Stanford and the Warriors: Taking Care of Sports Stars

Steve Kerr and NBA superstar Stephen Curry. Click to enlarge; photo source Wikimedia Commons
Steve Kerr and NBA superstar Stephen Curry. Click photos to enlarge; source Creative Commons

The Bay Area sports pages have been alive with the Warriors, the once-in-every-fifty-years team that broke the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls’ single-season win-loss record with an astounding 73-9.

I’m a huge fan of Warriors coach Steve Kerr. I’ve loved his style, as a player and coach and person, since I watched him play with the Bulls from 1993 to 1998.

Kerr was a superstar – after Michael Jordan he was the Bulls’ Mr. Clutch – he was the go-to guy for the long 3-pointer. Kerr is celebrated for his legendary last-second shot in the final game of the 1997 NBA championships, and for completing a pass to Michael Jordan in the last seconds to win the final game of the 1998 series.

There’s been a lot of weeping and wailing in the wake of the Warriors’ loss to Cleveland. But when you’ve watched sports for a lot longer than today’s players and coaches have been alive, you understand that when a great team loses, it’s just part of the natural ebb and flow.

What goes up must come down, and nowhere is this more evident. Sports is cyclical. Otherwise, weightlifters would be lifting apartment houses at the end of their careers.

It’s Nature’s way of reminding us that what counts in sports is the process, not the result.

Sports is ultimately about improving the quality of the individual, and improving the quality of the team. And no one has crafted a more inspiring approach to developing athletes and building teams than Steve Kerr, in partnership with Jerry West and the Warriors players and staff.

Look at Cleveland’s regular-season record, and judge which organization put together a team with greater wisdom and craft, and did it without a water buffalo called Lebron.

I’m happy and bucked to hear the Warriors players talk like they recognize this – that sports is a learning experience, and in the end we must measure ourselves by how much we’ve learned.

By the way, this moment in Warriors’ history is not dissimilar from what happened with the Lakers, after they won back-to-back NBA titles in 2000-2001. Coach Phil Jackson worried that the players might let down and succumb to the LA celebrity scene. They didn’t, and it was because Jackson showed them film of their weaknesses and challenged them to improve. They did, and won a third title in 2002. Like Kerr, Jackson knew how to get inside his players’ heads and find the good places.

I’m eager to see how Kerr and the Warriors will absorb the loss and move on. I’m confident they’ll do it well, in their usual classy way.

Switching gears, I’m starting to suspect that few coaches know better how to build a happy, successful team than Stanford head track coach Chris Miltenberg.

Being a fan of college track can be infuriating. Arthur Lydiard, dubbed by Runner’s World the greatest coach of the twentieth century, nailed it when he opined that the U.S. college system is perfectly set up to destroy runners. The three college competitive seasons without a break are insane, and toxic to a runner’s career.

Christ Miltenberg
Chris Miltenberg

Consider what happens when a high school star enters college in America. More often than not, one of three things will ensue. They’ll enjoy attention-getting successes their first year and part of the second, and then they’ll stop progressing and fade to relative mediocrity. Or they’ll have an irregular series of successes and disappointments  for four years in college. Or they’ll run sub-par times all four years and often be injured.

As I’ve argued before, we need look no farther for proof than the University of Oregon, and the infuriatingly mismanaged college career of Jordan Hasay, a high school superstar who experienced not-so-baffling ups and downs as a Duck. The Oregon fans are addicted to sensation – they love to see something phenomenal happen every time they come to “Historic” Hayward Field. And I suspect the Oregon coaches have, at times, played to the fans’ insatiable lust for sensation by pushing their athletes just a bit harder than they should.

It’s why I looked forward with eager anticipation to Chris Miltenberg’s tenure at Stanford. He had done a fine job at Georgetown. Would he be able to shepherd his Stanford runners through the mine field of the college schedule?

Every runner gets injured, so I was willing to cut Coach Miltenberg some slack when former high school superstar Aisling Cuffe got hurt . It was sad but perhaps inevitable given the nature of elite-level competition, and the subtle workings of Cuffe’s karma.

I was more concerned by the lesser injuries of Elise Cranny and Grant Fisher, both of whom were supremely gifted high school prospects. Was Miltenberg really taking care of his athletes, as I  suspected and hoped?

I think the answer is apparent if we consider five names: Sean McGorty, Molly McNamara, Jack Keelan, Claudia Saunders, and Olivia Baker.

I’ve been exciting to follow their careers, somewhat less for their impressive results and more for their consistent improvement.

McNamara ran a stunning 5-second PR in the 1500 (4:15.22) as a fifth-year senior. From an article on the Stanford sports website, Fifth-Year Phenom:

She credited head coach Chris Miltenberg, Stanford’s Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field, and assistant Liz DeBole with her improvement, because they never ceased to believe in her.

Molly McNamara
Molly McNamara; source:

“I just had to trust that it was going to happen at some point,” McNamara said. “People keep asking, ‘What did you do differently?’ I was this way in cross country, and in my junior year when I couldn’t crack 4:30. I’ve stuck with it, and they were the ones who encouraged me when I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for this anymore.

“The first thing Coach Milt said to me when he got here (in fall, 2012) was, ‘I’m not going to forget about you. I’m not going to put you on a shelf.’ He has held true to that every step of the way. I only regret that I don’t have more time. I’m OK with the fact that it’s happening in my last season. Some people don’t even get it at all. I’m grateful.”

McGorty came within a split second of beating Oregon’s Edward Cheserek in the NCAA Outdoors 5000. That’s an absolutely astral accomplishment – even if Ches was still recovering from winning the 10K.

Sean McGorty runs a fast 5000 at the Payton Jordan Invitational meet in 2015. Click to enlarge; Stanford photos by George Beinhorn
Sean McGorty runs a fast 5000 at the Payton Jordan Invitational meet in 2015. Click to enlarge; Payton Jordan photos by the author

Watching these young runners improve has been a wonderful experience. Perhaps especially Molly

Jack Keelan is thriving at Stanford.
Jack Keelan is thriving at Stanford.

McNamara and Jack Keelan, two hard-working runners who didn’t truly blossom until well-on in their college careers, thus reversing the college trend of a slow decline fraught with overtraining and injury.

This is thrilling stuff, and I couldn’t help hoping that Chris Miltenberg would someday open his mouth and reveal his thoughts about helping young runners.

And that’s exactly what he did, in a recent, prosaically titled article, “Season Review: Track and Field.” I don’t usually quote articles at length, because I don’t like to step on the writers’ toes; but I’m going to make an exception because it’s basically a Stanford press release.

Author David Kiefer wastes no time telling us what we want to know. (The boldfacing is mine.)

STANFORD, Calif. – As Elise Cranny made a remarkable comeback effort in the NCAA 1,500 meters and Sean McGorty stared down one of the greats in the 5,000, the future seemed even sweeter than the present.

Elise Cranny
Elise Cranny

Both, as well as Olivia Baker in the 800, are among the best in the collegiate game. But the nature of the Stanford coaching approach is that growth and development takes precedence over short-term goals. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine how good the Cardinal can get.

This is me, yelping with delight. Or maybe I’m just chortling in my joy. Because if it’s true, it’s nectar for those of us who admire good coaching.

I think we can glimpse of Miltenberg’s coaching philosophy from the way he celebrates his runners’ improvement:

And Claudia Saunders, second the past two years in the 800, was fourth this year to complete her collegiate career.

Claudia Saunders (Stanford)
Claudia Saunders (Stanford)

[Miltenberg:] “Claudia Saunders put a capstone on her career competing the way she always has at that meet. If you look at her body of work over the past three years – second, second, fourth – that’s historic in any program in America. Though she was a little disappointed with fourth in the moment, that may have been her best race yet. That was a loaded field. That was a phenomenal end for her.”….

“Claudia is a true example for our whole team, to allow yourself to develop over time and trust the process,” Miltenberg said. “She came here very much under the radar, trusted the process and believed that she could be really good, and steadily developed over her entire career. That is probably the No. 1 thing we talk about every day, to allow yourself to continue to develop and believe in yourself.”

The article is worth reading, if only to savor the way Miltenberg is focused on his runners, including the injured ones. I think you’ll enjoy listening to him talk about injury-plagued Aisling Cuffe. And the joy goes on as he talks about former sub-four high school miler Grant Fisher:

Grant Fisher after running the 1500 in a very respectable 3:42 at Payton Jordan (Grant would come to Stanford in the fall).
Grant Fisher after running a very respectable 1500 in 3:42 at Payton Jordan (Grant would come to Stanford in the fall).

“With Grant, and actually with all of our guys, you have to make sure you’re thinking about their long-term growth and development. If you get caught up in a run of just thinking, ‘What can we do this season? What’s best to get ready to do this season?’ then, I think you forget about doing all the things that are going to set them up for long-term success.

“I told Grant early on, ‘I have no doubt I can get you ready to run 3:38, 3:39 this season, but if we do that, we might be compromising the work that’s going to get you ready to run 3:33 in five years from now.’ With a freshman, when you’re emphasizing their strength and development, one of the things they lose a little bit in short term is maybe some of their explosive pop at 1,500 pace.”

But that will come.

“Grant is going to run a wicked 1,500 meters,” Miltenberg said. “I think he can right now. But with the way we’ve trained this year, setting him up for the future the most, running a great 5,000 confirms to me that we’re doing all the right things in practice to get him ready to be one of the best runners in America over the next 10 years.”….

“With every person you coach, whether they’re at the [Stanford freshman decathlon phenomenon] Harrison Williams-level yet or not, you make every decision about their growth and development. If you do that, you’re going to have great teams because you’re preparing them for the future and because you’re going to have a culture where your athletes know you care about them.

“When you’re committed to their growth and not just how many points they can score, they’re going to fight the hardest for you, for this thing that we’ve built together.”

I can’t stand it. As a super-fan of coaching that puts the athlete first, pardon me if I stand up on my chair and tear my shirt off and cheer.



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