The Meeting Of The Minds: Top NCAA Coaches Share Their Thoughts Ahead Of The 2014 NCAA Indoor Championships

March 13, 2014

Albuquerque, NM – Today attended the pre-meet press conference for the 2014 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. The panel included leading head coaches Chris Bucknam (Arkansas), Pat Henry (Texas A&M), Robert Johnson (Oregon), Mike Holloway (Florida) and Joe Franklin (New Mexico). The discussion often was distance-based and included talk about the men’s DMR, racing at altitude and Lawi Lalang‘s triple. We also had a one-on-one conversation with Coach Franklin on his guys in the 5,000 and got an update on Princeton alum Peter Callahan.


What About The Altitude?

The elevation of the indoor track in Albuquerque, NM is 4,958 feet according to the NCAA. The coaches were asked considering the elevation, if they approached this meet any differently or had any conversations with their athletes about it. Coach Johnson said that for the athletes 800 and below he didn’t expect it to have an effect on them and for the longer distance athletes they just talked to them about what to expect, but made the point that everyone has to run in the same conditions. Coach Bucknam, Coach Henry and Coach Holloway all said they really didn’t talk about it at all and Coach Bucknam joked that he walked across the street to Starbucks and felt fine so he didn’t think it was anything to worry about.

Then Coach Franklin broke the trend by saying that he and athletes “do talk about it” since they are at altitude full-time. He admitted that he thought it could be helpful for his athletes since they are used to it while other teams have to adapt. He made the comparison of how when his or any other desert team travel to a humid climate that it’s a lot different and his athletes have to adapt. However, he made the point that it’s unlikely to make a big impact as when you look at USATF results from the last 7 years in Albuquerque, there aren’t any weird anomalies that happen at altitude where someone no one has ever heard of comes in and wins the 3,000.

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However, we would point out that most of the best US pro athletes incorporate some kind of altitude training into their program, which isn’t the case in college, and that while altitude doesn’t make a scrub a champion, some people might not race the best at altitude (think Galen Rupp not making the US world team in the 3,000 in 2012). Athletes who train and race at altitude full-time are going to have a slight edge over athletes who don’t, especially the athletes that have never even been at altitude before. However, Albuquerque is really only medium elevation, so it won’t have as significant an impact as it would if the race was at high elevations of 6,000ft or above.

If there is anyone who might be at a disadvantage with the altitude though, it’s Lawi Lalang, who will feel that extra fatigue as he races 4 times over the course of 2 days. That being said, some on the staff feel the opposite. They think since the races are at altitude, they will be slower, making it easier to triple.

What Do The Coaches Think Of Lawi Lalang’s Triple Attempt?

The coaches were asked for their thoughts on Lalang tripling in the mile, 3k and 5k and how between him and his Arizona teammate Nick Ross  (ranked #1 in the high jump this year), Arizona could potentially win the meet (Note: Arizona has three other people in the meet – none higher than a #7 seed).

Coach Henry responded by saying that “it definitely could be done” (winning the meet with only two guys) and he thought it had been done once before by Arkansas under Coach John McDonnell. We’re currently looking into what year that was and what events the two athletes scored in. Update: A message board poster pointed out that Arkansas won twice with 3-men scoring 34-points. In 1988 Joe Falcon won the mile and 3K as Matt Taylor was 3rd in the mile, and Tyrus Jefferson was 2nd in the LJ. In 1989 Falcon won the mile, Reuben Reina was 3rd in the 5K, and Edrick Floreal won the TJ and was 2nd in the LJ. Also, in 1993 Arkansas could have almost won the meet with two athletes as Niall Burton (mile) and Erick Walder (LJ/TJ) scored 30 points which would tie the second place team, Clemson. Arkansas scored 66-points as they had other guys in the meet, but they would have needed at least three men to win as Clemson would move up in points if you take out all the other Arkansas guys who scored. (*Message board thread & all-time results.)

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The other coaches more or less responded the same. Coach Bucknam said that he hadn’t given it any thought where as Coach Johnson admitted he had, but both agreed that Lalang was a phenomenal athlete and while they respected what he was trying to do, they would just focus on their own teams to score as many points as they could. Coach Holloway admitted he would be cheering against Lalang winning the meet for Arizona, but thought it was one of the great things about our sport and said, “It points to what happens at these championships and kind of what track and field is about. People like to see the freakish nature of what goes on in track and field. The thought of a guy not only being able to qualify in three events, but possibly winning all three, it’s an interesting thing.”

Following up on this question, we asked Coach Johnson if since Oregon has two runners in the 5K and three in the 3K the next day, he had talked at all about having guys push the pace in the 5k to tire Lalang out for the 3k.

Johnson got a chuckle from the question and joked, “Strategy at its finest.” He then responded seriously saying “absolutely not” and they were just going to focus on their team as they can’t control anything “that beast, that monster Lalang is going to do” and they would just run their own race strategies. Asked about the form of Edward Cheserek, who was the big upset NCAA champion in XC season, Johnson said that his preparation has gone “exactly spot on.” He shared that Cheserek took 10 days off after cross-country and they’ve built him back up slowly, opening his season a bit later and progressing from there and said that he’s done “phenomenal.”

How Do Arkansas And Oregon Approach The DMR?

Choosing a team for the DMR can be one of the harder decisions coaches have to make with respect to optimizing point scoring. It’s not as simple as just choosing the four fastest guys as some runners have the potential to double up in individual events as well. A coach must decide if an athlete has the potential to score individually and whether they’d be better off running a slower (but fresh) athlete in his place in the DMR.

With this in mind, we asked Coach Johnson and Coach Bucknam how they went about their decision-making process when selecting their athletes for the DMR. Oregon has Trevor Dunbar listed in their 6-man relay pool and he is also in the 3k and NCAA 1,500 champion Mac Fleet isn’t listed on the the DMR pool, although that is meaningless as Johnson said they could still use him as a substitute since he is in the meet already. Arkansas’ Patrick Rono and Tomas Squella are in both the 800 and relay pool.

Coach Bucknam talked extensively about this and it was clear that he had given this a lot of thought. He said they’d make their final decision after the 800 prelims, but said that his athletes were prepared to double up in both even if they make the final and that Arkansas has a “rich history” of guys doing well even while doubling up. The way he spoke it seemed likely that his guys would double back from the 800 as he said they were used to doubling and it “is in their DNA to pull it off.” He also pointed out that they’re in a team race and Florida doesn’t have a DMR, so it’s a great place to pick up points on them.

Coach Johnson agreed with Bucknam that it came down to trying to win a team championship and “maximizing their point potential.”

Coach Franklin Talks About Luke Caldwell, Adam Bitchell And Peter Callahan.

Given the article we put up on New Mexico runners Luke Caldwell and Adam Bitchell, who are in the 5,000 this weekend, we took this opportunity for a quick one-on-one with Coach Franklin talking about them as well as asking for an update on Princeton alum Peter Callahan, who gave Princeton DMR glory last year and is now a grad student at New Mexico.

Talking about his distance squad in general, Franklin had a lot of praise for their work ethic, saying, “They want to be great. Some of them will be, some of them won’t be, but I know that when they leave they will have done everything they can to be good.” Talking specifically about Caldwell (who’s getting a masters in physics), he said that he’s a great role model for the team as he was “methodical” and did everything right. He even joked that anyone who moved to his house started running better.

Franklin thought his team was successful because of their focus and work ethic, saying, “It’s, ‘Can you control and do the little things right?’ Because I think when you get to college there’s so many options and opportunities (socially, academically, athletically) that you kind of have to pick your poison. And ours are make sure you’re focused on your academics and focused on your athletics and control what you can control. And these guys do that very well.”

Talking about the training differences between his two star 5,000 guys (Caldwell runs up to 100-mile weeks at 6:10 pace, while Bitchell only runs 50), Franklin said that stemmed a lot from Bitchell’s hip stress fracture last year and having to build back slowly this year while Caldwell has had more of a “sustained training plan.”

Moving on to Callahan, who was a star of the NCAA meet last year as he anchored Princeton to a DMR title, Franklin had a positive report. Franklin said Callahan has been healthy, running regularly, has progressed in his training and that he would probably open up with a low key 800 outdoors before running a 1,500 at one of the big California meets. In the short time Callahan has been at New Mexico, he’s already had a big impression on Franklin, who said, “Peter has gifts; he is very very good … He’s got some gears that I haven’t seen before. … It could be a fantastic season.”

Off camera, we asked Coach Franklin why he thinks Callahan has been able to stay healthy since moving to New Mexico and he credited it with a better schedule and more sunlight. As a grad student, he has a smaller course load than he did as an Ivy League undergrad so he can keep a better schedule. Also, there is way more sunlight in New Mexico than the Northeast, and Coach Franklin felt that the extra vitamin D was beneficial. We’d also point out Callahan hasn’t raced at all and the stress of racing is big, particularly indoors as Callahan often raced indoors but rarely out.

As far as whether or not this will be Callahan’s last year in the NCAA, Franklin said he could get a 6th year as he had a lot of well-documented injuries at Princeton, but it didn’t sound like it was 100% yet.

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