James Li retires, Dave Murray takes over UA cross country

If you’re looking for a good example of a steady, consistently-good college sports program, the University of Arizona track & field program would be a good place to start the search.

James Li, who has been the head coach for the school’s nationally-renown cross country program, retired last week after 18 years in that position.

He was quickly replaced by a man that spent 34 years directing the entire UA track & field program, Dave Murray.

And Murray was brought in to serve as interim cross country boss by the current T&F director, Fred Harvey, who has devoted 33 years to the program, 15 years as an assistant coach and the last 18 as director.

Do the math.  That’s 85 years of service and devotion from just three men.  Now, that’s continuity.

That’s how you build tradition in a program, by getting and keeping good coaches.

Murray will be working with Bernard Lagat and Doug Keen as the interim coaching staff that will hold down the fort until a national search can be conducted for a permanent replacement for Li, who was a two-time Pac-12 Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year.

The 59-year-old Li (above photo) led seven cross country teams to NCAA titles and coached 24 Pac-12 individual champions and 10 NCAA champions.  His 2013 women’s team was the first UA team to win a conference title in the Pac-12 era.  That team also finished second at the NCAA Championships.

But Murray’s accomplishments were even more impressive.  From the time that he took over the cross country program in 1968 to his final season in 2002, Murry built one of the top programs in the nation, producing numerous NCAA and Pac-10 Conference champions.

Under his direction, UA churned out 28 individual national champions, nine conference champions, and nearly 30 Olympians.

This time, Murray will have the advantage of working with an experienced staff that is already on board.  Lagat, who came to the Arizona program 15 years ago to serve as a volunteer coach, is an 11-time All-American and two-time Olympic medalist.  The native of Kenya, something of a legend in the sport, is the American record-holder in the 1500-meter and mile run indoors, and the 1500m, 3000m, and 5000m outdoors.

Keen was a two-time national-champion distance runner at the University of Arkansas where he was a member of the 1986 cross country national championship team and the 1987 indoor track & field national champ.  Before joining the UA program, he led Catalina Foothills HS to four 4A-I state titles as that Tucson school’s head coach.

Since it took just a few days for Coach Harvey to bring Murray into the fold, the interim staff is already busy preparing for the spring cross country and track & field season.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)