ATHENS — There’s a pretty cool video bouncing around the Internet of the women’s 4-x-400-meter relay finals from the NCAA Track and Field Championships this past Saturday. It features an incredible finish by Southern Cal’s Kendall Ellis, who made up about a 25-yard deficit over the final stretch and lunged at the finish line to edge Purdue and, ultimately, clinch the overall national championship for the Trojans.
Here’s the other side of that story: That dramatic conclusion was all that prevented Georgia scoring a rare double national championship in track.
The Bulldogs’ men already had secured the first national title in school history on Friday. Georgia’s women — which came to Oregon ranked No. 1, had won the indoor national championship earlier this year and finished second in the outdoor championships by 1.5 points in 2017 — needed any other team other than Southern Cal to win the 4×400 relay to secure the championship for itself. Georgia held a nine-point lead going into last event in the meet. It lost by one point.
“Some call it Hayward Field magic; I call it the Hayward Field curse,” Petros Kyprianou, head coach for both Georgia’s men’s and women’s teams, said of Oregon’s track stadium of national renown. “But if you’re a logic and analytical person like I try to be most of the time, you sit back and realize what we’ve done is amazing, but you control what you can control. Had we just had one or two more points in the long jump, if it hadn’t been pouring rain so hard in the high jump … it would’ve been a done deal and we wouldn’t have had to worry about the 4-by-4.
“But USC wanted it and the way they won it they kind of deserve it. We should’ve done better where we had control. But finishing first and second, you can’t get much better than that.”
No, you can’t. And that’s part of the incredible story that Kyprianou is writing as Georgia’s track coach. That he’s done what he’s done in just three years is amazing. That he called it from the outset makes it legendary.
When Athletic Director Greg McGarity decided to promote Kyprianou to head coach in June of 2015, he did so partly because of Kyprianou’s promise that he would bring Georgia a track and field national championship within three years. It wasn’t that McGarity believed him, necessarily, but it was the combination of Kyprianou’s confidence coupled with his detailed plan on how to make it happen.
Not only did Kyprianou deliver with the women’s indoor national championship earlier this year, he has come within 2.5 points of collecting four gold plaques for the Bulldogs’ trophy case.
“Did we think it would happen this fast? No,” said McGarity, watching Kyprianou and seven of the team’s eight scorers go through interviews Monday at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. “He probably did. I’m a very patient person and knew he was doing a good job. But to say I knew he’d achieve these milestones — two national championships in one year — that’s a dream come true.”
Kyprianou epitomizes the American dream. He comes from one of the tiniest countries on the planet, Cyprus, and the city of Limassol. He emerged from there as a decathlete, winning several national championships from 1991-99. His athletic talent provided him an education at Aristotle University in Greece. From there he came stateside and completed a master’s degree in exercise science and biomechanics from Nebraska.
Former Georgia track coach Wayne Norton plucked Kyprianou from Boise State, where he had emerged as a rising star, and brought him to Athens as “multi-events” coach in 2009. His charges immediately began winning national titles, and that’s why the Bulldogs moved up the ranks in the years before McGarity tabbed Kyprianou for promotion three years ago.
“We knew he had tremendous potential by the way his student-athletes performed,” McGarity said. “But we also knew he was driven to excel. He’s one of our coaches that’s so ahead of the curve as far as training techniques, as far as the mental aspect of the sport, the growth mindset. He studies and he’s such a perfectionist in all that he does, and I think that translates over to his athletes.”
Kyprianou is a rarity on a number of fronts. A certified trainer and a competitive weightlifter himself, he serves as the Bulldogs’ strength and conditioning coach. He had a weight room installed underneath the grandstand at Spec Towns track and personally oversees all the athletes’ strength training. He’s a meticulous organizer and personally writes out Georgia’s daily practice plan and follows it with a daily practice critiques. He’s also known as a relentless recruiter with international ties and reach.
The results speak for themselves. The women’s finishes in the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships the last three seasons have been, respectively, 3 and 3, 2 and 2, and 1 and 2. The men’s improvement has been exponential, from 24 and 29, to 4 and 6, and now 3 and 1.
“He definitely knows what he’s doing,” said Denzel Comenentia, a junior from Amsterdam who won both the hammer and shot put titles to give the Bulldogs 20 points last week. “He knows how to build champions. And he’s just getting started.”
About this Kyprianou does not appear particularly surprised.
“I knew having this type of quality we’d make it happen,” Kyprianou said Monday. “It comes down to recruiting and good coaching. You can get the top dogs to come in, but it takes a special support cast to get them to perform at that level. Showing up and showing out, it’s what defines Georgia track and field.”
That’s what has really set apart Kyprianou’s teams so far. They seem to perform at their peak-level best on the national stage.
“When it comes down to it, you have to have a sniper’s attitude,” Kyprianou said. “One shot, one kill.”
It looks like the Bulldogs have themselves a sharpshooter of track coach.