ANNAPOLIS -- He failed to get the assistant's job the first time he applied for it in 1981, so for Steve Cooksey the thought of coaching track at the Naval Academy never really entered his mind until a meeting three years later with Navy track coach Al Cantello -- the man who made the decision not to hire him.
"We met again at the Olympic trials in Los Angeles in 1984 and he said, 'You want the [assistant coach's] job, come on,' " recalled Cooksey, who was then the head track coach at Ball State. "During the talk Al said, 'The head coach's job will be yours in three years or so.' It was a big surprise."
It proved to be a better-late-than-never move for Navy, who hired Cooksey as an assistant in 1984 and elevated him to the head coaching job in 1988. These past two years have been particularly rewarding for Navy, with it's track team winning four important meets and boosting its long-time reputation as a competitive program.
"In retrospect I probably made a mistake in 1981," said Cantello, a successful head coach at Navy who is now working as Cooksey's assistant. "If you combed the whole country for a guy who belongs at the Naval Academy, he's it."
Cooksey showed why last year when he led the Midshipmen to the title in the outdoor Heptagonals (Ivy Leagues, with Army and Navy) for the first time since 1945, as well as the Colonial Athletic Association outdoors championship. The success has continued this year with the Midshipmen winning the outdoors and indoors Heptagonals (this year's indoors title was Navy's first since 1974).
This weekend, Cooksey will lead 11 athletes into the IC4A's meet at Northeastern University in Boston.
"All we're trying to do here is make the kids believe in themselves," Cooksey said of his team's success. "Once the kids got excited [winning last year's heptagonals] it just snowballed. It's hard to stop that drive, once you get the tradition."
Cooksey, 42, still carries the drive from his days at Indiana State University where he earned All-American honors as well as winning the 1971 Indiana AAU Male Athlete of the Year award for track. Two years after graduating in 1972, Cooksey was named assistant track coach at Ball State. Two years after being named head coach in 1978, Cooksey began his search for another job.
"I'm from Indiana and had been there all my life, and I was just looking for a new place to start over," Cooksey said.
That place became Navy, where there was a lot of mutual respect between Cooksey and Cantello when they began working together in 1984. That later helped for a smooth transition when their roles were reversed in 1988 (Cantello is also Navy's head cross country coach).
"The only real difference now is who has the final say," Cooksey said of the relationship between the two. "I never worried that he was looking over my shoulder because it wasn't my first time being a head coach, and I was confident."
Now Cooksey is trying to instill some of that confidence into performers at a program that had been content with just beating Army.
"Our biggest problem is getting our athletes thinking on a bigger scale," Cooksey said. "Instead of just thinking, 'beat Army, beat Army,' we have to start thinking beyond that to a national level."
What Cooksey, and previous track coaches, have had to deal with is some athletes who love to compete -- but lack the intense, burning desire that drive scholarship athletes at other schools.
"A fairly decent number of our kids qualified for the [East] championships, but a smaller number have decided to go for it," said Cooksey, who realizes the uniqueness of Navy athletes.
"I'm trying to get our kids to realize that they'll miss out on something if they don't try and that later in life they'll wish that they did."
Cooksey is confident that he can get the athletes to respond. "It'll take awhile," he said. And Cooksey, content with his position, he plans on staying as long as it takes.
"I was surprised how much I enjoyed the area, and I always wanted a job where I could teach and coach," said Cooksey, who teaches physical education.
"It's just a good place to be, and a good place to coach."