Capping Storied Career Guiding PU Men’s Track, Samara Headed to National Coaches Hall of Fame
COACHING ICON: Princeton University men’s track head coach Fred Samara, left, instructs one of his athletes on the finer points of pole vaulting. This week, Samara, a former Olympic decathlete, will be one of six coaches inducted into the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) Hall of Fame in Phoenix, Ariz. During Samara’s tenure as the head coach at Princeton since 1979, the Tigers have won 41 Ivy League Heptagonal titles, including 20 indoor crowns, 17 outdoor crowns and four in cross country, as he served as cross country coach from 1992-98 and again from 2004-07. (Photo Courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Bill Alden
A year after ending a brilliant track career that culminated by competing in the decathlon for the U.S. team at the 1976 Summer Olympics, Fred Samara ran into a crossroads.
In deciding what to do with the rest of his life, Samara had the choice of taking a marketing job for a running magazine or becoming an assistant men’s track coach at Princeton University.
“I could have moved back to California, which my wife Lorraine and I really wanted to do because that was where the running magazine was,” said Samara, who trained for two years in San Jose, Calif. for his Olympics bid.
“I didn’t know what to do, but something inside of me just said: take the coaching job.”
Listening to his inner voice, Samara took the Princeton job and has never left. Along the way, Samara has guided the Tigers to 41 Ivy League Heptagonal titles, including 20 indoor crowns, 17 outdoor crowns, and four in cross country.
This week, Samara will be one of six coaches to be inducted into the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) Hall of Fame in Phoenix, Ariz.
“It is an amazing honor,” said Samara. “It is the highest honor you can get in our coaching fraternity so it is great.”
It has been an amazing ride in track and field for Samara, first getting interested in the sport as a grade schooler.
“My father took me to Madison Square Garden for all of the big track meets,” said Samara, 67, a native of the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, N.Y.
“At the time, the Garden had seven meets and they were hugely attended, sellouts. I was really enamored with it.”
By the time Samara got to Fort Hamilton High, he was ready to compete in some big meets, having honed his sprinting and jumping skills under some local mentors.
“There were a couple of really good multi-event guys that went on and were competing in college and afterwards; they took me under their wing,” said Samara.
By his senior year at Fort Hamilton, Samara was a star sprinter, long jumper, and the top-ranked high schooler in the decathlon.
He then headed down to Philadelphia to attend Penn and compete for its track program under legendary coach Irving “Moon” Mondschein.
“Moon was one of the greatest athletes of all time, he was phenomenal,” said Samara. “It was a no brainer, I was going to go to Penn.”
During his college career, Samara was a two-time All-American, a five-time Penn Relays champion, and took fifth in the decathlon at the World University Games.
He nearly qualified for the decathlon for the 1972 Summer Olympics but was derailed by injury during the competition for spots on the U.S. team.
“In ’72 I was one of the favorites to make the Olympic team; we had the trials in Eugene and I had a hamstring injury in late May and it sort of got better,” said Samara.
“I had an amazing meet and I basically had the team made. In the 8th event, which is the pole vault, I cleared my opening height and people in the stands were shouting ‘you made it.’ On the next height, I pulled my hamstring again, so it was the worst moment of my life.”
After graduating from Penn in 1973 with a degree in economics from its Wharton School, Samara ended up in San Jose, Calif. training for a shot at the 1976 Olympics with close friend and competitor Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn Jenner.
“We trained together every day; he was good in certain events and I was good in other events so we complemented each other,” said Samara.
“He was a tremendously hard worker and very gifted. He was a great competitor and was really focused.”
Both men qualified for the U.S. team but while Jenner went on to earn gold and fame at the Montreal games, Samara suffered an injury that sabotaged his chances for a medal as he placed 15th.
“I went back to San Jose and about five days after the trials, I was throwing the javelin and I stepped over the javelin board,” said Samara.
“There was a hole and I got a hairline fracture of my ankle. I remember I just kept shouting, ‘I can’t believe this now.’”
Samara’s time at Penn and San Jose served him well when he took the plunge into coaching.
“I had worked and coached informally with people my whole life,” said Samara.
“Decathletes help each other, we are always coaching. I was doing multi-events and I had the great mentor in Moon. My coaching style mirrors his coaching style to a T. There is no fooling around, no bones about it, get it done, no excuses, that type of thing.”
By 1979, Samara was getting head coaching offers from other schools but stayed at Princeton when Hall of Fame head coach Larry Ellis graciously suggested that they share the post.
“I owe him everything; it means a lot to me what he did,” said Samara, turning emotional when he recalls the exchange with the Princeton athletic administration that led to the designation.
“He went down to sit in the meeting with us and he said; I am going to take a step back. You are going to do track and field, I will do the cross country. We will work together and be co-head coaches; That is an amazing thing that shows you what Larry was.”
In reflecting on his coaching philosophy, Samara believes that his varied experience and honesty are the keys to his approach.
“I think the most important thing in coaching is that the kids respect you and respect your knowledge,” said Samara, who evokes a professorial air with his bald head, wire-rimmed glasses, and closely trimmed mustache.
“I always said it is a coach-athlete and athlete-coach relationship. We are in it together; you have to be honest with me and I have to be honest with you. We really have to work together because we both have the same goals. We want you to be the best you can be on campus and here.”
Princeton senior star sprinter Carrington Akosa respects Samara’s ability to stay on top of everything going on around the track, noting the coach has a eagle eye.
“He is a very busy guy; he does the long jump and then he does the triple jump and the high jump,” said Akosa.
“While I am doing my starts, he somehow looks in and when I am done he says ‘Carrington you have to jump up,’ and I say, ‘What? I didn’t know you were watching.’”
Samara’s deep reservoir of knowledge has helped him make Princeton a dominant force in Ivy League track.
“Coach Samara is a surreal winner, he sets goals and he achieves it,” said Akosa of Samara, who has one of the walls in his office in Jadwin Gym covered with a photo montage of images from meets along with stickers updating his Heps title totals.
“The goal is always win the Ivy League title; everything he does is to achieve those goals. He will tell you what to run and if you don’t want to run that event, he tells you those are points that you are going to score at Heps. He has already done the calculation and he knows what the other teams are going to run. I have never seen this kind of tactician in track and field.”
Akosa, for his part, is not surprised that Samara has been recognized by the Coaches Hall of Fame.
“There is no one else I would think other than coach Samara to get that honor,” asserted Akosa, noting that Samara has coached a number of U.S. teams in international competition. “What he has done for the sport, not just Princeton track and field, is absolutely tremendous.”
But more importantly than the wins, Samara has done a lot for Akosa as a person, helping him through a tough time when the sprinter was struggling after a bad outing in a meet during is freshman season.
“He sees me going to the locker room and he saw me crying and he came in and said, ‘what is going on?’ and I said, ‘I don’t think I am fast again,’” said Akosa.
“He stayed there the whole time, talking to me. I was impressed that this man left what he was doing to come to me, a freshman, who is just crying. I think very highly of him. To me, he is not just a coach, he is someone you can rely on.”
In Samara’s view, being able to rely on others was critical in his ascension to the Hall of Fame.
“Many people helped me along the way,” said Samara, noting that he has no plans to retire.
“Many of those people are already in the Hall of Fame and were instrumental in my career, both as an athlete and as a coach. I think that is the important thing. If you really love the sport and want to continue in the sport, you have to give back.”
There can be no doubt that Samara has given the Princeton program and his sport quite a lot over the last 40 years.