Rochester's Riley Macon overcomes challenges to guide MIT to national championship
Riley Macon, a 2012 Mayo High School grad, is the cross country coach at MIT, one of the toughest academic institutions in the world. As a first-year head coach, he guided the men's team to a Division III national title.
Riley Macon has never backed down from a challenge.
So when he got an opportunity to coach at a university with some of the highest academic standards in the world, he hit the ground running.
Running at an elite level is something the 28-year-old Macon has done much of his life. The 2012 Mayo High School graduate was a standout distance runner for the Spartans and then at the University of Minnesota. Macon is married to a professional distance runner and he wanted to become a coach. He got that opportunity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
MIT is one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the world. The Engineers compete at the Division III level in sports and they happen to be pretty good in cross country. In fact in 2022, Macon’s first year as the team’s head coach, the men’s team was great.
“We are certainly limited by high admissions, but once they’re here, while they are taking very rigorous coursework, they are also the people who are the highest of high in terms of motivation and drive,” Macon said. “If you point them in a direction, they are going to want to go all the way.”
The MIT men’s cross country team did go all the way this season. Macon guided the Engineers to a Division III national championship in November. It was the first national title in any sport in school history.
“It was amazing,” Macon said. “This is a group of men that we’ve been basically working together for two and half years. We recognized that this was a special group and something that they could accomplish.”
Coaching obstacles, challenges
While achieving a national championship is difficult, there are even more obstacles and challenges at MIT because of the extremely high academic standards.
“MIT is going to attract the brightest minds,” Macon said. “There are a lot of people who would love to go to MIT so there are certain advantages in recruiting that people know about us. The downside is that not many people can get into MIT; in fact, very few can.”
How hard is it to recruit at MIT? Getting initial interest for potential student-athletes can be easy because of MIT’s stellar academic reputation. But being able to meet the high academic admission requirements is an entirely different matter.
Macon said his recruiting often starts with determining who is interested in becoming a student-athlete at MIT. Despite the academic standards, the men’s cross country team featured 26 runners during the 2022 season. Many of the student-athletes have come from the East or West Coast or from larger metropolitan areas.
“Part of my recruiting is helping people recognize that it is an attainable goal, it is something that is possible for a lot of people from a variety of areas,” Macon said. “We have a pretty diverse team already, but I would love to see some more people from the Midwest. They tend to make great distance runners.”
Macon said recruiting comes down to what each student-athlete's goals are.
“There’s no school that’s a perfect fit for anybody,” he said. “But if there’s anyone interested in any sort of engineering, you really can’t do better than MIT.”
Macon said the lure of the Boston area is also appealing to a lot of student-athletes. The MIT campus is located in Cambridge, Mass., just across the Charles River from Boston.
Wife was a runner at Harvard
Macon was drawn to the Boston area because his wife, Whitney Thornburg Macon, is a former runner at Harvard University. The two met in college when they were running counselors at a high school camp in Colorado. They had a long distance relationship when she ran for one year at the University of New Mexico while attending grad school and he was at the University of Minnesota.
“We realized early on that it was going to be the real deal and the rest is history,” he said.
The couple was married in 2017 and she is currently a professional marathon runner.
Macon’s wife helped lure him to the Boston area. But how did he end up being a coach at the top engineering school in the country?
Macon’s father was a teammate of Halston Taylor in high school. Taylor was the long-time MIT cross country coach who was getting set to retire, which helped set things in motion for Macon.
“I certainly have that to thank for the connection, sort of getting a foot in the door,” Macon said.
Macon became a volunteer assistant at MIT for the 2018 cross country season and he forged a strong relationship with Taylor.
Macon left the following year to get his Master’s degree at Middle Tennessee State University. He returned to serve as MIT's interim head coach during the 2020-21 academic year. In 2021-22, he was an assistant coach for cross country and coached the distance runners on the track and field teams.
The Engineers had a national runner-up finish in cross country last year when Macon was the assistant coach. The team quickly shifted its focus on how it could get better 365 days later to win a national championship.
And when Taylor stepped down, Macon was named as the men's and women's cross country head coach in July of 2022.
“When you actually get it done it’s part sense of relief and part appreciation for what the whole group was able to do,” Macon said. “Because it took a buy-in from everybody.”
In addition to coaching, Macon is an instructor within the MIT physical education and wellness program, which he said he enjoys.
For guiding MIT to the national title, he was named the NCAA Division III coach of the year.
“It’s nice when hard work is recognized, but I also wish it was something for the (entire) coaching staff,” he said. “Because it really does take a village. … It doesn’t work at a school like MIT unless there’s multiple pieces of the puzzle fitting.”
Macon said he developed a passion for running at Mayo. That was aided by his coaches, Brett Carroll in cross country and Donny Holcomb in track and field. During his time at Mayo, Macon was a 1,600-meter state champion in track and he placed fourth two consecutive years in the 3,200. He was a state runner-up as a senior in cross country.