Dave Hunter has turned his attention to some very special coaches over the past few weeks, and this week, we have Coach Jason Vigilanta aka Coach Vig. We hope that you enjoy David’s column on Coach Vig.
Catching Up With Coach Vig
Jason Vigilante Savors Collegiate Coaching
September 25, 2012
Life has proved to be a learning experience for Jason Vigilante. Almost from the beginning, a sequence of fortuitous events has exposed one of the nation’s brightest young stars in the constellation of collegiate track and cross country coaches to an array of sports and a series of influential adult figures who, perhaps unknowingly, have shaped his values, his goals, his dreams for the future.
Growing up in Morristown, New Jersey, Vigilante, not unlike many youngsters, participated in a variety of sports. But it didn’t take long for the young athlete to embrace running and the exhilarating freedom he learned it can bring. “Running has always been my primary athletic interest,” says Vigilante. “I played soccer, ice hockey, baseball, things like that. But I’ve always just loved to run.” Over the years, Vigilante has come to view the pure, clean, and simple act of running in nearly reverent terms. “To consider yourself a runner,” he explains, “I think you have to be able to appreciate how it feels to run without any restrictions, to go on a trail run without feeling anything but the trees, the shade, and nature. That’s always been a big appeal.”
But for Vigilante — one of this country’s most accomplished young track & field coaches — it has been more than just the running. It has also been the coaches he has met along the way, the mentors who have made a lasting impression upon him. “I have always considered myself fortunate to be around people who foster that [core principles] — people who in their own right are considered great coaches,” acknowledges Coach Vig. “And, for me, I’ve just been the beneficiary of being around them.”
The seeds of what later blossomed as his own value system were sown early on — starting with his participation on The New Jersey Hawks. “It was a little 8th grade club team coached by Edward Mather,” Vigilante explains. “Coach Mather had a huge impact on my life. He always talked about having a positive attitude. I couldn’t be more fortunate to have had him for a coach.” But there was more. “Coach Mather’s assistant coach was Mark Wetmore,” smiles Coach Vig. Wetmore would, of course, go on to a most successful collegiate coaching career at the University of Colorado. “I have been exceptionally fortunate,” Vigilante notes with gratitude.
At Morristown High School, and under Wetmore’s watchful eye, Vigilante emerged as a very good distance runner — posting marks of 4:18 for the 1600 and 9:32 for the 3200. “I worked really hard to be average,” he laments with an unnecessary sense of humility. “I had Mark guiding my training and I don’t think I had a lot more in the tank.”
After an uneventful year at UNC-Charlotte — “It didn’t quite fit for me.” — Vigilante met Rollie Geiger. Like others before him, the NC State cross country coach would play a pivotal role in shaping the direction of Vigilante’s life. “I got to know Coach Geiger and see his guys at the ’92 World Junior Cross Trials. I ran that race and I finished as the first alternate for the world junior team,” — an event Vig identifies as the highlight of his collegiate career. Seeing his running career at a crossroads, Vigilante knew he needed to step up and seize the moment. “I knew I didn’t want to miss out on how good I could be. So I transferred to NC State to run for Rollie.” It proved to be the right move. “He is just such a good guy. I had a great experience there,” Vig explains. “I learned from him and I am just so thankful that I had a chance to be on a team that qualified for NCAA’s. I had great teammates who are still really good friends to this day.”
Vigilante’s experience at NC State did more than complete him as a collegiate athlete. Running for Rollie and competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference also clarified his thinking and fortified his vision to be a college coach. “I knew all along what I wanted to do was be a coach,” admits Vig. “I’ve always looked up to coaches like Wetmore, Rollie, as well as coaches from other programs we would compete against, such as Coach Brown at Tennessee and Coach Braddock at North Carolina.” With a smile, he adds, “I’ve always aspired to be a college coach.”
By the time of his 1996 graduation from NC State, Vigilante was eager to embark on his collegiate coaching quest. After a year’s service as UNC-Wilmington’s distance coach, Vigilante returned to NC State to serve a two-year stint as an assistant coach — and to gain more knowledge and to soak up more experience in Geiger’s coaching incubator. “I learned to wear a lot of hats,” laughs Vig, reflecting on this joyful time. “You really learn that to be a successful track and field coach, you’re busting your butt, double time. I really appreciated those opportunities because it just made me want to be a coach that much more.”
Vigilante’s coaching journey quickly gained traction. After two years as Geiger’s wingman, coach Vig was clearly ready to leave the nest. In August of 1999, the budding mentor and his new bride Amy moved to Austin, Texas and embraced the opportunity to be a part of one of the country’s top college programs at the University of Texas. Upon his arrival, Vig jumped at the chance to assist the women’s program — and to work with and learn from legendary Bev Kearney, one of the most talented and respected coaches in the country. Vig made the most of that special opportunity. “She is most passionate about what she does,” notes Vig of Coach Kearney. “And her teams are most successful — because her teams are a direct reflection of who she is.”
UT Austin and Coach Vig began forging a relationship of mutual respect. “Being there for a semester to work with the women’s team was eye-opening and for me,’ Vigilante explains. “It was a great platform because I was able to parlay that into a full-time position with the men’s program.”
That move also positioned the young coach for a wonderful turn of good fortune — the opportunity to meet and work with Leo Manzano. Vigilante spotted Manzano early on and was influential in persuading the young miler to become a Longhorn. He was an impact athlete right away. “I recruited him in the fall of 2003. He was a UT freshman in the fall of 2004,” explains Vig. “He won both the indoor and outdoor 2005 NCAA 1500 titles as a true freshman.”
Vigilante’s hunch as to Manzano’s competitive makeup was promptly confirmed. “Leo is really special. And he brought to the team an absolutely unbending desire to win,” marvels Vig. “When it comes down to it, you couldn’t beat that guy. I guess it is more of an intangible, as opposed to something you would recognize at practice every day.” In Manzano, Vigilante saw that special something that others either overlooked or discredited — that rare and uncanny ability to come up big at the biggest moments. “That’s the way he’s always been. In Texas he won 9 state championships — and there is no high school indoor track season in Texas. I can recall there was some concern about whether he might be burned out or physically mature already. And I remember saying, ‘This guy doesn’t lose. He is a winner.'”
Without question, Vigilante played an important role in developing Manzano, positioning hi
m for great success. But Coach Vig is wise enough to know that he, too, benefitted greatly from the relationship. “Not only is Leo a phenomenal athlete, he is just a phenomenal guy. If you look at my career, that was pretty defining. Without Leo, my success wouldn’t be as bright, that’s for sure. While at Texas he won 5 national titles individually and was on a national title-winning relay team. I’ve got a lot to thank him for.”
Vigilante speaks with unbridled pride when he looks back on Manzano’s silver medal performance in the Olympic 1500 meter final last month in London. “On the day of the 1500 final, I saw an internet video of Leo doing a pre-race tempo run and stride-outs, and I believed that he would get a medal. He looked as good as I’ve ever seen him. I’ve always believed that he could be a gold medalist. I don’t care what anybody says, I think he is a gold medalist. He is the best guy in the world when the lights come on and it’s time to go. I have never, ever doubted Leo — ever. He’s always been a special guy.”
By 2008, after 9 years at the University of Texas, Vigilante had honed his skills, had captured more than a fair amount of success, and was being recognized as an emerging talent. And then one day, in the summer of 2008, the phone rang. It was a call from Charlottesville, from the AD at the University of Virginia, extending an offer to Vigilante to become the Director of Track & Field and Cross Country at UVA. “I’ve always wanted to be a head coach, to have the opportunity to run my own program. All of us want that chance,” states Vigilante. Explaining the exuberance that dominated his quick acceptance, Coach Vig outlines, “It came up last minute, less than a week before I left for Beijing, and I just jumped at it.” Noting the emotion that accompanied his decision, Vig concedes, “It was a visceral decision. I didn’t put a lot of factual analysis into it. I just did it; I went for it. I figured that with respect to my work at Texas, I couldn’t do any more than what I had done already.
At Virginia, Vigilante and his programs experienced immediate success. With a steady parade of young raw talent in likes of Robby Andrews, Emil Heineking, Lance Roller, and Morgane Gay and with the refined and proven coaching talent of Coach Vig, the Cavalier program began to ring up ACC titles and — with Robby Andrews — win a few selected national titles in the 800. Andrews even won an 800 meter bronze medal in the 2010 World Junior Championships.
Vigilante had finished his quest. He had achieved his long-standing goal of securing the top track & field and cross country coaching position at a prominent Div. I school. His arrival had sparked the turn-around of UVA’s program. Track & field success was spreading in Charlottesville. Mission accomplished — or was it?
Jason Vigilante realized he was not happy. “When you’re the head coach, you are responsible for all of the headaches. And coaching is probably the 6th or 7th thing you’re responsible for,” the coach laments. “It was just not a good fit for me. I was never home. I wasn’t happy in my position. I wasn’t happy in life,” reveals Vigilante. “I wasn’t happy basically being responsible for 100 people — everything from the budget, to equipment, to fundraising — things that had nothing to do with x’s and o’s. And so I was in a position where I was just not going to do this anymore.”
Having dreams is a good thing. But sometimes dreams need to be re-tailored. And that’s what Vigilante decided he had to do. Vigilante left Virginia earlier this spring to sort things out, to re-think his pathway, to re-analyze where his passions lie. “Going to practice every day and just having the time to talk with kids about they want to do and what they dream about with their running — that’s what excites me,” offers Vig. “For me, taking a step back and evaluating where I was in life was the best thing I could do.”
In sorting things out, Coach Vig even toyed with the idea of turning his attention to post- collegiate athletes such as Alan Webb — American record holder in the mile — and Robby Andrews — who himself had left UVA to launch a professional career. It didn’t take long for Vigilante to realize that his heart is in the collegiate setting. “Until this past spring, I never really had the desire to work with post-collegiate athletes,” explains Vig. “This past spring I kind of kicked around the idea a little bit, but at the end of the day, what really interests me is the transformational process. You have a kid that comes in as a freshman; he’s part of a group; the group has an identity; the group has a purpose; they’re there for an education; and, basically, they’re learning to be better at life and as a human being who is part of this group. That’s what motivates me.”
With a renewed sense of what really is important to him, and with the help of long-time friend and mentor Frank Gagliano, Vigilante was offered and accepted the opportunity to become the head cross country coach and distance coach for the men’s program at Princeton University. “I don’t regret going to Virginia, but I do feel very fortunate to be where I am now — where I am afforded the platform and where my job is to recruit and to coach,” comments Coach Vig on his new position. And with an observation that speaks volumes, he adds, “You know, you get hired as the head coach because you are good at coaching, but when you’re the head coach you don’t really get to coach.”
Newly-installed in a vibrant Div I program at an Ivy League school with an entrenched culture of distance running excellence and a current men’s cross team poised to compete on a national level, Jason Vigilante, at age 39, is positioned to recapture success and happiness. The soul-searching he engaged in this spring has allowed him to reaffirm his basic passion — to work with talented and committed young athletes and to help them achieve their potential. “My basic philosophy revolves around being a balanced human being: doing well in school and coming out to practice where you really aspire to be as good as you can be. That should be the format by which you live your life. What you do outside of practice or outside of class only furthers how good you want to be as an athlete. I have no desire to be a director of traffic only, to be the person responsible for dealing with the headaches. What always has motivated me is working with people who want to be champions. I would say making champions is what I’m into.” With Jason Vigilante relieved of the crush of administrative duties and restored to his position as the undistracted, hands-on mentor, the prospects look bright for him to do just that.