Rock Chalk Weekly: Jumping on Top of the World

Written by Ryan Levine, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant

Ryan Hays always knew his dad was a good coach.  However, it was not until he took a trip halfway across the world for him to really appreciate how popular his dad is amongst the pole vaulting community. 
At the southern tip of Africa, he met up with a South African father whose son wanted to go to college in the United States.  After Ryan was introduced to the father as “Ryan Hays from Kansas,” the names ‘Hays’ and ‘Kansas’ rang a bell to the father, leading him to ask Ryan if he knew the pole vaulting coach at the University of Kansas.
“I told him, ‘Well, as a matter of fact that’s my dad,'” Ryan said in response to the father’s question.  “And the guy goes, ‘No way! I’ve been researching coaches in the U.S. and your dad is in my top-five (of coaches) to send my son to the U.S. and jump for.'”
Ryan was shocked to hear that his dad, Tom Hays – from small town McLouth, Kansas — was known thousands of miles away from home.  The coach, who has a track record of success longer than a track itself, has transformed Kansas into more than just a basketball powerhouse. 
In his 11th season at KU, he has coached a total of five NCAA Champions (three men, two women), 17 All-Americans (11 women, six men), and was named the 2011 National Collegiate Pole Vault Coach of the Year after Jordan Scott won the outdoor pole vault in 2010. 
Yet, the list of accolades for Hays is not what seems to be most impressive.  It is the fact that he does not even know how many honors he or his athletes have earned.  Instead, Hays uses those awards to encourage his entire team to strive for more success.
“I try to use it (the awards) as motivation for the team so they can reach out and touch it, grab it, and feel it — to know what they are going for.  If we can just keep getting it done and pay attention to details, good things happen,” Hays said humbly.
Motivating his athletes has always been part of his coaching mentality, but coming up with a coaching philosophy was never an easy task.  When Hays first started his career, he was unsure of the kinds of ideas he wanted to instill in his athletes.
To help pinpoint his coaching philosophy, Hays looked to his own father, Howard, who is his “best friend by far.”  The elder Hays started the conversation with one simple question for his son: “What’s your philosophy of coaching?”  Not sure of how to answer the question, Hays told him that he did not know.
A week later, he came back and asked Hays the same question: “What’s your philosophy of coaching?”  Still without an answer, Hays admitted to his father that he had yet to figure it out. 
So like most fathers do, he dished out his own advice on what he believed his son’s coaching philosophy should be. 
“He told me ‘You’re trying to get rid of those athletes’ limitations.  Don’t look at how good they can be.  Just take as many limitations off of them as you can, and they will end up chasing a bigger dream,'” Hays recalled.  “I kind of adapted that and that’s my goal here – get a kid here and take the limitations off them.” 
If removing the limitations from his athletes has been the goal, then Hays undoubtedly surpassed it, because the amount of success he has achieved is second to none.  As the pole vaulting coach at Kansas for over a decade now, Hays has kept Jayhawk pole vaulting as the home to one of the best pole vaulting programs in the country.
“As a pole vaulter, Kansas is in that top three (programs).  Every year we have the top one, two, or three recruits in the country coming in,” Hays said.
Yet, the wining mentality he inspires in athletes did not just start when he chose to come back and coach his alma mater in 2004.  It began in 1983, when he started his own pole vaulting career, under coaches Roger Bowen and Rick Attig.  
During this time, Hays competed with some of the best pole vaulters of the era.  By surrounding himself with greatness, Hays learned what it took to vault at the highest level.
Being around teammates like Jeff Buckingham and Scott Huffman, each of whom held the American pole vault record at one time in their prestigious careers, is what Hays remembers as some of his favorite moments as an athlete.
“There’s been a bunch (of moments) and as an athlete it was sometimes watching my best friends, like Jeff Buckingham set an American record, and Scott Huffman set the all-time NCAA record for a freshman – that was fun to watch,” Hays said, smiling.
In order to continue the great pole vaulting tradition at Kansas, the level of expectations Hays must meet are no doubt challenging.  The process it takes to meet that challenge, however, is something Hays takes great pride in, and to have vaulting legends like Buckingham and Huffman set that standard for current athletes is what has helped him sustain success throughout the years. 
Hays has coached a number of prominent athletes over his 10-plus seasons at Kansas, many of whom have won multiple kinds of championships, but watching his son, Ryan, compete was one of the most satisfying.
“It’s always a pleasure to work with your own kid and it is very rewarding to watch him become successful,” Hays said about his son.
Hays was not always with Ryan though.  Ryan’s collegiate career began away from Lawrence, as he attended the University of Lindenwood in Saint Charles, Missouri his freshman year.  After realizing what he was missing out on, the younger Hays decided to come back to Lawrence to don the Crimson and Blue.
“By being there (at Lindenwood), I realized how good of a coach he (Hays) was.  It’s not ‘dad’ anymore… (I realized) at home, I had one of the top-five collegiate pole vaulting coaches in the country,” Ryan said. 
So he transferred and then redshirted his first year at Kansas.  By demonstrating hard work through his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Ryan earned himself the title as one of the captains of the track & field team for his junior and senior season.  With the help of his dad – who was also his event coach – he would eventually place fifth at the 2010 Big 12 Outdoor Championships, clearing 17 feet for the first time in his career. 
Ryan’s hard work is just a mere reflection of the kinds of athletes his father recruits – young men and women who leave nothing behind.  He is most proud of those that give 100 percent of their effort when they are asked to do something.
“As a coach, you give a lot to those that give back and try as hard as they can everyday to do what you ask them to do, and they don’t take a play off,” Hays said of his pole vaulters.  “The kids that figure that out early have a fun time here.”
Seeing his athletes grow and prosper in ways, which even they themselves did not sometimes believe could happen, is what Hays says makes his job most enjoyable.   The eagerness and commitment they show their coach is why Hays himself is so passionate in what he does on a daily basis. 
“My wife says, ‘You show up and you go to recess every day,'” Hays explained.  “We show up and we get to work with young kids and we get to chase their dreams.  How can you not be excited about that?”
As a sport that occurs year-round, referring to track & field as ‘recess’ might be the best way to describe what happens at a meet.  With as many as four – sometimes even five – events happening at once, nothing ever stops and trying to concentrate on one particular event can be tiring for anybody.
Not Hays.  He never gets burnt out from the opportunity to be around college athletes.  Not because he doesn’t look at what he does as a job, which he doesn’t, but because in his eyes the term does not exist.
“I don’t even know if I believe in ‘burnt out,'” Hays said.  “I think if you work hard at something, you start to like it.  The harder you work the more it just snowballs.”
With that mentality, it is no wonder why Tom Hays is known as one of the best pole vault coaches across the world.

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