Throughout his lengthy career with the Navy men's track and field program, head coach Stephen Cooksey preached the principles of preparation and hard work as keys to success. His student-athletes took those lessons and won a slew of championships.
Cooksey will retire from the Naval Academy Aug. 30 after 29 distinguished seasons at the helm of the program that has dominated the Patriot League and turned out a succession of All-Americans.
Under Cooksey's guidance, the Midshipmen won 14 Patriot League championships -- nine indoors, five outdoors. In addition, Navy won five Heptagonal championships, taking three straight outdoor crowns from 1991-1993 and the 1992 and 1993 indoor titles. The Midshipmen also captured the 1991 Colonial Athletic Association outdoor championship.
Cooksey's athletes earned All-America honors 23 times. The most recent All-American was senior Lucas Stalnaker, who finished fifth in the 10,000-meter run at the 2017 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore. Cooksey's most accomplished athlete was four-time All-American Greg Keller, who earned national recognition indoors (mile, 1992 and 1993) and outdoors (steeplechase, 1992 and 1993).
Athletes also excelled academically under Cooksey. During Cooksey's final season as Navy head coach, senior distance runner Ryan Speir earned first-team Academic All-America honors from the College Sports Information Directors of America. Speir was the 13th Navy track and field athlete to be named an Academic All-American during Cooksey's tenure.
Cooksey is ending his coaching career with the Midshipmen on a championship roll. Navy has earned five consecutive Patriot League indoor titles and four straight outdoor crowns. Still, Cooksey believed this was the right time for him to leave.
"I just felt like I needed to give it over to the younger guys," said the 67-year-old Cooksey, who will also retire from his position as an associate professor in Navy's physical education department. "It's time to get new blood in here and keep this thing going."
Once his retirement officially takes effect, the longtime head coach will get to see his family more frequently.
"The time goes by so fast," said Cooksey, who lives in Annapolis, Md. "I talked to my wife, Val, and my daughter, Brooke, about it, and decided that I wanted to spend more time with them."
Cooksey's teams compiled a 353-48 dual-meet record. Cooksey, who earned the Patriot League's Coach of the Year honor 14 times, also guided Navy to a 37-21 mark against archrival Army West Point, including nine indoor and outdoor sweeps of the Black Knights in the past 17 years.
His track and field legacy started at Indiana State University, where Cooksey earned All-America honors as a high jumper. Cooksey began his collegiate coaching career at Ball State two years after his 1972 graduation from Indiana State. During his 10 years at Ball State, the last six as the Cardinals' head coach, Cooksey developed an NCAA champion and a trio of All-Americans.
Cooksey left Ball State after the 1984 spring season and spent the rest of his career at Navy. He served as an assistant coach for the cross country and track and field teams under Al Cantello for four seasons before becoming the head men's track and field coach in 1988.
"Steve proved to be a gem," said Cantello, who is now an assistant coach for the Navy men's track and field team and also serves as the Academy's head men's cross country coach. "He's true to the core, and there's nothing phony about him. Steve was a perfect gentleman who had great expertise and was very consistent in his approach. He would give a Mid every possible chance to improve. The Naval Academy did well by Steve Cooksey."
Cooksey's indoor and outdoor teams combined for 56 winning records and 22 undefeated seasons in dual-meet competition. Navy's outdoor team hasn't lost a dual meet since the 2011 season.
Cooksey's impact was felt beyond the Navy program. He was the head coach of the U.S. team that won the World Junior outdoor championship in 1998 and the U.S. squad that took the 2008 World indoor title.
Cooksey insisted the work ethic of his student-athletes was the key to Navy's continuing success.
"It was about our kids doing the work to get themselves ready for competition," Cooksey said. "If you're going to meet your goals, you're going to have to work hard. You have to go through the grind of being out there every day. Sacrifice and hard work have propelled us along."
Despite the unique demands of coaching at a service academy, Cooksey's approach didn't vary much over the years at Navy.
"I always stayed with the idea that this is supposed to be about education," he said. "At Navy, our kids are very bright and hard-working, and we need to give them the time to do what they need to do here. They have a lot more on their plate here than they do at a state university."
Cooksey is wistful as he looks back on his storied Navy coaching career.
"The coaching years and days are very special," Cooksey said. "For me, it's always been about the kids. Watching the kids work to get to a higher level has been rewarding. I'll miss seeing them get better and better, and I'll also miss the staff here at Navy."
Issue 235: July 2017