, the Women), the conference (meet) was a big disappointment. We were hoping to do better, but we had a lot of injuries and health issues. It was the unluckiest of situations.

“Megan Thies”--who owns the top 4 junior 5K records, and leads the senior 5K record list-- “twisted her ankle the morning of the Conference. Gilbert Chemaoi had a stress reaction (a condition that precedes a fracture). Before it got any worse, we got him off his feet and rested him. But he broke it at the conference meet. Dino Bozzone, from New Zealand, had some health issues. He was really fatigued. He sort of bonked out as soon as he got to (the climate of) south Florida.

“But we’re moving forward. I find that it had a positive element. It brought the team together, built camaraderie, and made them more determined this year. It also gave them a greater sense of purpose. They’re out there together, like a brotherhood. They care about each other and don’t want to let the others down.

In this year’s season opener—the first since the 2010 A-Sun—the Eagles scored big, their men’s team winning over a field that included the University of Miami (FGCU 30 [1-2-6-8-13-14-20], Miami 38 [3-5-7-11-12-19-22]), the women second (Miami 29 [2-3-7-8-9-13-22, FGCU 51 [4-5-11-14-17-20-25]). Of the Eagle scorers, on the men’s side four are sophomores, the other a freshman; for the women one is a freshman, three are sophomores, and only one a junior, evidence that the future is indeed bright.

 “I treat it kind of organically; just let it happen. I just hope that this team continues to learn and improve, and in the end find that running at FGCU makes them better people, not just better runners.”

With a mission statement like that, it’s no wonder that runners, literally, come from near and far to run for FGCU. Argeo Cruz, for example, could conceivably run home to Immokalee for the weekend. Granted, it would be a long run--a very long run--so he usually uses a car when he wants to watch his former team compete, and they sometimes reciprocate. Members of the Immokalee cross country team were on hand to see Cruz finish first, in 20:25.1, at the aforementioned FGCU Invitational season opener on September 2nd.

Casandra says this about Cruz: “Argeo comes from a community that is full of pride. He was excited about coming to a team that was new, and for which he could make an immediate impact. This is something that he did.”

“My main reason for coming here was that my Mom didn’t want me to go too far from home,”  admitted Argeo candidly. “FGCU was my first choice. For my first race this year,” the FGCU Invitational, “almost my whole high school team was there to cheer for me. It was a big inspiration, both for me and for them. I’m really glad I stayed close to home.”

In that 2011 season-opener, he was the first of a trio of sophomores that led the Eagles to the team title. The next finisher was Gilbert Chemaoi.  At home, Gilbert attended Kirobon Secondary School, near Nakuru, Kenya. He started his college experience at Eastern Kentucky, but transferred to FGCU in the fall of 2010, and is now majoring in nursing. Last season he was a redshirt freshman, and at the end of the season competed at the A-Sun Championships in Spartanburg, South Carolina. It was there that I first met him, and he told me about his close friendship with Gilbert Kemboi, who is the top runner at the University of South Carolina Upstate.

“We trained and raced together all the time,” he explained. “When I left from Eastern Kentucky, I came here so that I could run against him. I also get to see Erick Kigen (Belmont), and a few girls (that he knows from Kenya). But the boys and I grew up together.”

All are underclassmen, so their friendship will continue. But while Chamboi got to spend time with his friends at the A-Sun Championship, running it wasn’t all pleasurable.

“I had a stress fracture. I did not run my times, 24:30. I ran like 26.”

Kemboi won the meet in 24:00.84, Kigen was tenth in 25:22, and Chamboi 52nd in 26:50.69. But this is a different season and Chamboi is optimistic about its outcome.

“I tried last week, on Friday. I ran like a 20 (20:39.8),” for four miles. “I’m pretty much there.”

Chris Rudloff, a sophomore like Argeo and Gilbert, lives in Ormond Beach and ran for Mainland High School. It was while there that he claimed the 5 Star Conference Championship his sophomore, junior, and senior years. In the FGCU Invitational, he was the third Eagle finisher--sixth overall--in 21:05.

 “I also considered UNF and Embry Riddle, maybe UWF for awhile, but I didn’t want to go to a big school,” Rudloff explained. “I didn’t want to be distracted. FGCU fit everything perfectly; not too close or far, a decent sized school so I could get academic help if I needed it…and I liked the campus and the coach. After my visit here, I was pretty much set about going here.”

“Chris is also full of pride and determination,” said Cassandra. “He’s as tough as I’ve seen.”

Rudloff’s first impressions of Harbin?

“She just seemed very genuine and was very sweet. She wanted to connect. She had a goal as a coach, and would be hard when she had to be. She had a program that she wanted to improve. She seemed balanced between her coaching and her personality.”

Chris ran the 5K very aggressively while in high school, and had a devastating finishing kick. He ran his fastest time (15:45) when he won the November 7, 2009 3A District 7 Meet. Moving up to 8K, he seems to have made a smooth transition, a feat he attributes to Cassandra.

“I wouldn’t say there were any big bumps. The summer program that she gave me coming into my freshman year was definitely more than I did in high school, but I was comfortable going into the 8K.  It definitely hurt more going up, but I just ran it like my 5K and then hung on for two miles more.”

Of course, the men’s team represents only half ofCassandra’s responsibilities, and at any given time she is prepared to shift full attention to the women’s team.

“Barrie Cohen is currently our women’s school record holder. Hers is kind of a fun story. She came here running 19:20* out of high school, and has really blossomed. She ran 18:13 at the (2010) Conference Championships. This season, her junior year, I think she’s trying to learn more about her race, what she needs to work on, and improve her fitness. For her, she needs to be a true #1 runner, and improve on her times wherever she goes.”

 “When I first came down to FGCU, Cassandra took me on a tour of the school, and I saw how beautiful it was,” Barrie reminisced, “especially the waterfront. She made me comfortable, and I think this was one of the most important things, especially because I came down from New Jersey and for me this would be a home away from home for four years. She did this by showing me how personalized her program was. She wants each runner to reach their own potential, and that is what I was looking for.

“I’ve seen a huge improvement here. I believe in her training system-- I followed it to a “T”--and she told me that if I keep working, I would continue to improve, and that I would get the most out of my running. The more I put into running, the more I would get out of it.”

The same can be said about another junior, Shannon Compher. Compher, a 2009 graduate of Hagerty High School in Oviedo, Florida, first broke 19 at the October 29, 2008 Seminole Athletic Conference Championship (she placed first in 18:59.29). Under Goodson-Harbin, she lowered that to 18:29.72 at the Atlantic Sun Conference Championships (October 30th, 2010), placing 20th.

“This was the furthest (from home) university that I looked at,” Compher said. “The other coaches, whom I met, weren’t as personable.  Cassandra really kept in touch with me about what I was used to (running) in high school, and during the summer helped me to plan what I was going to run while I was here. She always remembered things about my family, and asked me about my personal life. I like that about her.”

Like some of the athletes mentioned, it doesn’t hurt Harbin’s recruiting efforts that she does so from Florida’s newest and most attractive campus. One bonus, for those athletes who’ve never visited there, is North Lake Village, which might just as well have been transported from an island in the Caribbean. Right outside Harbin’s office is a white sandy beach; where swimming, wakeboarding, skiing, and tubing are de rigueur. Next is the expansive—and well-planned--FGCU campus, built on 750 acres, quite close to Florida’s Everglades. (Their hockey team is called the Everblades.) True, it’s hot, but during cross country season, so is most, if not all of Florida. So, whether training in the morning or evening, it has miles of safe, well-lit places to run and bike, and its roads in turn lead to many more well-lit avenues for training.

So, has Cassandra Goodson-Harbin landed in coaching heaven, or what?

“I see the potential in the University.  I love my job, runners, and the people I work with.  It’s an exciting time here.”


*10th in 19:20 at the NJSIAA South Sectional Championships on November 3, 2007