Villanova has a long and proud tradition of excellence in the mid-distance and distance events, and few coaches in the school’s storied history have left as significant an impact as did Marty Stern.
Leading the Wildcats’ women’s program from 1984 through 1994, Stern oversaw an era of Nova distance running in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that no women’s program has ever matched. Stern watched as his Wildcats reeled off an unprecedented five consecutive NCAA Division I Cross Country team titles from 1989 through 1983 in an era peppered with individual champs on the grass and on the track.
He coached 145 All-Americans, 21 individual NCAA champions, 12 collegiate record holders, 22 Big East titles, 21 Penn Relay Championship of America titles, 12 world Records, eight American records, 13 Olympians, and 4 world champions.
Before he was Nova’s “Uncle Marty,” Stern headed a number of successful high school teams in the 1960s, the 1970s and into the 1980s, including stops at St. James High School, Malvern Preps, and Central Bucks High School. He spent two seasons at Delaware Valley College in 1982-83 before joining the Villanova staff for the 1983-84 academic year as a volunteer assistant coach under men’s & women’s head coach Charles Jenkins.
The following year, the decision was made for Jenkins to focus on exclusively coaching the men’s program, opening the door for Stern to become the women’s head coach. It didn’t take long for his women to make an impact on the national stage.
His 4×800 relay women won the NCAA Indoor title in 1985, kicking off a streak of success on the track that resulted in 19 national event titles over the next decade. With the exception of 1986, the Wildcat women brought home at least one national title each year from 1985 through 1994.
Behind a pair of indoor national titles in 1987 from the 4×800 relay and Vicki Huber at 3000 meters, Stern’s women finished third overall to set into motion a string of eight consecutive top-10 finishes at the NCAA Indoor Championships.
Huber and the 4×8 were the cornerstones of Stern’s teams in 1988 and 1989 that finished as runners-up. Huber was particularly dominant, winning the mile and 3000 titles in ’88 – and eventually finishing sixth at the Seoul Olympics over 3000 meters as Nova’s first-ever female Olympian – and the 3000 title for a third time in ’89. She matched that outdoors with three consecutive titles over that distance from 1987 through 1989.
Those two years set the stage for the capstone of Stern’s career at Villanova: the five-year reign of the Wildcat women over NCAA cross country from 1989 through 1993. Five consecutive national team titles, five consecutive individual national titles, and three of the biggest wins in meet history. No other team has won more than three consecutive national titles, and no other school has accounted for more than three consecutive individual national champions.
After his first five uneventful years leading the cross country program – which resulted in three NCAA Championship appearances – Stern’s women broke through in the biggest way imaginable in 1989. Huber capped her magnificent career with the individual national title, leading Villanova to a 99-point team score and a 69-point win over defending champion Kentucky.
That margin was the Championships’ widest between the winner and runner-up to that point, but the mark wouldn’t last long. One year later, it was Sonia O’Sullivan getting the individual win for Stern as Nova tallied 82 points to beat Providence by 90 points. To this day, no team has matched the Wildcats’ gulf of victory from November of 1990.
Stern kept the momentum going into the next season. O’Sullivan again won the national title as a senior, followed by sophomore teammate Carole Zajac as the runner-up among four top-30 finishers for the Wildcats. Those finishes tallied up to a final score of 85 for the Wildcats – 83 points clear of runner-up Arkansas for what remains the third-biggest margin of victory in meet history.
Just like Huber and O’Sullivan before her, Zajac took the reins in 1992 as she won the individual crown with teammates Nnenna Lynch (3rd) and Cheri Goddard (7th) in tow not far behind. When the dust settled, Villanova once again emerged with the national title with 123, but by just seven over Arkansas.
Sterns’ final cross country season in 1993 ended in similar, dramatic fashion. The Wildcats tallied their lowest score of the Sterns era with 66 points behind another win by Zajac, a runner-up finish from Jen Rhines and a seventh-place effort from Becky Spies, but again managed to squeak past Arkansas by five points.
All the while, Stern’s distance machine was firing on all cylinders on the track. The 4×800 team won its fifth and final national title during Stern’s tenure in 1990, while O’Sullivan picked up where Huber left off with a combined three national titles during the 1990 and 1991 seasons. Zajac added a pair of national 10,000 meter titles in 1993 and 1994, and Jen Rhines won her first of five national titles in 1994. (She would win four more after Stern’s retirement.)
His women finished third indoors in both 1991 and 1992 and fourth in 1993, and they turned in a fourth-place finish outdoors in Stern’s final meet coaching Villanova in 1994.