TORONTO - It was almost 18 years ago that Dave Scott-Thomas drove into Guelph, Ont., in his beaten up '83 Dodge Omni, the culmination of cross-country trek that included losing an axle and hitting a deer.
He'd accepted a job to build a track and field program at the University of Guelph, a position that paid $3,000. A year.
Nearly two decades later, Scott-Thomas has built the Gryphons into a veritable powerhouse — Saturday in St. John's, his women's cross-country team will take aim at its 10th consecutive Canadian university title, while the men will be gunning for their ninth straight.
"It's fun," the coach said. "I'd like to keep going for 10 more years."
The Gryphons are coming off another dominating Ontario conference championship. The women — led by sophomore Heather Petrick, who won gold — claimed their 11th conference banner. The men won their 10th straight behind gold medallist Ross Proudfoot.
"We're good. I would say probably our strongest teams ever, understanding our past and our history," Scott-Thomas said. "Very, very good squad."
That's saying something.
The CIS national and conference banners that hang inside the University's indoor training facility tell most of what's become one of Canada's greatest track and field success stories. But not all of it.
Scott-Thomas left Victoria in 1997 to take a chance on Guelph (his soon-to-be-wife Brenda would follow). He packed what he could, including a tent, into his $300 car he nicknamed "The Donkey." He slept in his car at night, except the one night his car's axle fell off in Calgary. He spent that night in the tent while his car was in the shop.
He would hit a deer on a desolate stretch of the prairies, smashing the driver's side door so badly it wouldn't open. From then on, he climbed in and out the window. His friends made jokes about "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "The Fall Guy."
The rags to riches story has seen Scott-Thomas win a record 27 CIS coach of the year honours since then with men's and women's teams in both cross-country and track and field. He's also coached numerous Olympians, including marathoners Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis, with the Speed River Track and Field Club.
For all the international success his athletes have found, he still feels immense satisfaction from seeing his Gryphons do well.
"Yeah, I do totally. I love it. It's probably the primary educator in me," said Scott-Thomas, who was once a high school teacher. "The reason I got into this gig was because of mentoring and stewardship and less performance. I like performance, but if we were really good and I was just dealing with a bunch of jerks, winning wouldn't be any fun.
"Most of these people I recruit when they're 16 or 17, and then you watch them grow up, I love it. It's awesome."
The sheer number of accolades is remarkable, but the job is more than just winning titles, Scott-Thomas said.
"Obviously winning is a part of it, but we just focus on being excellent first, and then (the results are) a consequence of that," he said. "It sounds like mental gymnastics but it's true. We have enough talent so if you just maximize the talent, the points take care of themselves."
Most of the Gryphons have also represented Canada on the track, including Katelyn Ayers of Orillia, Ont., who finished ninth in both the 800 and 1,500 metres at the world junior championships last summer.
"She is talented, man. Very very good runner," Scott-Thomas said of Ayers, who also plays on Guelph's lacrosse team.
Petrick, from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., was 13th in the 5,000 at the world junior championships, while Gryphons team captain Carise Thompson of Lynden, Ont., won bronze in the 1,500 metres at the NACAC under-23 championships last summer.
The trio lead a Gryphons' women's team that is especially strong this season, recording victories over several top-ranked NCAA teams.
"We beat Georgetown and Florida State, and won the Lehigh Invitational which is a big one," Scott-Thomas said. "At the time, Georgetown was fifth-ranked and Florida State was sixth-ranked. Then we went to Wisconsin and beat Florida State again and a couple of other top-10 (NCAA Division 1) teams.
"Overall these are our deepest teams, both genders, that we've ever had but they are really dialled in," he added. "These are competitors. Not cancelling anything on our history, because we've had very very good competitors. But I would say the collection, the per cent here of the people who are on point and ready to roll is very very good for us."
Scott-Thomas said Guelph's main challenger on the women's side will be Trinity Western. Laval, McMaster and Windsor should be the stiffest opponents on the men's side.
But the Gryphons are the overwhelming favourites, after winning the men's OUA conference title by 49 points, and the women's banner by 48 points.
Close to 150 runners from 26 schools will compete in the women's six-kilometre race, while the men's 10K race has close to 140 entries from 24 schools.