In 1965, a young freshman sprinter named Bob Kitchens entered the world of collegiate track & field at Texas Tech as a walk-on. When he retired from that world nearly four-and-a-half decades later, he was one of its coaching icons.
Between tenures as the head coach at UTEP, Mississippi State and West Texas A&M, Kitchens accumulated a legacy that combined numerable successes at both the individual and team levels. His athletes earned a combined 26 NCAA national titles and 265 All-America honors, with his teams pooling for 18 conference titles and a half-dozen top-five finishes at NCAA Championship meets.
The root of Kitchens’ success came in the sprint events, as he was able to draw on his experience as a walk-on-turned-scholarship-sprinter to mentor some of the fastest men and women the world has ever known. Such stars as Lorenzo Daniel and Obadele Thompson clocked times so fast their names still resound on the world stage, and such former charges as Blessing Okagbare continue to make names for themselves internationally.
After an 11-year tenure at the helm of the West Texas A&M program – including the women’s team he started in 1978 – Kitchens took over the job as the head men’s track & field coach at Mississippi State in 1979. It was there in Starkville he would mold Daniel into a sensation. Under Kitchens’ guidance during his freshman 1985 season, he showed flashes of what was yet to come with a World Junior-record 20.07 clocking over 200 meters. Not until the rise of one Usain Bolt nearly two decades later would that record fall, and it still stands as the sixth-fastest time on the list.
Kitchens and Daniel worked to make the most of the star sprinter’s 1988 senior season, and it paid off with historic dividends. By mid-May, Daniel had already run 19.93 to break the collegiate record at 200 meters and he wasn’t done there. The following month at the NCAA Championships, Kitchens watched as his star pupil ran 19.87 to win the national title with a collegiate record that wouldn’t be touched until Justin Gatlin edged it out by one one-hundredth of a second in 2002.
Kitchens made the move from Starkville to El Paso, Texas, later that year, where he would cement his legacy as one of the nation’s premier sprint coaches at UTEP, reinventing a program previously known for its distance runners in the decade before. Over the next 22 years, he would personally mentor 10 individual NCAA champion sprinters and 84 All-Americans – an average of nearly four per year.
But his success would spread far beyond just the sprints. Under his watch, the entirety of the Miner program produced 231 All-America honors and 23 NCAA event titles. His men and women combined for 16 conference titles and 15 top-10 finishes at either the NCAA Indoor or Outdoor Championships, highlighted by a streak in 1992-94 where his men were top-six at both NCAA meets. That run culminated in 1994 when his Miners were the national outdoor runners-up and third indoors.
As always, sprinters made up the core of his teams. In 1992, he guided Olapade Adeniken to a sweep of the NCAA Outdoor 100- and 200-meter national titles as his men finished fifth overall. Jim Svenoy would win the steeplechase title in 1994, the year the legend of Obadele Thompson was just beginning.
Kitchens built Thompson not only into one of the best collegiate sprinters of all time, but one of the fastest in the history of the world. By 1994, Thompson had already run 10.08A as a freshman for what was then the third-fastest time in world history by a U20 athlete.
In 1996, Kitchens coached Thompson to a blistering 5.99A at 55 meters, which still stands as the world record. He would go on to win the NCAA indoor title at 200 meters in a then-collegiate record 20.36, which stood until 2000. Outdoors, he ran a very windy 9.69Aw (+5.7m/s) over 100 meters; that stood as the all-conditions fastest time in world history for 12 years, and only Bolt, Tyson Gay and Yohan Blake have ever run faster.
Injury prevented him from NCAA Championships glory in 1996, but he came back with a vengeance in 1997. Under Kitchens’ tutelage, Thompson swept the national titles at 100 and 200 meters.
His men’s teams were strong throughout his tenure in El Paso, recording top-10 finishes as early as 1992 and as late as 2006, but the end of his run at UTEP belonged to the women’s team. The Miner women turned in their first top-10 outdoor finish ever in 2008, a prelude for what was to come in Kitchens’ final season in 2010. UTEP was seventh overall both indoors and outdoors for the best finishes in program history.
Leading the charge was – who else? – another sprint phenom in Blessing Okagbare. She won a combined four NCAA titles that season, two each indoors and out, and would eventually become a Finalist for The Bowerman Award.
Okagbare remains among the world’s best to this day. A bronze medalist at the 2008 Olympics, Okagbare accounts for one of the six medals won by Kitchens-coached athletes, who number 47 total.