The former FSU assistant has earned this opportunity. “He is more than prepared to be a head coach. He could’ve been, and should’ve been, many times over,” said Seminoles head coach Bob Braman, echoing the sentiments of UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham and former UNC head coach Dennis Craddock — and Meaders doesn’t take that for granted.
“The opportunity to come back to UNC was something that I couldn’t pass up,” Meaders said. “I’ve got a love for the University and a love for the sport.”
The story of Harlis Meaders started in 1984 at Sun Valley High School, home of the Spartans and a future ACC-caliber athlete and coach.
It was there that a young Meaders developed into an All-American thrower and absorbed the coaching wisdom of his high school coach, one of many mentors who shaped his teaching style and inspired his ascent to the top of the coaching ranks.
When Meaders graduated in 1988, he carried the distinction of being the No. 3 discus thrower in the country and recipient of a track and field scholarship to UNC.
Meaders arrived in Chapel Hill later that year and began a college career that remains one of the most successful in program history.
He won three individual ACC titles and captained the 1992 ACC Outdoor Championship team, then qualified for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials. His school-record discus throw stood for 11 years.
After he left UNC, Meaders worked for three years at Western Carolina University as an assistant before he started his 18-year stint in Tallahassee in 1994.
At FSU, Meaders worked his way up from recruiting coordinator to associate head coach, a position he held since 2004.
“He had many opportunities to become a head coach, but he was invested in the program and committed to what we were doing,” said Braman, who beat out Meaders for the head coaching vacancy in 2004. “He’s really been a co-head coach for me for the past nine years.”
Meaders coached 11 different Seminoles to 22 ACC titles and helped sculpt the men’s and women’s cross country programs into national powers.
But Meaders’ most renowned individual accomplishment, by all accounts, is coaching the first Rhodes scholar student-athlete in school history, Garrett Johnson.
“From an individual standpoint, having Garrett Johnson be a two-time NCAA champion and a Rhodes Scholar is one of the things that definitely sticks out,” Meaders said.
Understandably so, but Meaders is quick to add that “the overall concept is about the team,” and that philosophy is what has fueled his success.
“Coach Meaders is on a day-to-day basis very calm, very steady. He’s a great leader and a great mentor,” Braman said. “He led a men’s mentoring program when he was here at FSU, not just for track, but (for) the whole athletic department.”
That’s the Meaders on display most often, Braman said. But when it came to competitions, the soft-spoken assistant proved to be the team’s emotional leader.
“He’s got a really great motivational speaking ability — he always got the team fired up before big meets,” Braman said. “You won’t see that side of him in public, but behind closed doors the day before a big meet, he really gets the guys pumped up … I left that role for him.”
So Meaders brings all these accolades, and all of this knowledge and experience, to Chapel Hill, where he is the only black head coach on campus. The only other full-time black coach was Hubert West, track coach in 1982-83.
Race isn’t a factor for him, though, and while he admits “it is something (he) thought about” when he accepted the position, he treats the job like anyone else would.
“It’s my desire not just to be the first (black head coach),” Meaders said. “But my true goal is to be the next great coach.”
The most daunting task though, is replacing Craddock, the man responsible for more ACC titles than any other coach of any sport in conference history.
Most would be overwhelmed. Meaders isn’t.
“I helped (FSU) evolve from a mildly successful program to one of the better programs in the country. I’ve been down this course before,” he said. “I know the hard work and the trust we got to feel with our kids to really put forth a team capable of competing at the highest level.
“I think we are on the verge of really doing something special here with the track and cross country programs.”
So that’s how this driven discus thrower from Monroe went from heralded recruit to landing the head coaching job at his alma mater.
The story of Harlis Meaders isn’t complete, though — the 2012-13 season is the next chapter.
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