Taking Pride in His Impact on His Athletes and Sport, Farrell Ends 39-Year Run as PU Women’s Track Coach
RETIREMENT PARTY: Princeton University women’s track head coach Peter Farrell enjoys a special moment with his athletes in early May at the 2016 Ivy League Outdoor Heptagonal Championships at Weaver Stadium. It was the last Heps for Farrell, who recently announced his retirement after 39 years as the only head coach in the history of the Princeton University women’s track and cross country programs. (Photo Courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
Peter Farrell doesn’t like to stray too far from his athletes.
As Farrell started to reminisce about his 39 years as the only head coach in the history of the Princeton University women’s track and cross country programs and his recent decision to retire, he asked to chat on the steps on the lobby of Jadwin Gym so he could keep an eye out for any runners who may need his counsel.
Since taking the program to varsity status from a club sport in 1978, Farrell has provided countless nuggets of advice on and off the track to his athletes.
Over the course of his tenure, that nurturing has seen Farrell guide the Tigers to 27 Ivy League team titles and coach more than 50 All-Americans and over 180 Ivy League champions. He led the program to the Ivy League Triple Crown (cross country, indoor, and outdoor track) in 1980-81 and 2010-11 and is the only Ivy women’s coach ever to achieve this feat even once.
This past weekend, he helped senior star Cecilia Barowski take fifth in the 800 at the NCAA Outdoor Track Championships in Eugene, Ore. as she became the final All-American of Farrell’s tenure.
Upon arriving in Princeton for his job interview, Farrell sensed that he had found a second home.
“For a kid from Queens to come down here and see all of this, it was glorious,” said Farrell, 69, with a gleam in his eyes, a raised eyebrow, and his neatly trimmed mustache creased in a grin.
“I loved my interview process. I fell for the place, I hoped to get the job. I got the job and they couldn’t get rid of me.”
Before making that move, Farrell had experience building a program from scratch as he had founded the girls’ track team at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, N.Y.
“I really wanted to see if a girl could get out of the sport what I got out of the sport,” said Farrell, a world ranked 800-meter runner during his college career at Notre Dame who got into teaching as the Vietnam War was raging.
“What I got out of the sports was tons. I got travel. I got an identity. I got a great education at Notre Dame and all the values of being a competitive team athlete. I just wanted to see if girls at the high school level could get out of it what I did because no one was doing it at the time. There were very few girls’ track programs around the country.”
While seeing that girls could thrive through track, there were plenty of challenges at the outset as Farrell took over a group of Princeton woman athletes who had been trained by Bill Farrell, a manager for the men’s track team.
“I set about recruiting right away,” said Farrell. “We had 10 who were walk-ons in the true spirit of the word and we got some kids to come. We had immediate success because Princeton was ahead of the curve. Harvard and Princeton started at about the same time as did UPenn but Princeton was a little more organized, meaning I felt supported. In the second year I had a great recruiting class, including Lynn Jennings (a 1992 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000) so I was in a situation where it just took off.”
Having attracted the athletes, Farrell focused on developing a distinctive competitive culture around the growing team.
“We were going to have a well balanced program,” said Farrell. “I was the only coach at the time; I had run the 800, cross country and the mile relay so I went out and tried to learn as much as I could. I went to every clinic I could get to. I went to learn by doing clinics to become a well rounded coach. I wanted to be good, but what does that mean in the Ivy League. I was told that I should be competitive in the league and occasionally get kids to the nationals that happen to do well which is basically what it has been.”
Influencing his kids, on and off the track, has been at the core of Farrell’s approach.
“There was no defining moment for me as a coach, it is an ongoing thing, this process in which I am involved with their lives,” said Farrell.
“The one thing I like most about this place is that it is not just about winning, although winning is very important, it is about developing people. If there is anything I look back on that I really enjoyed and feel good about is that you are involved with their process and their transition from adolescence to adulthood. College is a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood and I am there through sports.”
Former Tiger track star Ashley Higginson, a 2011 Princeton alum and college All-American who has competed in the steeplechase for the U.S. in international events, credited Farrell with pulling no punches in dealing with his athletes.
“From the moment I met him, I wanted to impress him; something special about Peter at the time of his career that I got to work with him was that he didn’t need to sell anything to you,” said Higginson.
“He was a straight shooter. He certainly knew that being a member of the Princeton track team was an honor and was going to be great for the rest of your life but he also knew that it didn’t come without some battles and challenges. I don’t think he ever sugarcoated any of that. He said I can’t give you an athletic scholarship, I can’t tell you that you are going to ace your classes. What I can tell you is that you are going to love being a member of this program.”
Being a member of Farrell’s program means that he is involved in his athletes’ lives long after they leave Princeton.
“He remembered every girl’s name and not like their times or anything like that but what it was that they were doing now and what they had contributed to the campus and community,” noted Higginson.
“He showed me that he knew everything about his old athletes. That was multifaceted and multi-dimensional and that meant the world to me and I found that very important in my next step as a runner and as a student.”
For Higginson, Farrell’s influence played a big role as she juggled law school with her training after graduating from Princeton.
“I think one of the biggest lessons I learned from Peter was to separate things,” said Higginson, who graduated from Rutgers Newark Law School in 2015 and passed the New Jersey bar this year.
“Ironically, Princeton has a road in between its academic and athletic facilities and that road and that bridge is just a perfect way to compartmentalize your life. He really showed me that if you want to be good at anything, you need to be present in that moment. When I crossed that bridge, he was there when I needed him. He also wanted to remind me that for a few hours I got to not think about my history paper and I got to think about running with my friends. I just think that his ability to teach is that separation of enjoyment and hard work was really critical to my success in track and school work. He just understood. There was never a situation during the time I was an athlete that he hadn’t seen before.”
Higginson has continued to seek Farrell’s advice, noting that he still has a big presence in her life.
“I still call Peter when I have great races or great moments like when someone is engaged but I also call him the moment I have a terrible race or have to make a tough decision,” added Higginson, who is competing for the NY-NJ track club and is training for the upcoming U.S. Olympic Trials this July in Eugene. Ore. looking to represent the U.S in the steeplechase at the Rio Summer Games.
“I still contact him with basically every major point of questioning in my life. He doesn’t tell me what to do but he somehow manages to help me make the right decision.”
For Farrell, the decision to retire this year made sense. “It is just time,” said Farrell.
“When I told the team, I wanted them to know, I didn’t wait for this girl to graduate or this class to graduate, nor am I going to wait for this class to come up because I love this class and there are great kids in it. There are great kids coming in the class behind them and there are great kids coming in the final year. If I did that, I would never leave. I just looked at it; this is the time for myself and my wife, Shane. She retires from the University the same day. She is the business manager of the IT department here, that is a big, stressful job.”
In the wake of his decision, Farrell has been shown a lot of love. “Once I made the announcement, I was snowed in,” said Farrell.
“I was just so tickled, the thoughts that came my way, maybe it is just the fraternity of coaches and the feeling kids have for Princeton. There are people who thanked me for mentoring them. People who I thought hated me have said nice things.”
In Higginson’s view, that display of affection reflects the special legacy Farrell leaves as a track pioneer.
“He started a program for woman at a time where women’s programs didn’t necessarily exist,” said Higginson.
“He forged a new path and now every school has a women’s program and that is normal but it wasn’t when he started his career. He was a phenomenal athlete himself and he could have easily gotten a male coaching job and he didn’t. He chose to do this and that really means so much more as to the type of man he is. That is something you just can’t quickly replace in any way; he is Princeton track.”
Farrell, for his part, is proud of the path that he chose. “You want to know that your life made a difference in somebody’s life; that is what you go into coaching and teaching for and it has come back to me in spades,” said Farrell, who will continue residing in Princeton although he and his wife are planning to travel extensively.
“I don’t want to sound absorbed by it or egotistical about it but the outpouring from the beginning has had us on cloud 9; some of them you could put in a frame and hang up.”
As he hangs up his coaching whistle, there is no doubt that Farrell has made a huge difference for generations of women’s track athletes and the sport itself.