(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction)
UPWARD MOBILITY: Thomas Harrington moved to the college ranks this week as he joined the Princeton University women's track program as an assistant coach after putting together a brilliant tenure heading the track and cross country programs at Stuart Country Day School.
Harrington Ending Stellar Tenure at Stuart, Taking Passion to Princeton Track Program
By Bill Alden
Nestled in a wooded area near Great Road on the north side of Princeton, the Stuart Country Day School campus features a gleaming stone and glass academic center, a well-stocked library, a gym, and carefully manicured playing fields.
If one is looking for a running track somewhere on the leafy grounds of the Catholic girls' school, however, the search will be fruitless.
But if someone is trying to find one of the powers in state Prep B track and cross country, amazingly he or she will have come to the right place. While Stuart may not have a track, it has had the resourceful and inspirational Thomas Harrington coaching its track and cross country programs to championship performances.
Under Harrington's guidance, the Tartans have won four of the last seven Prep B titles in track and five of the last seven Prep B crowns in cross country.
This week, though, Stuart will be losing Harrington as he is moving across town to start a job as an assistant coach of the Princeton University women's track team where he will concentrate on sprints and hurdles.
As Harrington moves up to the next level, he readily admits that his tenure at Stuart has made him uniquely qualified to handle just about any coaching challenge.
"Coaching at Stuart has made me a visionary, a motivator, and an innovator," said the loquacious Harrington, a former pre-law student speaking in a cadence reminiscent of the late trial lawyer Johnnie Cochran.
"Every single practice had to be creative. I had to teach kids how to long jump in a 10-foot hole. We taught the discus and the javelin in a 40-foot area in the gym. We could only have three hurdles in a row. The kids had to believe that the chaos would come together in the end."
It is those kids at Stuart that Harrington will miss the most as he starts his Princeton tenure. "The kids have been the backbone of what we have accomplished," asserted Harrington, whose daughters, Angela and Jenae, have been two of his standout athletes. "They have had to be so flexible and have total faith in what I have taught them."
For Harrington, a devout Christian, faith is a vital part of his approach. "I'm about faith," asserted Harrington. "No matter where I've been, I've relied on family prayer and I have made moves if it's God's will."
One move that changed the course of Harrington's life was competing for the Trenton Central High track program in the mid-1970s under legendary coach Al Jennings.
"My high school coach made such a great impression on me in terms of being a leader and turning kids into champions," said Harrington, a 1976 Trenton High graduate. "He never treated superstars differently from the rest of the athletes. It was always about the team. Everybody had a role and you never knew when someone was going to have to step up."
It took Harrington a while to step up athletically. At Trenton, he ran the 800 and wasn't a big scorer in a powerful program that won three Mercer County Championships and went undefeated in dual meets his last three years there.
Matriculating to Trenton State College, Harrington tried cross country but quit when he became injured adjusting to the 10 kilometer distance. After taking a hiatus from the sport, Harrington came out for indoor track and moved to the sprints where he became a standout performer.
"I was so frustrated about quitting as a freshman that I got mad at myself," recalled Harrington, who came to Trenton State planning to study a prelaw program but decided to switch to Physical Education. "I worked hard and came back to indoor track. I discovered that I had sprinter's speed in a distance runner's body. I didn't lose at the 100 meters for three years in dual meets."
After college, Harrington did student coaching at Ewing High and then came to Lawrence High as a junior varsity basketball coach. In 1986 he took over the Lawrence track program and became a thorn in the side of his mentor Jennings. Harrington led the Cardinals to a state Group II indoor title, a county outdoor title, and 10 Colonial Valley Conference crowns.
Needing a break from coaching, Harrington, a longtime PE teacher at the Hedgepeth-Willams Middle School in Trenton, left his post at Lawrence in 1994. With his older daughter Angela starting in middle school at Stuart, Harrington was content to sit on the sidelines.
But with Stuart looking to start a track and cross country program, Harrington's coaching past caught up with him and he was eventually convinced to get back into the coaching arena with the Tartans.
"The idea of coaching my own daughter appealed to me," said Harrington. "In 1996, we had two kids on cross country and three kids the next year. I had 12 sixth graders on the middle school in 1995 so I knew they could be good when they got to high school."
With the success that he has had at Stuart and with younger daughter Jenae still a sophomore, Harrington didn't rush into the Princeton position.
"I saw the ad for the Princeton job in the paper and I decided to apply," said Harrington, who has known Princeton head coach Peter Farrell for years through track circles.
"Peter knows what I can do. It was a tremendously tough decision. I asked them to give me a week to think about it. The key was Jenae. If she had said 'Daddy, stay' I would have but she said you gave me last year and a state title. She told me to go for it."
While Harrington knows he faces an adjustment as he deals with college athletes, he isn't about to change his approach.
"I pour my heart totally into coaching," said Harrington. "I let the kids know that I care and that helps them to succeed. I ask for commitment and hard work for 2 hours a day. I know that they have a lot going on in the other 22 hours. I think Princeton will benefit from having me."
If the Princeton athletes can match the commitment Harrington displayed in building Stuart into a track power, they will certainly benefit in a big way.