Pilots standout takes flight, becomes a Duck
Trevor Dunbar is going to be a Duck, and I can’t help but feel for Rob Conner. Conner is the head men’s cross country and track and field coach at the University of Portland who has been tilting at windmills for 21 years there. During the Conner era at Portland, the Pilots have done more with less than perhaps any program in the country. This fall, Conner’s cross-country team finished second, three points behind Stanford, at the NCAA west regional. UP then placed eighth at the NCAA championships. The seven teams ahead of the Pilots: Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, Colorado, Brigham Young, Stanford, Oklahoma and Indiana. That’s like Virginia Commonwealth crashing basketball’s Final Four with North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky. But it wasn’t a one-shot deal. Portland has finished in the top 10 nationally four times in the last 10 years, including seventh in 2001 and 2005. The Pilots have been dominant in the West Coast Conference for ages, winning 32 straight conference championships until unseated by new conference member BYU this fall. Conner doesn’t run a full track and field program, but his runners compete in invitationals in the spring. He has had at least one runner reach the NCAA meet in each of the past 20 years. Which brings us to Dunbar, a Kodiak, Alaska, native who was the second UP finisher and 26th overall at the NCAA cross-country championships. Next month, Dunbar will transfer to the University of Oregon, and immediately be eligible to run track for the Ducks in the spring. He’ll have three seasons of track and one season of cross country eligibility remaining. Dunbar is excited to be taking his talents to Tracktown USA. “I was thinking about it for a while, and decided that Oregon is going to be the best place to pursue my goal in both cross country and track,” he says. “Now is the time to make a change, to start being around the atmosphere down there, with the team competing for national titles. And hopefully I’ll improve my personal performance as well.” Oregon’s history is rich in both cross country and track and field. UO won the NCAA men’s cross-country title in 2007 and ’08 and the indoor track crown in ’09. The Ducks have won five men’s outdoor track national championships, though none since 1984. “They have an all-around, really good track team, and I’ll be competing at Hayward Field,” Dunbar says. “They’re hosting the Olympic Trials next year (along with the inaugural Pac-12 championships), and they’ll have the NCAA meet my last two seasons. “They pack the stands … it’s just the whole atmosphere that’s good. They’ll have the excitement I think I need for motivation to really perform.” Dunbar has had a full scholarship at Portland, worth $45,000 a year. He is not sure what financial help he will get at Oregon. “I wasn’t paying attention to that,” he says. “I didn’t want to make money a factor when I was thinking about the decision.” Portland must give Dunbar an official release in order for him to become immediately eligible to compete at Oregon. If the Pilots were not to grant him a release, he would have to sit out a year. UP’s outgoing athletic director, Larry Williams, says Dunbar will be given his release. “Everyone has given me the green light,” Dunbar says. “I’ve been blessed to have so much support at Portland. My teammates, my family, Coach Conner — everyone has been really understanding. It’s all been surprisingly supportive.” But what, really, is Conner supposed to do? “I’m not sure I should comment on how I feel,” he says. Truth be told, the UP coach is not happy about losing his best returning cross-country runner to Big Brother in an in-state rivalry that has been surprisingly close the past decade. Oregon offers the NCAA-maximum 12.6 scholarships for track and field and cross-country. Portland is at about half of that, Conner says. Conner divides up his scholarship money, offering anywhere from a full ride to $3,000. Dunbar was one of the few commanding the former. Some will point out that Oregon’s scholarships have to be rationed out to all the track and field events, while Portland’s go exclusively to runners. It costs much more for a student to attend UP than it does to UO, though. And Oregon’s overall cross country/track and field budget — probably the largest in the country — dwarfs that of Portland’s. “Plenty of guys I’ve offered full rides to have gone to Oregon for partials,” Conner says. “Anybody who says we have any advantage against Oregon is completely erroneous.” Somehow, Conner has managed to be competitive. During the past 10 years, the schools are 5-5 against each other at the west regional. “That’s pretty good, even competition,” Conner said. Portland ended 123 points ahead of the sixth-place Ducks at the regional this year. Had Dunbar been competing for Oregon instead of Portland, the Pilots still would have finished 10 points ahead of the Ducks. Dunbar’s 13:42.53 5,000 clocking at last year’s Stanford Track and Field Invitational is second-fastest ever for a Pilot behind Alfred Kipchumba’s school-record 13:40.98 in the same meet. During coach Vin Lananna’s six years at Oregon, only two runners — Galen Rupp and Shadrack Biwott — have run faster. This is the second time a Portland runner has transferred to Oregon during the Conner era and the sixth time dating back further. Each of the athletes was granted his release. Only once has an Oregon runner transferred to Portland — Andy Maris in 1991. UO did not release him, and Maris was forced to sit out a year before becoming eligible to run for the Pilots. “Doesn’t seem fair to me,” Conner says. “Shows you the difference in the schools’ philosophies.” The irony of the situation is, Dunbar’s father, Marcus, also transferred to Oregon after starting his running career at Portland — where he was a teammate of Conner’s from 1983-85. The senior Dunbar, the fastest Alaskan miler ever at 4:00.58, transferred to UO in order to get a physical education endorsement to complete his degree. He lettered two years in track and one year in cross country for the Ducks. “Trevor would have gone there had they offered a scholarship or even called him out of high school,” Conner says. “I did, so he came here. Now he’s good enough to get a scholarship down there.” Scholarship or not, Dunbar will be immersed in the track scene in Eugene during the next 2 1/2 years. Conner will make do with what is left at Portland. The cupboard isn’t bare. Kipchumba, a senior, and Dunbar are gone, but two juniors and three freshmen from the ’11 cross-country team return. Dunbar’s departure “has allowed the other guys already to feel it’s up to them to maintain our success,” Conner says. “One guy is not bigger than the team’s tradition. We have a long history of success, and I’m excited about our young guys.” Dunbar admits to some mixed emotions about leaving the Pilots. “Yeah, I do,” he says. “There’s always going to be that, I guess. I’ll still always follow them. I’ll always want them to do well, and I hope they feel that for me. “It was a tough choice to make, but I’m making it for myself. It’s what I need. Hopefully Coach Conner and I will continue to be on good terms when I see him around.” I’m sure that will happen. Conner is a class act. It’s hard to begrudge Dunbar for moving on to the one of the top programs in the country, to a city where track is more religion than sport. But there’s a tug at my heart for Conner, too, who works his tail off to develop those in his program, then loses one of his best through no fault of his own. Doesn’t seem right. That’s life, I guess.