1) How did you get your start in running? What were your primary sports/events? Highlights in high school?
My father has always been my biggest influence athletically. No matter what sports I did he always taught me how to run with proper form. I gave up baseball in 7th grade to run track. I was a 4-yr varsity letterman in track in HS, but I also earned varsity letters in soccer, football, and cross country. I was primarily a 400m runner, although at some point I ran every event on the track (and even pole vaulted and threw the shot [only so we could win the fat man relay]). My junior year I was 6th at the San Diego CIF Finals in the 400m. I had one of best times in the section my senior year but pulled my hamstring anchoring the 400 relay at league finals, which effectively ended my HS running career. Showing up on campus at UCLA with Steve Lewis and Danny Everett pretty much ended thoughts of a college running career.
2) Who were the coaches that had the biggest impact on you personally during your time in athletics? What did you learn from them?
As I stated above, my dad was always my biggest coaching influence. I of course got my specific instruction from all of my individual coaches, but my dad instilled in me the need to always give your best and do everything possible to be the best you are capable of being. He would never let me hear the end of it if I gave less than my best.
3) What led you into teaching and coaching?
In both high school and college I worked with kids a lot so teaching was something I was naturally drawn to. I worked in the beverage industry out of college for a couple of years, but my desire to coach pulled me to teaching as a career. I actually thought I would coach football and track going in, but my first year at Murrieta Valley the XC coach stepped down so I reluctantly took over the program after spending the previous track season as the sprint coach making fun of the distance runners. Oops.
4) You have mentioned before that the two coaches that were the most influential to you as a coach were Dr. Joe Vigil and John Wooden. Can you tell us a bit about the lessons that you learned from them that you carried over to your teaching and coaching.
As a UCLA alumnus John Wooden is a pretty important figure in my life. I worked in campus security through college and would often be on “Coach Wooden Duty” for the basketball games. Basically I would just make sure no one bothered Coach during the games. At any of the breaks, however, he made time for everyone (especially kids) and was always gracious. The chances I had to talk with Coach Wooden were a treasure. He is one of those rare individuals who make you feel as if you can accomplish anything. His Pyramid of Success is a model for me in coaching and in life. It’s very much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in that you have to take care of foundational character pieces if you ever want to reach the pinnacle of your abilities. He taught me that coaching is a process and you can’t take short cuts. If you spend the time to develop individuals of character, the athletic parts come much more easily.
Coach Vigil is the most important figure for me as a distance coach. He gave me an understanding of the physiology of running that spoke to both the science nerd in me as well as my logical/practical side. I always want to do things the right way so how can you do that if you don’t know specifically how things work? So it is with the human body. Find out how it works and it’s easier to figure out how to train it. Most importantly, he told me that knowledge is meant to be shared and gave me an admonishment not to horde what I do but rather give it freely. I have always strived to do exactly that with anyone who was willing to listen. Just as Coach Wooden makes you feel as if you can accomplish anything, Coach Vigil makes you feel as if you have no excuse not to accomplish those things. After talking to him I always feel as if I should be taking on the world.
5) You were a teacher/coach at Murrieta Valley HS. When did you start there and what was the state of the track and field and cross country program when you started?
I began as Head Coach at Murrieta Valley Cross Country in 1996. I was a long-term sub that year and then got hired full-time in Social Science the following year. I continued as the sprint coach for the track team for another 4 years before finally taking distance over. MV was only 4 years old at that point in time so the program had pretty typical results up until then. The girls and boys teams had made CIF once each but had never made it to finals. We were a solid 3rd or 4th place team in our league (Mountain View).
6) What do you feel were the most important changes you made with your distance runners that elevated their level of performance?
Honestly I think the most important thing I brought to the table was the right attitude. The longer I have coached the more I have realized that the most important thing is not what you say but how you say it; not your training program, but how you implement it; not your policies, but the manner in which you enforce them. It’s hard work to become a great distance runner and it takes a lot of time and patience. You can’t begin to do any of that without developing a positive relationship with the athletes, their parents, and your support staff. I only had two requirements of my athletes. Give your best effort each day (whatever that may be) and have a positive attitude. I held myself to the same standard. I had confidence that if an athlete gave me those two things on a daily basis I could lead them to success.
7) What were some of your proudest achievements by your teams and runners during your tenure at MV?
I am certainly proud of our State Championship in 2002, and also of consistently having both a boys and girls team that were capable of top 5 state finishes. I am proud of individuals like Kellen Acosta, Liza Pasciuto, Patrick Milloy, Taryn Pastoor, and many others who gave so much to our program and represented our sport and our program with integrity and sportsmanship. I am proud of the relationships we built within the running community with other coaches and teams. Still, however, one of my proudest moments as a coach was when I had a girl named Jessica Collins finally break 7 minutes in the mile in her last high school race. We had worked very hard to get her to reach that goal and she finished second to last in her race with a 6:45. I don’t think anyone understood why we were both hugging each other and crying, but it still is one of the most special moments of my coaching career. Jessica is now an attorney in the San Diego area.
8) You have mentioned Dr. Vigil's training program. What are the key components?
As I mentioned previously, the hallmark of Dr. Vigil’s training lies in the deep ties to physiology. It is a scientific approach to the nuts and bolts of developing runners from the ground up. The combination of aerobic conditioning, lactate threshold development, and VO2Max intervals, has become the standard for just about every training regimen in the world. Whenever I read books or articles about training in the early 20th Century I always apply Coach Vigil’s findings and I can see where some of the “old time” coaches like Percy Cerutty were actually hitting some of these principles, but just not knowing exactly what they were or truly why they worked. The hallmark of our training from Coach Vigil has to be our Mile and 800 repeats. We did these every week during the early through championship cycles of the season as the catalyst for increased intensity and forced adaptation and improvement. I would never design a training program without these VO2 Max workouts.
9) Besides training, there are other factors that must be present on successful teams. From your own experiences, what are those factors?
Early in my coaching career my team got good very quickly without me really knowing how to handle it. I faked it well, but deep down I knew I was in territory I was not prepared for. This led me to study consistently successful programs and coaches to glean some insight into why they were successful. What I learned was that in every instance there was a dynamic coach who held high standards that they did not waiver on. The athletes all had complete trust in the coach and as such could be pushed harder than other teams. These teams also had great confidence in and trust in each other. Most importantly, they all set an expectation of excellence. They never made excuses and always seemed to produce. I have seen programs where every once in a while they will have a great team for a year or two and then fall out of the limelight. Truly great teams may still have dips in performance, but will consistently perform at a level that is still higher than most.
10) What are your current roles at Murrieta Mesa HS? What has taken the place of the rush you got from coaching?
Nothing has replaced the rush I got from coaching, but I have taken on additional leadership responsibilities on campus. Since stepping down from coaching I have been able to dedicate more time to my daughters (my oldest, Isabel, joined the XC team at her high school (Mission Hills in SD), I have traveled extensively, and finally got around to earning a Master’s degree. I truly miss the every day gift that comes with coaching young people. I do not miss practicing 6 days per week, 49 weeks per year however. I am at a critical point in my career now where I need to decide whether to jump back into coaching (whatever that may look like) or move on to other professional endeavors. Time and circumstances will tell.
11) If you could be King of the World and could change anything about the current high school XC and TF scene, what would those changes include?
I think our sport is so amazing and pure I wouldn’t change anything about it. If I could change anything though, it would have to be funding for athletics. Coaches have so many restrictions placed on them for what they can charge and even how they can fundraise that it puts a tremendous limitation on things like building team identity. It is very difficult to establish a sense of team pride when you can’t even mandate that every kid buy the same t-shirt. So if I could I would make sure all athletic programs were fully funded so coaches could focus on developing kids.
12) Anything else you would like add.
I feel so blessed to be a part of the sport of distance running. I never would have dreamed that I would be as involved as I have been or achieved at the levels I have. This sport has brought some amazing people in my life that have been and are important to my development as a person. There is nothing greater than training regular kids into dominant forces on the course and track. What an athlete gains through training is always theirs and theirs alone. They dictate their own success or failure. I love the purity of that.
Thank you very much for your time Steve! AJC