Thursday, February 28, 2019

Guest TigerBlog - An Alum On The Greatness Of Fred Samara

When the men's indoor track and field team won its fifth straight indoor Heps title Sunday, TigerBlog hit on the idea of asking someone who had competed for Fred Samara to write a guest blog about what has made him the coach that he is. 

There was only one person TB even considered for the task, and that was John Mack. If you don't know John, he graduated in 2000 after winning 10 Heps titles and the Roper Trophy while further standing out as a student worker in the Office of Athletic Communications. He worked in the athletic department after graduation before moving on to Northwestern, first as an employee and then as a law school student.

He is now a lawyer near Detroit, where he is also married and raising a family of three young children. Despite the distance and how busy he is, he has stayed in close contact with TigerBlog, who considers him one of the best friends he's ever had. 

With that background, TB turned the floor over to John Mack, who writes about what has sustained his college coach through 41 years of greatness here:

Gerald Ford. That is the answer. What’s the question? That’s easy. “Who was the President of the United States when Fred Samara began his coaching career at Princeton?”

By now, the numbers of Coach Samara’s legendary career are well known to TigerBlog readers, including his 45 league championships in his 41-year Princeton career. But, as with any great coach, the numbers do not tell the full story.

I was recently asked what makes Coach Samara so special. To me, there are three things that make Coach Samara the best college track and field coach in the country.

First, Coach Samara has a competitive drive unmatched by anyone that I have ever known. That drive is part of the reason why, at nearly 70 years of age, he still maintains a regular workout regimen and looks as though he could step into a pair of spikes and compete at any moment.

I can remember being a freshman on the team and seeing Coach’s competitive side up close and personal during a pickup basketball game one day after practice. No matter the contest, he hates to lose. (Sidenote: This basketball game ended with my being blamed for a major knee injury suffered by an assistant coach. But that is a story for another day). To know Coach Samara is to know his relentless drive not just to win championships but also to dominate the competition. His competitiveness is contagious. As an athlete on the team, you never want to disappoint him, and you know that only your absolute best will win his approval. He sincerely cares about each of his athletes and wants to see them perform at their absolute best.

As routine as success has been for the Princeton men’s track and field team under Coach Samara’s leadership, he never takes it for granted and he is never satisfied. At every Heps championship meet, he chases victory as though he has never won a title. The turnaround time between championship meets in cross-country (November), indoor track (February) and outdoor track (May) is relatively short. Whether the previous meet brought the thrill of a championship victory or the rare disappointment of falling short, Coach Samara is a master at hitting the reset button and helping prepare his athletes to mentally and physically pursue another championship. If you saw the video of his comments after Sunday’s Heps win, you may have noticed that, while celebrating the win, Coach’s thoughts quickly turned to winning the upcoming outdoor championship and completing a Triple Crown. This is Coach Samara in a nutshell. He is able to genuinely savor victory in the moment while remaining focused on continuing the pursuit of excellence.

The second thing that makes Coach Samara such a great coach, and a great leader, is his focus on the team concept. Track and field is a sport that, by its nature, centers on individual athletic performance, Coach Samara manages to create a true team environment.

It begins at the very first team meeting in the fall. As he stands in front of the 60 or 70 athletes who will make up that year’s team, he sets the course for the season and lays out the team’s primary goal:  Win the Heps Triple Crown. Coach Samara builds a team not by relying on his own experiences and coaching credentials, though, to be fair, it would be understandable if he did. Instead, Coach focuses on the team’s history of success. He is always ready with the story of a memorable meet or of a former team member who made their mark on the program. He has always believed in sharing the accomplishments of athletes like Augie Wolf ’83, Steve Morgan ’87, and Ugwunna Ikpeowo ’96 far more than sharing his own achievements. As a team member, these stories create a deep appreciation of being on the team and it makes you hope that, one day, you too can contribute in a way that Coach will talk about to future team members.

On Coach Samara’s squads no one is bigger than the team. I can remember more than one road trip where team members who were late getting to the bus at Jadwin Gym were left behind. Each time, the individuals who were left behind found a way to get to the meet and compete. They did so because they understood that they owed it to the team, and to Coach Samara, to get there. In a sport where most team members do not practice together on a regular basis, and you may not interact with Coach Samara on an every day basis, it is this dedication to the team that binds everyone together.

The last thing that makes Coach Samara such a legendary coach is that he attracts and inspires greatness. Many athletes come to Princeton with great skills and talents, while many more become great during their time at Princeton. Regardless of how you come to the Princeton men’s track team, Coach Samara inspires you to believe not just that you can be great, but that you should be great.

Of course, it goes without saying that Coach Samara has recruited great athletes. What is often overlooked is that Coach Samara also attracts great assistant coaches. From Mike Brady to Mark Anderson to Steve Dolan to Robert Abdullah to Jason Vigilante, Coach Samara has consistently surrounded himself with some of the best coaches in the country. These men could have coached anywhere in the country. But they chose to coach here, at Princeton, with Coach Samara.

I hope that Princeton fans are able to appreciate the 40 years of unrivaled success that the team has experienced under Coach Samara.

It is unlikely that we will ever see another coach of his caliber.

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