When you think of the biggest and best track & field and cross country meets in the country, two that come immediately to mind are the New Balance Nationals Outdoor in Greensboro, North Carolina and the Great American XC Festival and HBCU Challenge 70 miles away in Cary, N.C.
Jim Spier led the NSAF in bringing those two blockbuster events to the Tar Heel State, where they have now resided for 26 and 14 years, respectively. So when Brett Honeycutt prepared to launch the new North Carolina Track & Field and Cross Country Hall of Fame a few years ago, the Foundation’s executive director and co-founder was one the first names that came to mind. Spier was selected earlier this week with 13 others for the Hall’s second class, to be inducted on Saturday, February 1, 2020 during the Mondo Elite Invitational at the JDL Fast Track in Winston-Salem. Fittingly, the Mondo Elite meet is one of the NSAF’s Select Meets for 2019-20.
“As far as electing Jim, I thought the nomination was a no-brainer,” said Honeycutt. “I ran it by a few people before I nominated him, and they all agreed. It’s a great choice for all that he’s done for the sport in North Carolina. He (along with NSAF co-founder Mike Byrnes) was so instrumental in bringing outdoor nationals here and also Great American – both of which allowed athletes in our state convenient access to two of the best meets in the country. That helps the sport nationally and locally, but it made sense because we have so many great athletes here.
“He also, in turn, exposed a lot of athletes and coaches to the great work that NSAF does in and outside of the state, from the throws summit to the Caribbean meet (in which North Carolina athletes have competed).”
Spier inspired the selection committee not just because of what he has brought to the state with the meets, but who he has been as a person while doing so. That was what most moved Roy Cooper – a committee member and the longtime coach at Apex HS, who has also helped the NSAF stage its events here. “There are a lot of egos involved in sports at every level, but that does not apply to Jim,” he said. “From my point of view, he does it for the purest of reasons. The vision that he first shared with Mike many years ago, to provide opportunities to prepare U.S. high school track and field athletes to compete on a world stage, still holds true. And that is really it. I know that he values what his staff at the NSAF does to put these events on and he goes to great lengths to make sure we know that he appreciates us.
“But he does not want or seek the accolades. He is happy to direct these meets and happier still when he can actually get to watch some of the events. So I admire his work ethic, graciousness, leadership, and his ability to bring to fruition a vision that has had a profound effect on hundreds of thousands of high school athletes. He is a great role model for many people, myself included.”
Spier was certainly not expecting such an honor. “It was quite a surprise and quite humbling,” he said. “I was just doing what I like to do, so to be recognized is a bonus, especially in such a welcoming state – given that I had moved from New York to North Carolina in 1989.”
The NSAF’s outdoor championships were first held in California from 1991-93 and, when that contract was up, Spier said, a Carolina connection emerged as an exciting option. “Mike Byrnes and I had gotten to know (future NSAF board member) John Blackburn, who was then a PhD candidate at N.C. State. John had been a volunteer official there. He contacted Rollie Geiger and asked if we could hold the meet there. Rollie said, “Sure.” So we put something together in five weeks. It was Mike and I and my wife Verna, who was in charge of admissions and hospitality (among other things).”
Then in 2004-05, the N.C. State track was being renovated and the meet was moved to North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, where it will celebrate its 16th running there in 2020.
Meanwhile, the Great American XC Festival was founded by Rick Hill in 1999 and he sold it to the NSAF shortly before the 2002 meet – which was held in Charlotte. But relocation was soon to come. “We knew of the cross country course being developed in Cary and were interested in bringing the meet there,” recalled Spier. “I was part of the course design, mainly led by Rollie Geiger and Roy Cooper’s father, a Forestry Professor at N.C. State.
“Patrick Joyce was also heavily involved, especially in the early years. The event was well received and, with the help of the Raleigh Sports Commission (Scott Dupree) and the Town of Cary, it has prospered. We reached our peak this year, with 3,500 athletes.” The HBCU Challenge was added in 2009 when the meet returned to Cary after three years in Alabama.
Spier will not actually be able to attend the Feb. 1 induction ceremony – the Foundation is once again taking 12 Team NSAF athletes to Iceland for the Reykjavik International Games that weekend. But he will certainly be in Winston-Salem in spirit and looks forward to Greensboro in June and Cary in October. “We love North Carolina and have no intention of ever moving the events.”
It is also fitting that Spier will be inducted into an institution for which the Foundation’s own Hall was an example. “I wanted a way to honor the athletes and coaches who have accomplished so much and done so much for the sport,” said Honeycutt, “and after seeing the National High School Track & Field Hall of Fame that was started, I knew we had to do it.”
Photo credits: Top photo by Walter Pinion at 2019 NBNO; other photos by Joy Kamani and NSAF staff, including (2nd from top) Jim with Kim Walker at 2013 NBNO, honoring her late husband and NSAF board member, Cedric Walker; (3rd from top) Jim checking out the patchwork quilt at the HBCU Challenge tent in 2014; (bottom left) Jim being interviewed in Cuba during a Team NSAF trip; (bottom right) Team NSAF, including Jim at far right, returning from its first Iceland trip last February.