Fred Samara is one of the finest coaches in our sport. David Hunter’s feature captured his spirit and love of his university, sport and athletes. I was fortunate to spend time with Fred Samara and Harry Marra as they championed the VISA Decathlon program, one of the finest sponsorships of our sport, from 1991-2000. Fred Samara is the example of the importance of coaches in athletes’ development in our sport.
July 24th, 2016
No Ivy League school has ever captured a men’s or women’s team title at the NCAA Div. I outdoor track & field championships. Never. And, by the way, don’t count on an Ivy team to be placing that winning team trophy in its award case any time soon. The Ivies don’t roll that way.
The eight universities [Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale] which make up the Ivy League do not constitute a sports confederation on a par with the so-called “Power-5 Conferences.” They don’t aspire to be. Comfortable in their own skin, these eight schools are unified in adhering to their shared credo of combining an exemplary education opportunity with a first rate environment of superb coaching, facilities, and support which can allow their respective undergraduates to achieve their fullest potential as student athletes – be it making the Olympic team or simply scoring a critical point as a senior at the Heps championships.
Just because the Ivy institutions have never challenged- and are not likely to ever challenge – for the NCAA track & field team title does not suggest that these schools do not cultivate and produce excellent track & field athletes. They do. For example, Yalie Frank Shorter – who went on win the Olympic gold medal in the ’72 Olympic marathon in Munich – won the 1969 NCAA 6-mile championship in the pre-metric era. Others have followed. To name a few: Penn’s Sam Burley was the 2003 NCAA 800m champion. Star-crossed miler Morgan Uceny of Cornell was ranked #1 in the world in the 1500 meters in 2011 despite getting tripped and falling in the world championship final. Princeton’s Donn Cabral – now a two-time Olympian who still holds the American collegiate steeplechase record at 8:19.14 – captured the NCAA steeplechase crown in 2012. And Dartmouth ’14 distance star Abbey D’Agostino – the most decorated track & field athlete in Ivy League history – won 7 NCAA championships while at Hanover. Take a look at the recently completed United States Olympic Trials where Yale’s Kate Grace won the 800m final and Cornell’s rising senior Rudy Winkler bested an outstanding field – comprised of both collegians and pros – to win the hammer throw. There are always bright and shining stars in the ever-changing constellation of Ivy League track & field athletes.
Now beginning his 40th year of coaching at Princeton University, Fred Samara – the William M. Weaver ’34 Head Coach of Men’s Track & Field – is perhaps the most articulate and enduring steward of the Ivy philosophy toward student athleticism.
“I am very proud to be an Ivy Leaguer. I went to the University of Pennsylvania and graduated from the Wharton School back in 1973,” states Samara, a 1976 Olympian in the decathlon. “I moved out to California to train for three or four years. And then I came back and worked at Princeton and I’ve been here ever since.” Presiding over the track & field and cross country fortunes at Princeton for four decades, Samara – currently the longest-tenured track & field coach in the Ivy League – has had time to develop a deep understanding about why he – along with so many others – hold the Ivy League so dear. “If you look around the country, you see many leagues changing and teams moving in and out of leagues. And in my opinion, there really is no identity to those leagues, who they are, and what they are,” the 66 year old coach explains. “The wonderful thing about the Ivy League is it has been the same league since the early 1950’s and – as far as I can see – will remain the Ivy League and what we stand for which is outstanding education plus the ability to compete at the highest level. And we always tell the athletes that they can achieve all their goals – both on the track and in the classroom – by going to an Ivy League school,” notes Samara whose track record – which includes mentoring 4 Olympians, 7 NCAA individual champions, and 73 All-Americans during his tenure with the Tigers – substantiates the pledge he makes to his incoming athletes. “I am very proud of Princeton which is both a top school academically and athletically based on the number of championships won across the board in all sports,” points out Samara, perhaps reflecting on Princeton’s performance this past year in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup competition – a point-system metric designed to measure and honor performances in NCAA championship events – where the Tigers finished 33rd, the only non-BCS school in the top 50 and the second-highest ranked team in a non-power conference, two spots behind BYU. “And track & field has basically led the way,” he is quick to add. “Since I’ve been at Princeton, we’ve won over 50 championships in cross country, indoor, and outdoor. So it’s an exceptional record.”
Samara – a two-time All-American and 5-time Penn Relays champion while competing for the Quakers – a proudly cites the post-athletic success of several of his track & field athletes as validating the stated Ivy approach of preparing its student athletes for next-stage success once their careers as elite athletes have concluded. “We think we have proven that you can do it all – you can get a great education and move on in life. And to me, that’s the most rewarding thing,” notes Samara. “I see people like Tora Harris [an engineer major and 2004 Olympic high jumper who has gone on to develop, produce, and market the electric ODK cargo bike] or Donn Cabral [a multi-lingual economics major and 2-time Olympic steeplechaser] or other athletes I’ve coached who have achieved great things and then moved on to great careers in law, business, science, or whatever.”
Samara notes that unlike other conferences, the Ivy institutions cultivate a certain kinship that is shared among the schools and extends beyond the undergraduate experience. “The Ivy League schools share a common bond. We basically all recruit the same athletes. Of course there are some little differences in academic standards in each of the schools, but there is a common bond. And that bond is strengthened within your four years of competing,” explains Samara. “But, more importantly, it extends after that. Quite often you’ll find somebody from Penn working for somebody from Princeton or Yale. You don’t see that in other conferences. There really is a common bond among the student athletes. And our recruiting pitch is that this bond is an important thing. You’re on the same level with all the schools. And anyone who has been to the Heps knows it is an amazing, enthusiastic, spirited competition. There’s nothing like the Heps – there’s just nothing like it.”
Samara appreciates that his own athletic journey – his experience as an Ivy League track & field athlete at Penn and later as an Olympic decathlete – has helped him to become a better, more informed coach and to relate more effectively to his athletes. “I think the kids respect that. And I think through my experience – through good times and bad times – it has helped my coaching. In 1972 I was one of the favorites to make the Olympic team. Basically I had made it, but I pulled my hamstring. So I ended up training for 4 more years for ’76 and I had a lot of experiences along the way,” Samara explains. “And I use that in my coaching – not just in training people but also with the mental aspect of it, how to stay with it. Remember: you learn something from every race you do. More importantly, you learn more from the bad experiences than from the good experiences.”
The 1975 AAU decathlon champion has also had extensive experience on the international level, coaching U.S. athletes at the Pan-Am Games, the Goodwill Games, the World Championships, and the Olympics. “It helps me on a lot of levels,” offers Samara, whose sphere of coaching influence expands beyond his Tiger athletes to assist others such as reigning Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton and 2016 Olympic 1500 meter athlete and Princeton assistant coach Robby Andrews. “It helps me in recruiting because I am able to say I was an Olympian; I was a collegiate athlete in the Ivy League; I achieved at the highest level; I graduated from a great school; and I have experience coaching not only the championship athlete, but also the world and Olympic championship athletes and qualifiers. Not only does Princeton open the door, but that background and experience certainly helps.”
At a time in his life when many his age are planning for the next phase, Samara – joyful and enthusiastic in the harness – has no present plans to retire. “Princeton is absolutely the perfect place to work. We get amazing athletes who all want to be great students and athletes. We have unbelievable support. We have amazing facilities. We have a beautiful campus. And everything is wonderful,” he declares. “I intend to coach as long as I can – as long as my health will allow me to, God willing. I’m in great condition. I work out once or twice a day myself. So hopefully I am a good role model for my student athletes.” Even after four decades, Samara’s zestful embrace of his craft remains fresh and strong. “I just love coaching. I love getting up every day and getting into the office. The challenge of coaching is something that keeps you young. And the wonderful part of coaching is that every 3-4 years we have new athletes. And I am unbelievably excited about our class coming in – wonderful kids, great student athletes, and great challenges.
Not surprisingly, Fred Samara – still in the full stride of a bountiful coaching career at Princeton – has not yet given much thought to the legacy he will leave when he ultimately steps away from the sport. When pressed about how he would like to be remembered, the long-serving Tiger coach, after an extended pause, finally states he would like to be seen as “someone who embraced the Ivy League model, who lived it himself, and who wanted to give that same opportunity to other student athletes.” Princeton track & field athletes over the past four decades won’t hesitate to affirm that he did. Dave Hunter