This is Elliott Denman’s salute to Fred Samara, the long time coach of Princeton. Fred Samara is one of the finest coaches in our sport. I met Fred during the early 1990s when Fred and Harry Marra were launching the VISA Decathlon program. A 1976 Olympian, 

TOP COLLEGE TRACK TOWN
SAYS FAREWELL TO TOP TRACK COACH
By ELLIOTT DENMAN

Question: Over the years, which college town in America stands atop the podium as home to residents and guests coursing serious track and field through their veins?

Eugene, Oregon? Ann Arbor, Michigan? Des Moines, Iowa?

Gainesville, Florida? Austin, Texas?

Let me tell you they’re all Johnnies-Come-Lately on the collegiate track and field map.

Let me remind you that they’ve been doing this running-jumping-throwing thing in Princeton, New Jersey, for a century and a half. And they’re still very much at it.

Princeton University has been fielding track and field teams since 1873.

The Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America – you know, the IC4A – staged its first meet in 1876. The first team champion: the Princeton University Tigers. The first Tiger individual winner: J.W. Mann, champion in both the shot put…and baseball throw.

Team USA at the first Modern Olympic Games – Athens 1896 – was almost all men of Princeton (oh, with a handful of Harvard guys) and organized by Princeton history professor William Milligan Sloane. The Games’ first double winner: Princeton’s Robert Garrett, in the shot put and discus. USA’s first International Olympic Committee member? William Milligan Sloane.

The second Olympic 100-meter champion: Princeton’s Frank Jarvis in 1900.

America’s first great outdoor meet spectaculars: Those sensational Princeton Invitationals of the 1930s (featuring such greats as Glenn Cunningham, Jack Lovelock, Sydney Wooderson, and Princeton’s own Bill Bonthron) racing before vast crowds at Palmer Stadium.

Jesse Owens?? His route to quadruple golden glory at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games was built on his epic performances at the ’36 National AAU’s at Palmer Stadium.

Over the years, Palmer Stadium had been the scene of nine world-record performances.

All this while Princeton’s own varsity teams (coached by suchnotables as Keane Fitzpatrick, Matt Geis, Pete Morgan and Larry Ellis) kept their Tigers in the sport’s highest echelons,for years and years more.

All this, too, is by way of saying that the last 46 years of Princeton men’s track – under the expert guidance of Fred Samara, successor to Ellis, his own mentor – have been among the finest of all.

With the Heptagonal Championships – now featuring the eight Ivy League schools, and formerly, Army and Navy – the team’s primary focus, the Tigers have been by far the overall “Heps” dominators in Samara’s tenure.

The “Heps” box score through The Samara Era at Princeton: 10 triple crowns (cross country, indoor track, outdoor track),a total of 51 team titles, along with a whopping 502 individual titlists.

Samara, inducted into the National Collegiate Coaches Hall of Fame in 2017, has guided his Tigers to nine NCAA individual-event titles, and six of his top pupils made it to the Olympic Games (as he did, too, in the 1976 Montreal decathlon.)

Among the most notable: Athens 2004 Olympian and multi-national high jump champion Tora Harris, two-time Olympic steeplechaser Donn Cabral, and celebrated pole vaulter Sondre Guttormsen, whose credentials include three NCAA golds, one European title (for his homeland of Norway) and 2021 Tokyo Olympian.
But Samara’s last two Tiger teams may have been the best of them all. Sondre Guttormsen, along with brother Simen, were vital ingredients in the success of his 2022 Tigers: fifth at NCAA indoors, seventh at NCAA outdoors…

Then again, nothing is forever, a fact of life Samara, 73, admitted back in June in announcing his retirement. There came a time, and this was it.

But all his Princeton colleagues, athletes, and friends were not about to let him simply disappear from the Tiger scene without a big, buoyant goodbye salute, either.

And they did it in style, too, last Saturday night (Oct. 21, 2023) at the Westin Princeton Forrestal Village hotel complex.

Over 300 crammed the ballroom – festooned with “Farewell to Fred” signage and presented with “Fred’s Fans” pins – to say their formal goodbyes.

At tradition-laden Princeton, this was truly a historic event. No Princeton person had ever been accorded such a sendoff. Not beloved basketball coach Pete Carril. Not even Albert Einstein.

An array of Tiger alumni, colleagues, friends, and admirers took turns at the dais.

Ivy rivalries often criss-cross.

Samara, a two-time national decathlon champion and 1976 Olympian, is a Penn graduate; Penn coach Steve Dolan is a former Princeton mentor.

Said Penn grad Frank Harrison (a two-time Olympic Trials decathlete, himself. who followed in Samara’s shoes as a top-flight Penn all-arounder) put it, “Fred has had a huge role in so many lives.”

Augie Wolf was a big raw talent when recruited out of Minnesota by Samara.

Said Wolf: “He took a chance on me and turned my life around. I went from 47 feet in the shot put to 67 feet in four years and the 1984 Olympics. That’s Fred.”

Said former Tiger long jumper Jay Diamond: “It took a lot of work by all of us. Nothing happened by accident.”

He’ll never forget one Hep meet.

“Cornell won it and was celebrating all over the place.”

“That’s the way a champion wins, Fred told us. “It’s too bad they won’t get to celebrate again.”

Sure enough, Samara’s athletes dug down, won the next edition of the Heps, and have been dominating this “Ancient Eight” meet for decades.

Diamond’s vision: A statue of Samara to be installed at the world-class William Weaver Stadium facility (erected in 1998 as successor to the historic Palmer Stadium.)

“He belongs there,” along with such other Princeton greats as basketball’s Bill Bradley, football’s Dick Kazmaier, and hockey’s Hobie Baker.
“He made us all better men.”
Diamond’s motion passed by a unanimous (alas, unofficial) vote.

“We had the best coach in history,” said shot put star C.J. Licata. “We all know you (Samara) were the best. We all wanted to go where you had been.”

No speaker was more passionate than Brad Urschel.

He’d been voted the best athlete at his Texas high school in 50 years. He came to Princeton. He, too, blossomed out as a world-class decathlete. He’d been an Olympic Trials candidate.

But the life he’d known came to a shattering close one night on a West Texas road. Driving with his Dad – to a track meet – their car overturned, and Urschel was thrown from the back seat.

Despite the crippling injuries after years of rehabilitation, despite a life of obstacles and challenges, there he was at this night, on hand to honor Samara.

“We can all learn from these events,” Urschel said softly.

Urschel has often said he no longer experiences “fear, heaven or hell, states of being.”

“We can all learn.”

And the full house on “Fred’s night” rose to salute the most courageous of all these Tigers.

Like so many others here, John Mack (class of 2000) had been a Samara pupil – and a 10-time Heps titlist at 200, 400, and relays.

Now, the former team captain is the university’s director of athletics, a post he’s often said.

“is truly a dream come true, 25 years in the making.”

So, it was Mack’s job to confirm Jason Vigilante as Samara’s successor.

“Vig” has been a brilliant distance coach with Samara

(after previous successes in Texas and Virginia) and will now take the full reins of the men’s track and field program.

“How do you follow in the footsteps of a coach as great as Fred Samara?” he asked.

“He truly loves helping people. He loves everyone here, It’s a love he shares with all of us.”

And then it was Samara’s turn to say goodbyes.

Over the years, he’s coached USA teams at the Olympic Games (Barcelona 1992), along with Worlds, Pan Ams, Goodwill Games, and more. When USA’s national status in the decathlon seemed to sag, he found the critical Visa sponsorship and rallied the USA deca-team back on track to the world No. 1 ranking.

He’d traveled the world, but his heart was always in Princeton, N.J.

He credited his Princeton predecessor – “I owe everything to Larry (Ellis),” he said.

He credited his wife (Lorraine) and son Ben (the just-like-Dad outstanding coach at Princeton High School.) He lauded the multi-member-strong alumni support group, Friends of Princeton Track. He saluted the coaches and staffers he’s worked with (from predecessor Ellis to Peter Farrell to Marc Anderson and current colleagues Vigilante and Robert Abdullah, and many more.)

“I have a thousand stories,” he said.

But he couldn’t tell them all. The evening was rolling along.

Luggage – for future travels perhaps, and other tokens of appreciation – were presented,

Then again, Samara, a resident of nearby Cranbury, may never stray too far from this storied campus. The doors will always be open. And, just in case, Vigilante promised there’d always be a desk for him in their Jadwin Gymnasium office quarters.

To learn more about Fred Samara, please check out this article:

Fred Samara on the Ivy Way: Revered Princeton Coach and Olympian Embraces Balanced Approach

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