July 5, 2023

Making an Indelible Impact on PU Men’s Track Athletes, Legendary Coach Samara Retiring After 46-Year Run

FINAL INSTRUCTIONS: Princeton University men’s track and field head coach Fred Samara makes a point to one of his athletes. Last week, U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Famer Samara announced his retirement after 46 years at the helm of the program. During his storied tenure, Samara coached the Tigers to 51 Ivy League Heptagonal team and 502 individual championships. He also coached 10 different athletes to nine NCAA championships and guided six of his athletes to the Olympics. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)

By Justin Feil

Princeton University men’s track and field head coach Fred Samara could be found any weekday around lunchtime not in his office, but working out on his own.

He might be throwing the medicine ball, doing hurdle walkovers, running stadium stairs, lifting, or running sprints.

“You never lose being a decathlete,” said Samara, who competed for the United States in the 1976 Olympics in decathlon. “It’s just part of my life. You can’t leave it.”

For decades, the same was true of coaching for Samara. But after 46 years at Princeton of coaching, of accruing a mind-blowing amount of wins, of mentoring both athletes and coaches, and of creating and fostering a competitive and loving culture, the 73-year-old Hall of Fame coach is retiring.

“I think I went through a lot of back and forth thinking about it and why I coach,” said Samara. “I thoroughly love being with the guys. I just think after 46 years of coaching at Princeton, it was just time for a change and to do something different.”

Samara had been considering retirement, and after reading The Big Five for Life by John Strelecky, a book recommended to him by Princeton athletics director John Mack, he declared himself ready to start a new phase of his life. It will start with having time to himself and the chance to travel. He and his wife, Lorraine, intend to stay in Florida for a month over the winter, possibly reconnecting with a former Princeton assistant track coach, Marc Anderson. He’s already missing many of the aspects of coaching Princeton.

“I love coaching and I’m extremely enthusiastic still, particularly with the team we have,” said Samara. “We still have a phenomenal team. It’s a very young team. We have a great recruiting class coming in. I think I could have coached for a number of years more. It had nothing to do with enthusiasm or drive or energy. It was just a change.”

Mack may regret suggesting Strelecky’s book, but he’s thankful for the opportunities that he enjoyed with Samara. Mack was an All-Ivy League sprinter for the Tigers in the late 1990s, then returned to Princeton as athletics director two years ago.

“I really wanted to be selfish and try to convince him to stick around,” said Mack. “It makes my life a million times easier if he’s here, and plus I like walking down the hallway and seeing him. I’m so grateful for what he’s done for me and hundreds, if not thousands, of other Princeton student-athletes and students. I don’t think we’ll see anyone ever like him to have the kind of impact over the course of five decades like he has.”

Samara leaves as one of the most decorated coaches in Princeton history, stands out among his Ivy League peers, and carries national cachet. His Tiger teams won 51 Heptagonal championships, including 10 “Triple Crowns” — winning the Ivy League title in cross country, indoor track and field, and outdoor track and field in the same calendar year. Nobody else in the Ivies has done it even once in the last 35 years.

“The most momentous occasions competing for Coach Samara were not the big individual titles that I won,” said Donn Cabral, the 2012 NCAA steeplechase champion. “It was the times that we pulled it together as the full track team — distance runners, throwers, jumpers, sprinters — and were able to put something together impressively at Heps. In my four years there, we really dominated the league. We won the Triple Crown two years straight. Many of those years we absolutely destroyed everyone else in the league, and just seeing him beam with pride as we would put together fire competition after fire competition was the kind of thing that made us really happy to be on his team.”

Cabral was one of the 502 individual Heptagonal champions, one of 101 NCAA All-Americans, one of 10 NCAA champions and one of six Olympians from Samara’s tenure. Cabral is just one of the former Tigers who thrived under the example set by Samara.

“What I remember most about being on the team under Coach Samara was just his fire for competition and how after decades and decades and through all sorts of different people he cared so much about winning and competing hard and getting everything out of ourselves,” said Cabral. “It always felt like it was OK to care a lot and it was OK to lay it all on the line.”

Samara’s drive led Princeton to historic success and it carried from early in his career right through what would end up being some of his final seasons. The 2021-22 indoor track and field team finished fifth nationally and that spring the Tigers were seventh, their best finishes in each season in school history.

“I think coach is the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” said Mack. “He does it in such a way that it’s not offensive or off-putting. It’s almost like you have no other option but to rise to the level of competitiveness when it comes to not just Heps, but every meet. You wanted to perform well. The second part that goes with that is he was such a strong leader and set such a high standard that you knew every day that your best was required.”

Samara was inducted into the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017, 40 years after bringing his competitive spirit to Princeton in 1977. It was one year after a rare disappointment in his athletic life. His own sporting achievements began as the best high school decathlete in the country in 1969 before going on to be a two-time All-American at Penn and Olympian in 1976.

“The only thing that’s disappointing to me is I got hurt during the Olympic year,” said Samara. “It ruined my place at the Olympic Games. I wanted to be ranked in the Top 10, so that would have had me ranked three years in a row in the Top 10. I would have been in the Top 10 if I wasn’t hurt, but I got through it and I was an Olympian, which is the ultimate goal of everybody.”

Samara thrived at Penn under coach Irving “Moon” Mondschein. Mondschein cautioned Samara when he got into coaching at Princeton to recognize that not every athlete would match his intensity and passion. Samara individualized his coaching for each athlete to draw out their best, relying on experience and new knowledge.

“I’ve learned from all the athletes and coaches that I’ve competed against or worked with as mentors,” said Samara. “I’m a huge believer in mentorship. So I’ve had great coaches in my time from when I was competing when I was younger to even now. You take things from everybody. You’re crazy if you don’t do that, and it’s your own ego if you don’t.”

When Samara came to Princeton, he teamed up with the Tigers’ longtime coach Larry Ellis. Samara was fresh off training for the Olympics and didn’t consider coaching at Princeton a long-term plan.

“I never thought I would last three or four years,” said Samara. “We always wanted to get back to California, but I just never wanted to leave. Princeton is a wonderful place, a great place to raise a family, very supportive, and I was coaching the type of athlete that I wanted to coach. I was an Ivy League lifer, and I believe in the Ivy League and what it stands for and the kids are just fantastic to work with.”

One of his earliest student-athletes was Augie Wolf. Wolf remembers throwing the shot put 43 feet in his first meet at Princeton in 1979. Under Samara over the next five years, he improved 28 feet from that throw, became an All-American, and eventual Olympian.

“Fred just had us doing the right stuff on a regular basis, and Fred also was a creative person and thought outside the box at times,” said Wolf. “I transitioned from the glide technique to the spin in junior year in a very unique way, and that was Fred’s idea, which was doing what’s called a half-spin first. I got second place at the indoor NCAAs doing a half-spin. No one could believe what I was doing, but it was Fred’s idea.”

Later in that decade, Samara’s commitment was enough to convince Peter Hunt to quit playing football at Princeton to focus on the decathlon. Hunt posted a school record 7,232 points and earned All-America honors in decathlon in 1988.

“Samara was a mentor for me,” said Hunt in an interview for the Friends of Princeton Track. “He was very influential. Seeing how committed he is to the team and the guys through the years is a constant reminder to me of how I should live my life. How I should be committed to what I do, and do the best at what you do. It wasn’t about the winning, it was about pulling as much out of each athlete as he could.”

Tora Harris came to Princeton as a good prospect, and the high jumper improved every year under Samara. He won the indoor and outdoor NCAA championships in 2002 before going on to make the U.S. Olympic team.

“He could coach a very broad range — few coaches could do that,” said Harris. “Also navigating the Ivy League’s unique recruiting situation has its special qualities. I came in very rough as far as technique and understanding of the jumps. I don’t really know what his special sauce was, but he molded my approach and got me to a very high level. The other thing is, as an Olympian himself, he knows the path to get to the top at big meets.”

Samara transformed the culture of Princeton track early on. It went from being an individual sport in which teammates sometimes griped about each other at year-end team banquets to an environment where graduates often cry about leaving the program and their teammates. Mack calls Samara’s ability to bring the team together his true superpower, a sentiment echoed by many past Tigers.

“Everyone felt like their event was super important, and the highest thing we could do as a Princeton athlete was score points for the team at Heps,” said Cabral. “It came from the top that we all started to care about each of the event groups and care about each other as people too. It was really unique and special and nice to be a part of a team that was huge but still felt like a team.”

Fostering a strong team atmosphere was a staple of Samara. There were other aspects of his coaching that evolved through his years. He never rested on his laurels in the midst of years of winning.

“If you allow yourself and you ask questions you grow not only as a person but you grow as a coach,” said Samara. “I’m a way better coach than I was when I started, even than the middle years. You learn certain things — how to push guys in certain times and not and different ways to train people.”

Samara erred on the side of undertraining athletes if it meant they would show up to meets healthy. Finding out how much each athlete could handle is particularly tricky, but Samara used his experience to try to bring out the best in each athlete.

“Coaching in track, there’s a scientific part of it, but there’s a huge art part,” said Samara. “And you have to learn that art part and humanistic part of it. Certain guys can do certain things and certain guys can’t. That’s the real beauty of putting a team together.”

He grew more comfortable with finding the best questions to ask recruits and how to build a balanced team, something that was an important starting point to team success. Samara appreciated being a part of the journey of so many of his athletes. He tried to give similar attention to those that were All-American and those that didn’t score, often checking in with athletes late at night if he was worried about them or their performance. It wasn’t uncommon to see a line of student-athletes waiting to talk to him outside of his office throughout a day. Regardless of talent level, the adjustment to college in the first year is always a challenge, and he helped student-athletes navigate it and find out more about themselves in their Princeton careers.

“I think that development is really important, and I’m really proud of it,” said Samara. “When they get to be juniors and seniors, they’re different people. I think that’s a tribute to the University, the way they teach and what goes on, but I also think it’s a tribute to our program and the athletic department in general. We’ve had good athletic directors and good leaders who obviously, because they’re at Princeton, have the right mindset how to have an athletic department and what it means to be a student-athlete.”

Samara has been one of the pillar coaches at the University. His energy and enthusiasm were palpable to all on staff.

“I haven’t and I’m sure most people in college sports or in general haven’t seen anything like it,” said Mack. “Not just the energy that he has for it, but his ability to continue to inspire not only his team, but honestly Coach is a mentor to so many coaches in our department. He has impacted so many other programs. You don’t see someone who has been around as long as he has not just sustain the level of success, but to continue getting better.”

Those lunchtime workouts helped Samara maintain his boundless energy. They kept him healthy and gave him time to balance his energy and focus.

“I tell the younger coaches at Princeton or the people that want to listen to me, ‘Take time at lunchtime no matter what you’re doing to get out for a walk, get out, do something because you need to get out of the office,’” said Samara. “I call it getting air in your brain. You need it because it’ll make you a better coach in the afternoon. If you’re just working all the time, you just can’t do it. Working out is paramount to me.”

Samara’s passion and commitment was evident in all that he did. Just as he put his best efforts into his workouts, he dedicated himself to being fully committed to every aspect of the Princeton track and field program.

“One of the reasons that he’s been so successful is not only was he a decathlete in the track and field world, but he was a decathlete as a coach, administrator, recruiter, friend, solicitor of financial support, you name it,” said Wolf. “He had everything down. He was, in my era, the Daley Thompson of track coaches. He could do everything and that’s why he had the success he had.”

Now Samara is stepping away from what has been a huge piece of his life. It’s hard to imagine Princeton without Samara, and just as hard to think of Samara not coaching.

“There will be a void that has to be filled, and I can’t work out 24 hours a day,” said Samara. “I’m sure I can work out in the morning and then again in the afternoon. I’ll have to fill my time doing something. I might sooner or later get back into coaching, whether it’s with my son (at Princeton High) or maybe back at Princeton or wherever. I just felt that I needed to have more time to myself.”

Fred Samara is looking forward to a change in his life and what opportunities retirement brings after 46 years of guiding the Tigers. Princeton, which has had just six track and field head coaches in the last 100 years, will conduct a national search for his replacement.

“I don’t think it’ll really hit me until I walk down the hallway and there’s somebody else sitting there,” said Mack. “You always get excited for a new era in a program, but it’s obviously just going to be so, so different for all of us who are a part of the track program, and for all of us who are a part of the department and University. I’m really happy for Coach and his family that he gets to go out on his own terms. He’s healthy, he has all his faculties, and really gets to enjoy this next phase of his life.”