QA₂ Max: Familiar Names With New Titles

QA₂ Max: Familiar Names With New Titles

Earlier this year, Running Times talked to Stanford assistant John Oliver and Iowa State women’s cross-country coach Andrea Grove-McDonough about starting from the proverbial bottom; the subhed told us about “the unglamorous life of a college assistant.” We took that inside look a step further, not just investigating the very bottom rung on the ladder, but interviewing four coaches about their experiences starting a new position.

John Gondak was promoted from associate head coach to director of cross country and track and field at Penn State this summer. 

After three years as the head women’s track and cross country coach at Hillsdale, Andrew Towne  took over the men’s job for 2014-15.

Natalie Hall and Chris Solinsky both are beginning new lives in Williamsburg. Hall took over as William & Mary’s head women’s cross country coach after six years as an assistant at Virginia Tech. And while Solinsky isn’t quite done as an athlete, his role as assistant men’s and women’s distance coach is his first full-time coaching gig.

All four are in different places in their career trajectories; one common thread is that they’re having a new experience in coaching, and learning on the spot.   Another is that the quartet all struck me as particularly certain that they were doing exactly what they wanted to in life.  They’re all somewhat in the dark right now.  But that’s right where they want to be.

What was your path to your current job? Were there any ever moments of doubt about pursuing a coaching career?

John Gondak, Penn State director: I can remember a specific bus ride home from a meet in college—I ran for Syracuse—and on this bus ride, I had a conversation with my coach, Dick Coleman, about how I could stay involved in track.  I majored in engineering, and I liked that, but I realized that I wanted to stay in the sport.  He pointed out a few possibilities to me, and I was lucky enough to get an academic scholarship to Georgia Tech, where I was a volunteer assistant under Grover Hinsdale and Alan Drosky.

From there, I was at Toledo as a part-time assistant for two years under Kent Baker.  If there was ever a moment of doubt, it was then—I was working as an engineer in the morning, and going to campus for practice in the afternoon. I was applying for engineering and coaching jobs, and fortunately, Don Weber hired me as an assistant at Kentucky.

After eight seasons at Kentucky, Beth Alford-Sullivan [who Gondak is replacing as director at PSU] brought me to Penn State.  Every coach as that one dream job, their one university they always wanted to work at, and for me, it’s Penn State.  Both my parents went here, I grew up as a huge Penn State football fan.  This is where I always wanted to be.

Chris Solinsky, William & Mary assistant: I always wanted to get into coaching; for the longest time, I didn’t know when it would be a good time.  It’s the good and the bad of when I got hurt—I had a hamstring avulsion and the surgery to repair it, so it’s taken a while to get back.  But with that extra time on my hands, I started getting into volunteer coaching with the University of Portland.

That kind of lit the fire for me and confirmed that coaching was definitely going to be the career path for me after running.  When the opportunity opened up here, Steve Walsh [director at W&M] and I sat down and talked about things.  It was a perfect storm of getting my foot in the door, getting my feet wet with coaching and allowing me to still pursue running for the next two years, giving the 2016 Olympic team a real fair shake.

It’s been terrific so far. It’s further confirmed that this is what I want to do; I’ve always wanted to make an impact on the running world, whether it’s through my races or someone else’s. 

Andrew Towne, Hillsdale M/W track/XC coach: I started as a volunteer assistant here at Hillsdale. That’s what I did for the first year, and then I was able to move on to an entry level assistant job for three and a half years—it went really, really well.  We were able to do some things in sprints and hurdles, which is my background, and I was fortunate to be offered an opportunity at Miami of Ohio.

I worked with some really good people down there.  Kelly Phillips was my boss; that was a really good opportunity for me. I got to see a different division, a different way of doing things.  I had a chance to work with Ross Richardson, who’s one of the top throws coaches in the country.  My wife and I were happy there, we had a house—and then Hillsdale called me and wanted to know if I wanted to be the head women’s coach.

My wife and I had always wanted to be back at Hillsdale long-term; we just didn’t think it would be so soon.  At that point, I was really torn.  Like I said, we loved it at Miami and I enjoyed working with Kelly, but, our dream was to come back and be at our alma mater.

We came back.  I’ve been the women’s coach the last three years and added the men’s duties this fall.

There was never really any point where I was unsure that this is what I wanted to do.  I really struggled with declaring a major in college, I majored in about five different things.  And I was fortunate to have a psychology professor who sat down with me and said “If you can, you should try to do what you’d do in your free time if you weren’t getting paid.” At that point, I liked to play video games, like a lot of guys, and I preferred to play games with a recruiting component.  I would simulate an entire season just so I could constantly go through the recruiting part.  And I read books on training.

The prof was really quick to say “That sounds like a college coach.”  From that point on, I never really encountered any time where I wasn’t sure that this is what I wanted to do. 

Natalie Hall, William & Mary women’s XC coach: I was offered an assistant position at Virginia Tech right after I graduated, but I turned it down because I was dating one of the pole vaulters on the team and felt like that was a conflict of interest.  So, I ended up in a volunteer assistant role for my first three years.

When you get a break like “here’s a paid assistant coaching job right out of college,” I was probably super stupid and naïve not to take it.  But, the guy ended up my husband, so that’s a positive.

I worked with Athletes in Action, a campus Christian ministry, while volunteer coaching.  And that was a great fit, because I still got a lot of coaching experience but still had flexibility.  My husband graduated, and I was offered the full-time job again.  At that point I thought “OK, I definitely can’t turn it down twice, this is too good to be true.”

Coach Cianelli’s encouragement and grooming really got me thinking that coaching was something that I was really interested in.  it was always in the back of my head to coach or teach—I wanted to be part of that integral time in college students’ life. 

I was on staff at Tech for two years when my husband (who also worked at the university) starting looking into a job transition and landed a job here at William & Mary.  About three weeks after we decided we were moving, the job here opened up.  I had known Coach Walsh a little bit, and I emailed him saying I’d like to put my name in the hat.

Really, it’s like a dream to be in a head coaching role with only 4-5 years of experience, but it’s been a phenomenal transition and a great fit.

In a lot of ways, as cliché as it sounds, God has opened doors and pulled the strings.  I’m floored by it.

What has surprised you the most about your new job?

Gondak: It’s too new right now to have picked up on any major changes.

What I’ve really enjoyed is getting to know the whole track team instead of just spending time with my event group.  My belief is that if you’re the head coach, you should be invested in the total track team.  So it’s been nice to get involved with everyone on the team, not just the distance runners.

Solinsky: Obviously, I knew that recruiting was a big aspect of Division I coaching.  But until you get in there and do it, you don’t realize how important it is and how much time it does take.  So, I’ve been trying to manage my time between my own running, working with the guys that are on the team now, and creating the team for the future. We’re trying to continue what we have in terms of environment and attitude, and find the right fit for our team—not necessarily just the level of athlete.

Towne: Nothing, to be honest with you.  When I was here at Hillsdale before, I worked with both men and women. Actually, that first year or so when I volunteered, I only worked with the men’s program.  When I was at Miami, it was women only.  When I came back here, even though I was the head women’s coach, I worked with all of the men’s and women’s sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers.

There haven’t been really any surprises.  I’ve always felt that it’s in most people’s best interest to work with both men and women, because it essentially doubles your chance of a job.

Hall: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how accepting the girls have been throughout this transition. Two of this year’s captains were in my interview, and they grilled me.  That was probably the most intimidating part of my interview.

They’ve been so accepting of me and my style, and it’s made it so easy.  Losing a coach when they go somewhere else [former head coach Jill Miller left to be an assistant at Wisconsin] is a shock a lot of times for a team, and I’m really surprised and impressed and thankful for how accepting the girls have been.

What does your typical day look like?

Gondak: I get my two kids off to school, then head into the office. We try to have our entire coaching staff hold office hours in the morning.  When there aren’t athletes coming in, it’s the usual: administrative duties, recruiting, planning out training.  At 2:00, we walk across the street to the indoor track (our offices are in the Bryce Jordan Center, the basketball building) for practice.  That’s the best time of day.  Practice is the best time of day for any coach.

Solinsky: I’m very lucky here. We try to be in the office around ten, so that gives me plenty of time to get done what I need to get done [running-wise] in the morning, and many days I can run with the guys on the team as well. It hasn’t been that difficult fitting in my own running.

I’ll get up at six or so, get some food in me, and get the run out of the way.  Then it’s to the office for the day-to-day stuff, whether that’s paperwork, recruiting forms, making calls, tracking down recruits, team meetings, or planning workouts.  We like to sit down with the athletes individually as well. Then, all of a sudden, it’s practice time.

It’s been a really fun adventure—I’ve been put in charge of the strengthening program, so I’ve been getting creative with that.  Then, home by hopefully 6 or 7 and make a few recruiting calls and hang out with my wife while I can.

Towne: I’m married, and I have a five-year-old son who just started kindergarten, so we’ve had to prioritize how we do things. Typically, I’ll wake up and spend some time with him before taking him to school.

I’m very type A, as anyone who’s worked with me would tell you. From 8:30 to 9:30, I work on recruiting only. No responding to emails in that time.  From 9:30 to 10:30, I work on training—what do we have coming up that week, that day, checking out new articles and videos, things like that.  Then from 10:30 to 11:30, I work on administrative stuff.

I stole that scheduling from Mandy Green, a soccer coach in South Dakota, and she had taken that from a couple of books she had read.  It’s easy to start responding to emails and get every which way, so that’s been really helpful.

One thing I’ve learned over my career is that you have to take some time out of the building and take a breather.  In the last two years or so I’ve been playing racquetball on campus.  In the few hours between then and practice I take whatever comes. Then it’s a few hours of practice, with how long it is depending on the day. 

I eat dinner with my family and spend time with them before my son goes to bed.  After that, I’m usually on the phone making recruiting calls from 8:30 to 11, moving East Coast to West Coast.

Hall: I feel like no day is really typical, other than knowing exactly when your practice is going to be.  One of the differences about being a head coach versus having been an assistant in the past is the administrative, business side, working with the AD a little more—being a little more conscious of budgets, compliance, and policies.  That’s been a new part of my day, at least an hour of any given day.

This time of year, especially with the early signing period coming back, recruiting is a huge part of my day.  I love the early signing period—I know some people hate it, but I think that it’s super exciting that it’s back.  It makes the recruiting season a little bit shorter.  As the recruiting coordinator here, I meet with all of the event coaches and set up their recruiting weekends and travel.

Then a good chunk of the day is meeting with the girls and talking both training cycles and just how they’re doing.

There’s plenty of office banter. [Solinsky and Hall are co-workers under Walsh]  The cohesiveness of our staff with basically three new coaches and three seasoned coaches has been awesome. We do an office fantasy football league, so talking lineups is definitely part of our day. I can’t say enough about the group we have under Coach Walsh.  He’s so organized that it’s made the transition easy—coming in mid-August as a cross country coach is scary—but he’s so driven that we’ve just picked up along him.

Are you able to check it at the door when you get home?

Gondak: Coaching in college is definitely becoming a 24/7 job.  You spend at least one or two nights making recruiting calls, and as a head coach, you’re always on call… You have to learn how to turn it off, to take care of yourself.

Hall: I definitely have a tendency towards working all the time.  My husband definitely has to rein me in. With coaching, you’re never finished.  The upside of that is that I can kind of free-flow my day; it doesn’t necessarily have to be 9-5.  If you can figure it out, you can have little oases of time.  So I’ll take a break over dinner, then call some recruits after that.

How’s the transition been mentally from, say, trying to win a Diamond League race to trying to help someone get eighth place in the conference?

Solinsky: I don’t know that it has been a transition for me.  One of the benefits of running for Nike is that they’ve allowed me to do a lot of appearances and talk to a lot of high school kids, a lot of college kids. I’m a fan of the sport, so you recognize that everybody is putting in the same effort.  That effort is comparable, it’s all just relative.

It hasn’t been tough for me at all.  You can tell when the kids are giving their best effort and when they’re not, and you just try to help them get the best out of themselves.

Everyone has that barrier that they’re trying to break; it’s just different for every person.  And everyone’s running as hard as they possibly can to accomplish that goal, whatever it may be.

Sometimes people don’t understand that when I try to relate to them. They’ll try to say “oh, it’s slow, slower than even you’d think is slow.” No! If that was a big PR for you, that’s huge, that’s awesome. I want to celebrate with you as much as celebrating a world record, American record, conference record, state record—to me, they’re all the same.

How did you deal with spending the summer with the “interim”tag?

Gondak: To be honest, it was one of the most challenging periods of my career.  You’re trying to keep a hundred kids focused on performing well for Penn State, while you and four of your assistants plus a director of operations are unsure about your careers. 

We all just bought in.  Penn State is where we wanted to be, so even though there was this cloud of uncertainty, we just decided to recruit and plan summer workouts like we’d be there.  And the team bought in with us; we didn’t have any student-athletes transfer. So once the interim tag came off, it was just back to business.

These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.