Rio Grande names Paxton new track, cross country coach
Published 8:19 pm Friday, July 7, 2023
By RANDY PAYTON
Rio Grande Sports Information
RIO GRANDE, Ohio – Admittedly, as a teacher and a successful cross country/track & field coach at Unioto High School in Chillicothe, life has been relatively good to Matt Paxton.
So good, in fact, one could describe his situation as comfortable.
”As a coach, it’s hard to tell your kids that they’re not going to grow unless they’re in situations where they’re a little uncomfortable and then remain in a comfortable situation yourself,” Paxton said. “I think we’ve been to the state cross country meet 18 of the last 20 years and I’ve been the league Coach of the Year 40-some times. I’ve done what I can do there. Sure, there are few little things I still could’ve done but, if I was ever going to make a change, now was the time to do it.”
And that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Paxton has been named the new cross country/track & field head coach at the University of Rio Grande, replacing long-time coach Bob Willey, who stepped down for retirement purposes at the end of June.
”I’ve had a lot of success at Unioto. My wife’s family is from there and we’re entrenched in the community there,” said Paxton. “There are only a few coaching positions elsewhere that I would’ve considered and this was one of them. When it came open, I felt like it was a great opportunity. There are a lot of good things going on here.”
The 48-year-old native of Clendenin, W.Va. is a graduate of Herbert Hoover High School and Ohio University, while also earning a Master’s Degree from Rio Grande in 2009.
Since assuming the coaching reins at Unioto in 2001, Paxton accrued a litany of coaching accomplishments including the Fred Dafler Ohio State Coach of the Year for Ohio Boys Cross Country in 2019, as well as 22 Southeast District Coach of the Year awards.
His decorated resume also includes coaching five OHSAA indoor track and field champions, three OHSAA outdoor track and field champions and the discus champion at the prestigious Penn Relays in 2016.
”Coach Paxton brings a ton of experience to our program and has achieved every level of success at the high school level in the state of Ohio. He has had a major role in building a championship high school program, which we believe will make him an incredible recruiter and coach,” said Rio Grande athletic director Jeff Lanham. “He’s a well-respected coach in the track community – both at the high school and collegiate level – and will be a great asset for Rio and our community. I look forward to the impact he’ll have on both our cross country and track and field programs.”
Paxton and a friend were actually recruited by Willey out of high school, but Paxton opted to accept a last-minute offer to attend Muskingum College and continue his running career there instead.
Still, Willey’s impact during the recruiting process – and the years of success he enjoyed in his more than 40 years of guiding the RedStorm’s programs – left a lasting impression.
”How many schools have had consistency in the coaching ranks since the 70’s? I did get my graduate degree from Rio Grande and coach Willey was a big reason why I came here. I’ve known him, literally, for 35 years – for all of my coaching career and most of my athletic career,” Paxton said. “I want to take the foundation that he’s laid, continue it and – in a few ways – hope to improve it. It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s also a challenge that I’m ready to tackle. One of the big things that I like to do is to develop the culture of a program and that’s already done at Unioto, but here it’s stepping into a lot of change.”
Paxton, who is a 14-time qualifier and six-time participant in the Boston Marathon – including each of the last two such races- said one of his top priorities will be to meet with the athletes who are already in the program before the fall semester begins, noting that retaining as many of the would-be returnees is crucial.
And while his opportunities to recruit for the upcoming season are difficult due to the timing of the coaching change, the process is something he’s looking forward to moving forward.
”I know a lot of coaches between southeastern Ohio and in West Virginia and there’s a lot of things I’ve been involved in to advance that networking, so that’s definitely going to help,” said Paxton. “It’s exciting for me, though, because now I’m not limited to the population of the school district. I’ve always been the guy wondering the halls looking for people to get into our program. I think we had 15 percent of our student body at Unioto on our track & field team, which is huge because our school district offers so many other sports. It’s not like I was the only show in town.”
Paxton added that he believes there’s no limit to exactly how big that the cross country and track programs at Rio can become.
”We want as many people as we can get in the program and we’re in a perfect position here in southeast Ohio to make that happen,” he said. “We’re not limited like they are in northern Ohio, for example, by having so many people in such a small area. For a lot of the kids around here who can run and throw and jump, this is their closest place. The cool thing is the opportunity to go out and talk to kids from different schools as opposed to dealing with whomever happens to be in your district.”
Lanham added that he’s confident the search committee made the correct choice in finding a replacement for Willey.
”We are blessed to have Matt lead our program and I have no doubt that he’ll continue to build on the Rio culture of a student-centered program and lead the student-athletes to their most successful selves, both in sport and in life,” he said.
The task of replacing a coach of Willey’s stature might be considered a daunting one for some coaches, but it’s a challenge that Paxton is willing to attack head-on.
“Anytime you’re the one replacing a Hall of Famer, there’s going to be the pressure of expectation. But that’s also the nature of athletics,” said Paxton. “This position allows me to continue to do what I enjoy and to make an impact on kids from Appalachia. I’ve got enough coaching years left that I think can establish a dominant program here and continue to improve on it. It was a great opportunity and it came at the right time.”