Q&A: Vin Lananna on Why He Took the Virginia Job, Building Programs, & Winning NCAA XC with 3 Scholarships at Stanford
By Jonathan Gault
September 13, 2019
On Monday, the University of Virginia announced that Vin Lananna will be taking over as its director of track & field and cross country/associate athletics director for administration. The hire came as a surprise: Lananna, 66, hasn’t coached at any level since resigning at Oregon in 2012.
Lananna, one of the most influential figures in US track & field, held a variety of roles prior to coming to UVA, including president of USATF and president of TrackTown USA — which, during his tenure, hosted the Olympic Trials in 2008, 2012, and 2016 and secured the 2021 World Championships for Eugene. However, Lananna was indefinitely suspended as president of USATF in February 2018 for nebulous “conflicts of interest concerns.” In July 2018, perhaps to allay those concerns, Lananna resigned as president of TrackTown USA and chair of Oregon21, the local organizing committee for the 2021 Worlds (Lananna, who has filed a grievance, remains suspended by USATF).
Before his role as an administrator, however, Lananna built his reputation as one of the finest distance coaches in America. He led the Dartmouth men to back-to-back runner-up finishes at NCAA XC in the 1980s before experiencing even greater success out west: five NCAA titles at Stanford from 1992-2003, and six more at Oregon from 2005-2012. Now he’s back in the coaching game for the first time in seven years.
On Wednesday evening, I spoke to Lananna over the phone from Charlottesville — he said it was his first visit back since Dartmouth finished second at NCAAs there in 1987 — as he explained why he chose to return to coaching, how hands-on he plans to be in his new role, and his goal to have UVA contending for a national title within the next five years.
Note: Lananna said he could not comment on his current USATF suspension, citing the ongoing grievance process.
LRC: Why take this job?
VL: Well the issue is that I’d been thinking quite a bit about what is it that I planned to do, after 2020 and 2021 are over, for a job. Because I had no interest in just sailing off into the sunset. Virginia, to me, is an ideal position. I want to get back into working day-to-day with the student-athletes and Virginia is such an attractive place. It came up a little early, but it’s the exact place [I want to be]. I felt like it was time to take a jump at doing something really exciting in this last chapter of my professional career.
Who initiated this? Did you reach out to them?
Did you put feelers out to other schools? Or did they reach out to you? How did it come about?
Well there’s many people who actually reach out to me when positions open up around the country, no matter where it is. Over the last 10 years, many people — almost any athletic director or senior associate athletic director, whoever it is that’s trying to fill these track coaching positions — often reach out to me. Carla Williams is the athletic director [at Virginia]. She reached out to me and was basically just talking. I never give anybody any names of people, but what I do is, I’m happy to help them define what they want to do with their track programs.
Because all too often, people go and they apply for a job and they treat it like it’s a football coach or a soccer coach or something. And it’s very clear what your mission is when you’re doing one of those kind of sports. Whereas track, because you can put emphasis on different things, depending on where the institution is, what the academics are of the institution, [you need to determine] what are the things that they really can excel in?
So people reach out to me. And that’s what happened in this case. Carla reached out to me and we had a nice conversation. She asked me if I’d been down to Charlottesville. And I hadn’t gone to Charlottesville in many years, I said, but, I’ll have you know, in the ’80s, I applied for a job at the University of Virginia twice. I applied for it once before I got to Dartmouth, and once sometime in the mid-’80s and I never got anywhere with it. So we laughed, and she asked me why Virginia was interesting. I said I just felt like it was the ideal place to have a track and field program. I think you’d get a lot of people that are interested in getting the job, you just need to have the right direction.
And then I started to talk from a perspective of what I thought could be good at Virginia. And she said something like, well, maybe the third time’s the charm. And that’s when we had a serious conversation.
And when was this?
A couple weeks ago.
When these people reach out to you about these positions, had it happened in the past where they had actually been interested in you as a candidate? Or are they more approaching you as an advisor?
People tend not to talk to me about my own interest in the position. Every now and then, somebody hints around to it. But never really serious conversation about it. Before this year, I hadn’t really thought about that. Well, I thought about it, but I never really thought I would ever really do it.
This one, I didn’t take the job just to be a coach. I took the job to be a coach at the University of Virginia. Because I think it’s one of those places that has a magic to it in the sport of track and field. And I think Virginia could be really good.
And what about it is magical to you? What drew you to the position?
There’s a bunch of reasons. Number one, I think I do best in a strong academic environment. I really, really believe that the athletic experience is part of the whole education process. I don’t think that you have student on one side and athlete on the other and the two are mutually exclusive. I think that those institutions, those experiences that student-athletes have in those places is spectacular. I think Virginia is just one of those places.
I think location. My wife and I really have wanted to get back on the East Coast. That’s where we felt that we would end up. We have a house at the Cape. We always planned to head back there at some point.
And then quite honestly, the vision that Carla laid out for me for the whole athletic department was really quite inspiring. Obviously their men won the tournament last year in basketball, they are rolling in the [right] direction with the football program. I think she’s just a terrific AD.
Was it tough for you to leave Oregon and Eugene behind?
Of course. I had a wonderful 14 years there. I fully expected that I would finish out my professional career in Oregon. And it was kind of going in that direction between Hayward Field opening and the World Championships being there. But I’m not doing Hayward Field. I did all the stuff preliminarily and got everybody motivated and excited about doing it and then turned it over to the people who are professionals that know how to build those things. I’m certainly not a project manager.
World Championships, I was interested in the World Championships being in the United States. And it happened to be that the place that would provide the best experience for the athletes from the world to come is Eugene, Oregon. And I know there are arguments about how it should be in a bigger city, etc. I don’t agree with that. I think [with] that a small community that’s going to embrace it, it will be a phenomenal event. I’m looking forward to getting back there. But I was never gonna run the World Championships.
Everything I could do, I kind of did. And I still want to have a major impact on the sport of track and field, I absolutely want to do it. But I kind of like to be with the athletes and to be in the college system, and those things are really very healthy. We have great athletes and a great collegiate system. But those are the things that actually create the foundation and I hope that I can provide a really great experience for the students that come to the University of Virginia. So I was torn. So yes, it was a very, very tough decision. But I just decided to take the plunge.
So we all know that to build a program, it’s important to have the support and an appropriate level of funding from the AD. How much do you expect to have in terms of building this program up at UVA?
It will be like every other program I’ve ever been in: funds are not unlimited. But this is where the athletic director comes in. The athletic director wants the student-athletes in all of its sports to have a chance at being successful. It’s not just in football and basketball. Just like every collegiate program, football’s gotta be successful. [If] you have a model that’s gonna work, football has gotta be successful. And what Virginia has is they have the ability to be good in basketball too. They’ve won in soccer, men’s and women’s soccer. They’ve won in tennis, they’ve won in baseball. They have 27 sports, and you’ve gotta prioritize those.
I think what we’ll do is, [Williams] and I will work together to figure out how we progress the financial resources to figure out exactly what’s needed to be successful. What are the things that you have to get? And I’m gonna go out and help her get those funds.
When I was at Dartmouth, we turned the program around. I made $12,000 as the coach there. I left a teaching job where I made $24,000 and took the job at Dartmouth because I wanted to be a college coach, loved the Ivy League. And it was phenomenal building that program.
When I went to Stanford, you probably have heard me say this, but I’m sure people don’t believe it, I only had three men’s scholarships and five women’s scholarships my first four years at Stanford. We won the NCAAs, men and women, in cross country with three and five. Our budget was not very good, but over time, we built it. I trusted the athletic director — Ted Leland, phenomenal AD — and we built it.
And the same thing at Oregon. Martin (Smith, Lananna’s predecessor) didn’t have all the greatest resources in the world, but when I got there, we figured out what had to be done and we just went and did it. Now it helps to have a big donor base that are track people and it’s a priority.
But it’s like building any program: people don’t just throw money at a track program. They might with football. But they don’t do it with track. It doesn’t provide the return. But this athletic director has a terrific vision. And I believe in her and I believe, together, we’re gonna get this done.
What do you want to accomplish at UVA?
What I’d like to do is kind of a five-year plan to be able to have the University of Virginia be very competitive at the ACC level in all three seasons and we’d like to be contending for an NCAA title or two, at least in cross and in one of the track areas. That’s from a results perspective.
But more importantly than any of that, any of the numbers or what place we are, etc., I want to be able to say the University of Virginia, any young man or woman who chooses to go to the University of Virginia, believes in the culture of having not just a winning program, but an unparalleled collegiate experience. And I want everybody to be able to say, boy, I loved all four years. I know it’s kind of a little esoteric, but at the end of the day, that’s what I want.
What do you think is the biggest challenge you face?
The challenge will be trying to define what that niche is for Virginia. Every program has a niche. Having not spent the time on delving into what that is, I think that will be the biggest challenge. What is Virginia? What can it be? And to create the environment to be what Virginia can be.
It sounds very philosophical, but let’s take Dartmouth. Dartmouth could be really good in cross country and have an outstanding distance program. The challenge at Dartmouth was the weather. It was a gigantic problem. At Stanford, the real issue at Stanford, was: a) we didn’t have the funding; b) we didn’t have the facility when I got there; and c), and it still is an issue, the admissions. Getting into Stanford was very, very tough with the number of applicants and the small number of people that are admitted.
And so I think the challenges at Virginia are, it’s got great academics, it’s a great state institution, kids, I think it’s a very popular place. I don’t know how the academics work as it relates to trying to create that balance with athletics. But to compete at the highest level, you’ve gotta be able to balance both. I think that’s a challenge for the student-athletes. From my last eight hours in Charlottesville, I would say I think that’s my perspective, they’re gonna have to be able to balance it. And I just gotta figure out what that balance is.
Now obviously your background is as a distance coach. You said you want to be competing at the national level in cross country but also in track as well. Do you view this as being a distance-oriented program, is that your vision? Or are you trying to be competitive in every event?
I think it’s very difficult to be competitive in every event. We’ll have to pick what those are for track. I think absolutely, men’s and women’s cross country and middle-distance runners should be really good, but I can tell you right now, I have no interest in having just a cross country team. None whatsoever. I plan to have a very competitive track & field program where a kid who wants to go to the University of Virginia, if he or she is a triple jumper, I expect to be able to provide a great experience for that kid.
I also don’t expect to have all field events and no distance runners. I do expect to have a balance, but I don’t think it will be an equal balance in everything. I’ve gotta look at the conference and figure out what that means and how Virginia’s gonna be successful at the conference level. Because that usually defines what you’re gonna be nationally too.
How hands-on do you intend to be in the coaching?
100%. 100%. I am gonna be the coach. I didn’t go here to be the administrator. I came here to hands-on coach.
So in terms of distance runners, are you planning on writing the workouts, that sort of thing?
I think we’re still playing around with exactly what we’ll do this year. It’s September 11, and I really don’t start officially for a couple weeks. So I will take a look at where we are. I do plan to collaborate and specifically pay attention to exactly what the workouts are, just like I did at Oregon, and just like I did at Stanford, and just like I did at Dartmouth.
Will you retain the current staff?
I have no idea. I think the coaches that are here have had success and there’s a difference between having success and building a team. It will 100% be based on the ability to make sure everything’s a fit and that we can move in the direction of having a good, competitive team in track and in cross country.
When you resigned the Oregon coaching job in 2012, did you think your coaching career was over at that point?
At my core, I’m a coach. Whether I’m coaching athletes or coaching a staff or coaching an organization, I like to look at big, bold visions and then I like to assemble a team that can achieve that. That’s coaching.
The problem, why I resigned from coaching in 2012 — and I was looking at that even before that, why I went to Oberlin [as the AD between Stanford and Oregon] — was because I wanted to do some other things and it wasn’t fair to the student-athletes if I wasn’t going to be 100% hands-on. You can’t go out and recruit kids and then not coach them. And I felt like I was doing too many things and something had to go on the back burner. So the coaching of the athletes went on the back burner. But I was still coaching. I was coaching a staff, I was creating TrackTown, I was trying to bring meets, coach the people to have meets be a different way. So what I gave up was coaching the athletes.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
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