It’s not always easy for athletes to just pick up and leave for another university midway through their college careers after building relationships with coaches, teammates and the school.
To be sure, it’s not always clean and simple.
“It has to be the right fit for both the athlete and program,” LSU track coach Dennis Shaver said. “It also has to be for the right reasons.”
In the case of sprinters Michael Cherry and LaMar Bruton, all three of those boxes were checked in LSU’s favor when they decided to leave Florida State and Ohio State, respectively, last summer.
As 400-meter specialists and experienced 4x400-meter relay members who had gone through recent coaching changes at their schools, both were looking for a fresh start.
They got it at LSU, which was losing half of its 4x400-meter relay team that claimed the title at the NCAA championship: Vernon Norwood, the 2015 NCAA indoor and outdoor champion in the open 400, and Quincy Downing.
That recent success, combined with the program’s history in the 400 and 4x400 relay, were enough to convince Cherry and Bruton to choose LSU over defending national champion Oregon — among others.
“We call it ‘400-meter U,’” Cherry said with a smile. “Coach Shaver knows a lot of things: the sprints, hurdles and relays, and coach Bennie (Brazell) was a national champion in the 4x400 here. Where else would you go?”
Cherry and Bruton are already part of LSU’s history in the relay as they ran on the winning 4x400 at the national indoor meet in March.
They’ll try to help the Tigers to a third consecutive title in the event in the outdoor championships that begin Wednesday in Eugene, Oregon.
Since 2002, LSU has produced five 400 individual champions and eight 4x400 relay winners at NCAA indoor and outdoor meets with elite quarter-milers like Alleyne Francique, Derrick Brew, Xavier Carter, Kelly Willie and Norwood.
“Just look at the history, especially what they’ve done with the 400 meters,” Bruton said. “LSU’s been great in the sprints and hurdles with the men and women, but they’ve consistently had champions in the 400 and the 4x100 and 4x400 relays.”
Brazell, a former 400-meter hurdles, ran on LSU’s 4x400 relay that set the collegiate record of 2 minutes, 59.59 seconds back in 2005 — a mark that still stands.
“They say LSU is the home of the national champs,” Bruton said, “so I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to go to a university that would give me a better chance to prosper.”
While LSU’s success in his events opened Bruton’s eyes, Cherry, the NCAA indoor runner-up in the 400, was impressed by what the Tigers’ staff did with Fitzroy Dunkley.
A native of Jamaica, Dunkley came to LSU as a high jumper and triple jumper, but was converted to the 400 meters and 4x400 relay a year ago with amazing results.
He quickly became an All-American in the 400 and anchored the winning 4x400 relays at the NCAA outdoor meet last spring and indoor meet this winter. He was fifth in the 400 at the NCAA indoor and has the eighth-fastest time in the nation this spring at 45.34 seconds.
“What these coaches did with Fitz was big on me,” said Cherry, who has clocked the third-fastest time in the nation with a 45.17. “I wasn’t running as fast as I thought I should be (at Florida State) and I wanted to go where they could make me better.
“If they can take a jumper and get his times to progress like that, it was like, ‘Why not LSU?’”
Dunkley and fellow senior Cyril Grayson joined Cherry and Bruton to post the fastest 4x400 time in the nation at 3:00.38 at the LSU Alumni Gold meet, which makes them the favorite this week, and also ran 3:00.48 at the Southeastern Conference championships.
That’s a full second faster than the 2015 LSU team that included Norwood, who won gold medals with the U.S. relay team at the World championships last August and in the World Indoor championships in March.
The Tigers had a best of 3:01.63 last spring.
“We’ve certainly run faster than what we did last year,” Shaver said. “Michael and LaMar are partially responsible for that, but Cyril and Fitz have been rock-solid as well. But this group has been good … it’s been a perfect fit.”
So much so that they’ve set their sights on the collegiate record.
“We didn’t come here small-minded,” said Cherry, who’s been friends with Bruton since they competed against each other in junior track. “We expected what we’re doing now to happen and the chemistry is great; we just haven’t done it yet.”
LSU junior sprinter Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake was named Monday the South Central Region track athlete of the year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
Last week, Mitchell-Blake was honored as the SEC outdoor runner of the year after sweeping the titles in the 100 and 200 meters and anchoring the Tigers’ 4x100 relay team to a win at the SEC championships.