August 23, 2023

Vigilante Taking the Helm of PU Men’s Track Team, Excited to Succeed Legendary Head Coach Samara

SUCCESSION PLAN: Jason Vigilante gives his Princeton University men’s cross country runners some instructions at the Ivy League Heptagonal meet. Vigilante was recently named as the head coach of the Princeton men’s track and field team, succeeding the legendary Fred Samara who retired this spring following a 46-year career guiding the Tigers. Joining the Princeton track program in 2012, Vigilante has served as the head coach of the men’s cross country team and as an assistant with the track and field program where he oversaw the distance runners.  (Photo by Princeton Athletics/Sideline Photos)

By Justin Feil

Jason Vigilante knows that he has enormous shoes to fill.

A Princeton University track and field assistant coach since 2012, Vigilante will take over the head coaching duties after legendary head coach Fred Samara retired following the spring season, his 46th year with the Tiger men.

“It’s really exciting,” said Vigilante, who also has been the PU men’s cross country head coach since his arrival in Princeton. “It’s a huge honor to not only follow Coach Samara but also Coach (Larry) Ellis. It’s the first time they had a head track and field coach search in 50 years. It’s an honor to have gotten it, and I know there were some really fine candidates who were up for the job.”

Vigilante’s career had its own impressive start. His career took off in 1999 when he worked for the University of Texas, where he helped the Longhorns win 12 Big 12 team titles. He was promoted to head coach of cross country and associate head coach for his final three years at Texas before moving to Virginia in 2008 as director of the men’s track and field and cross country programs where he coached 30 ACC champions over three years. He will have the same title for both programs now at Princeton, and feels his prior experience will benefit him.

“One of the things that you learn in any role, not just coaching, is that you’re good at things,” said Vigilante. “Like you’re good at coaching, and that’s why you get hired, but to be a really good head coach you have to be good at delegating too and helping people find areas that they’re able to be effective in helping the program. If there’s anything I’ve learned over my time, it’s as an assistant coach there were things I could really help Coach Samara with and I’ve got to make sure I encourage Coach [Robert] Abdullah and whoever our other assistants are to not just coach, but to also chip in and help us on the edges.”

Vigilante also studied Samara’s style closely over the last decade plus. The five-time Ivy League Men’s Cross Country Coach of the Year has won six league cross country titles. He has shared in 20 Ivy titles between his cross country and track years with Samara.

“The great thing about working with Fred is he’s very clear on what the expectations are, what his vision is,” said Vigilante. “It makes being a part of his coaching staff very easy. He’s literally always around, always involved. I couldn’t have had a better situation than following him.”

Samara plans to spend part of his retirement in Florida, but he will still spend a lot of his time in the Princeton area. His familiarity with Vigilante makes him more comfortable to return to Old Nassau to keep up with the program. Vigilante is giving Samara an open invite to stay engaged with the team.

“I’ve been doing this long enough that you kind of figure out that although we’re coaches and we recruit these guys, and we see potential in them, and we guide them, over time you just figure out that as coaches we’re a small piece of it,” said Vigilante. “Neither Coach Samara nor I need to have our egos fulfilled through this coaching, through the success of the team. It makes it very easy for me to say if Fred wanted to be around, I’d love to have him around. He’s such a great resource and he can help me and the other athletes and the coaches. He’s wonderful.”

Vigilante, who grew up in Morristown, has made a successful run since a return to the Garden State. He has embraced the culture of the Princeton program. The promotion allows him to remain entrenched at his latest stop that has given him an opportunity to coach in an environment he admires.

“There are a couple things I really love about coaching at Princeton,” said Vigilante. “No. 1, guys come to our program not just for the track and field and not just for the academics. It’s really fulfilling to see a young man succeed athletically and also talk about their thesis work or talk about courses and professors that made a huge impact on them. I love that. I love that they stay busy physically and mentally. We don’t have scholarships, so it makes recruiting here quite a bit simpler here, and I like that. Nobody’s coming here for a massive NIL deal. It allows me to really coach, and that’s what I love to do. I love to coach.”

Vigilante is gearing up for the Princeton cross country team’s only home meet September 1 against Monmouth and Rider. With his new track and field position will come some changes. Vigilante is familiar with those increased responsibilities from his previous positions, and is ready to make the adjustments.

“Primarily the biggest change is making decisions,” said Vigilante. “I want to make decisions very carefully with all the best interests of the team at the forefront. That’s exciting for me to decide who we recruit, the direction we take as a team, the meets we go to, and things like that, who we hire. It’s probably not very much different than coach Samara to be honest.”

Vigilante’s hire provides continuity for the returning Princeton athletes. They also will be familiar with one assistant – Abdullah, the popular sprint coach that Vigilante will retain.

“Coach Abdullah has been one of the top sprint coaches in Ivy League history,” said Vigilante. “And I think more importantly, he’s just an awesome guy. Everyone loves Coach Abdullah. I’ve never met anybody more positive. He’s always putting a positive spin on everything. We’re a package deal. That was never in question for me.”

Vigilante has a tougher task with his next hire. He will have to find a coach who can handle all the field events that Samara coached. He worked with Princeton throwers and jumpers and made them some of the best in the country.

“One of the things I described very candidly with our athletics director John Mack was you can’t replace coach Samara, that’s not happening,” said Vigilante. “We would need to hire two or three incredible coaches — an incredible jumps coach, an incredible throws coach and multi coach, and that’s not an exaggeration. He’s one of the most passionate people about what he does. And it’s totally unmatched. He knows every single athlete on every single roster within the league. He just knows who they are. He knows all of the events really well. We talk about distance training together, you name it. Ultimately some of our success is going to reside with how well we can come up with an assistant coach. I have big shoes to fill, but the person doing throws and jumps is going to have challenges as well.”

One of Vigilante’s challenges is keeping what has been a team-first culture highlighted by the relationships built across different disciplines. It’s made it a special environment in which to be nurtured. He hopes to set the example like Samara did in being present for all of Princeton’s athletes, regardless of whether they are the distance runners that will remain his event coaching focus. Princeton has been admired for the way its athletes have supported each other, and there is great pride in being a part of a program so highly regarded for its athletic achievements and its academic standing. Vigilante will put his own spin on the Tigers but does hope to keep the tenets that have helped Princeton succeed.

“Ultimately the success or failure of the program depends on the leadership of the young men on the team,” said Vigilante. “That’s something I’ll certainly keep and keep encouraging. They vote for their team captains and their team captains take a lot of pride in their success, and I think that’s really valuable. We treat guys with a lot of accountability and we have high expectations. This is men’s track, they’re not in boys’ track. They’re grown-ups now and we treat them like that. I think that’s a really important notion that we’ll continue to maintain.”

Vigilante was exuberant when Mack informed him that he had the job. With experience not just at other schools where he has
molded accomplished athletes, but also at Princeton while working for Samara, he understands as well as anyone the keys he has been given.

“I’m honored and it is a huge responsibility to be responsible for 65 guys and a staff and a part of a program that’s really successful,” said Vigilante. “I’ve been at Princeton for 11 full years, and we’ve won nearly 70 percent of the three Ivy League titles a year. There’s a lot at stake just competitively and we have a really strong Friends of Princeton Track and Field following and support. I’ve got my work cut out for me, that’s for sure.”