By KERRY EGGERS Issue date: Fri, Mar 3, 2006
EUGENE Its been six months since Vin Lananna took over as track and field coach at the University of Oregon. Already hes made a huge impression.
Too bad there are only 24 hours in a day.
Vin works harder than anyone Ive ever been around, says Duck throws coach Lance Deal, a four-time Olympian and the 1996 silver medalist in the hammer.
The amount of energy emanating from Vins office is something Ive never seen before, says Oregon Track Club President Greg Erwin, a 1978 UO graduate.
Lananna, 52, isnt shy about taking the lead.
Im one who likes to make a big impact, he says.
Are the Olympic Trials big enough for you? Lananna hadnt been on the job in Eugene a month when the city was awarded the 2008 trials the first time since 1980 for what was once known as the Track Capital of the U.S.
Eugene literally wouldnt have gotten the bid had Vin not been named (Oregons) coach, Prefontaine Classic promoter Tom Jordan says. He put the Trials high on his list of priorities, and his contacts and influence made all the difference.
Reaching out to coaches
Lananna hasnt neglected his duties with the Ducks. As a means of introduction, one of the first things he did was send a letter to every high school track coach in the state. Veteran prep track coaches say it was the first time a UO coach has reached out to them like that.
Lananna spent much of his time in the weeks after getting the UO job making contact with his athletes.
He called me while I was in Europe about the changes that were happening, says junior pole vaulter Tommy Skipper, the NCAA champion outdoors (2004) and indoors (2005). He didnt need to do that. He called a lot of athletes to begin to build a rapport with them. He wanted to get the program off on the right foot. All of us have a high level of respect for coach (Lananna) on both a personal and professional basis.
Lananna came to Oregon after two years as athletic director at Oberlin (Ohio) College. After carving a saucy reputation as the track and field and cross country coach at Stanford from 1992-2003 he was a four-time national cross country coach of the year and took the Cardinal to the 2000 NCAA track and field title Lananna thought he might be done with coaching and on to a career in sports administration.
Id always enjoyed coming to major meets at Hayward Field, Lananna says. You walk into the stadium, youre almost mesmerized. But I dont know that I ever sat down and thought about what it would be like to be coach at the University of Oregon. I was heading down a different road. I had done my coaching thing and was successful at it, but I was ready to do something from a broader perspective.
But Oregon Athletic Director Bill Moos, looking for a permanent replacement for the deposed Martin Smith, had a candidate in mind. He flew to Chicago early last summer to meet with Lananna.
I had my sights set on Vin, went after him with all I had, and we hit it off really well, Moos says.
Knight ties go way back
Lananna became affiliated with Nike Inc. before his time at Stanford, where Nikes founder Phil Knight attended graduate school. Knight no fan of Smith also contributed to Lanannas Farm Team at Stanford that produced one of the top distance-running stables in the nation. It was common knowledge that Lananna was Knights choice to get the UO job, which had to have influenced Moos decision.
I knew Phil thought highly of Vin, but I really was not consulting with Phil directly is all Moos will say.
Moos made an offer Lananna couldnt refuse. He wound up signing a contract that calls for him to reap as much as $600,000 annually, including money from Nikes partnership with UO sports, the Oregon Sports Network and a deferred compensation package. It makes Lananna the most highly paid college track coach in the country. Moos believes he is worth it.
Vins met every expectation I have had, the UO athletic director says. Ive been impressed not only with what hes done with our program, but what hes done in a broader sense with the Trials and track and field in general in the Eugene community.
5 minutes made impression
Lananna has an appreciation for Oregon track and field history that extends back to the days of the late, great Bill Bowerman and continues through the eras of Bill Dellinger and ex-womens coach Tom Heinonen.
I met Bill Bowerman for five minutes one time, Lananna says. Hes larger than life an icon. Ive had many conversations with Bill (Dellinger) and Tom. The things I did at Stanford were more or less copied from what had been done at the U of O. We put in a jogging trail and began hosting twilight meets. We increased the running community.
I have some long-lasting friendships with people who had running careers at the U of O, many of whom work for Nike. All they ever talked about were the Bowerman days. When you listen to how fondly they speak about Bill, its kind of a daunting task to step in as the coach.
Lananna figures he has a unique opportunity to begin what he calls a renaissance for track and field, both locally and nationally.
Eugene and the state of Oregon are unique in our sport, he says. I dont know if theres another place that can do what we can do. Theres a certain element of connection with the people in Oregon with track that there is nowhere else. The high school coaches in Oregon are really special. They instill in the athletes a sense of pride. Everywhere else in the country, tracks relegated to an afterthought. I dont think thats the case in Oregon.
Lananna thinks big thats why we hit it off so good, Moos says and wants not only what is best for Oregon but what is best for his sport.
We need to create a new generation of fans, Lananna says. We have a generation gap, even in Eugene. We need to make track and field cool again. We need to do something that sparks the youth, and well do that. We need to close the seams that have been created. Thats what securing the Olympic Trials was all about. Thats what reaching out to the high school coaches is all about, and doing what we need to do to be the epicenter of track and field in this country.
Eugene may get back on top
Lananna remembers the Nike-sponsored Athletics West Track Club that lured many world-class athletes, including Mary Slaney, to Eugene in the late 1970s, only to peter out in the early 90s. He envisions the creation of something similar.
We want to host some high-performance events with post-collegiate athletes, and we want to bring a post-collegiate program to the Eugene area, Lananna says. Well create an atmosphere where people want to stay here and participate post-collegiately. We want everyone who graduates from college to consider Eugene as a place to continue post-collegiate competition.
Nike is philosophically in support, but its up to us to do a good job in creating that atmosphere. I wouldnt expect Nike to be the only group to help support this new generation of track and field fan base. Its roots are in track, but this is a collective effort. Perhaps well put in to host a U.S.-versus-China meet. The Olympic Trials are just the beginning.
For now, Lananna is focused on the Ducks. He is setting his sights high.
We will run a well-balanced womens program, keep our numbers reasonable and focus on recruiting national-caliber kids in all the events, Lananna says. We can be a top-10 team in cross country every year and hopefully contend for an NCAA title on a regular basis. I hope when people think womens distance running, they will think the University of Oregon. But I want to have a well-balanced track team.
We have fewer scholarships on the mens side, so its a big challenge to determine what our model is going to be. Our tradition is in the distances, and we will move closer to that model. However, we also have a tradition for throwers and multi-event kids. At Stanford, we won an NCAA title with a distance-dominated team. We need to create an environment and atmosphere that all distance runners want to come here, but we want to have a balanced program, too.
Well be nationally competitive in cross country, and I expect us to contend for a Pac-10 title every year. Indoor track wont be a big emphasis, but we will still be good at it. Everything we do, we want to be very good at it.
Makeover time looms
The university is on its way to raising $3.5 million for facility improvements at Hayward in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Trials. Lananna expects that to be a lightning rod for an acceleration of the schools program as well as the sport in America.
Theres a tremendous light at the end of this tunnel, he says. Once we achieve that, hopefully we can take that same regard for track in the state and spread it nationally. (Landing the Trials) was a galvanizing event in our community. Everyone can throw their arms around an Olympic Trials. It creates a sense of urgency to make Hayward Field a place that can be attractive to every major event.
Knight is solidly in Lanannas corner, which cant be a bad thing for the UO program.
Phil and I know each other well enough to have good conversations some formal, some casual, Lananna says. Hes been a very good sounding board. People think Phil wants things done a certain way, and creates a situation for that to happen. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hes a good listener; hes a fan. Hell offer an opinion if you seek it. If you dont ask, he doesnt offer.
The Lananna era kicks off March 18 with the Oregon Preview meet at Hayward Field. In early May, Oregon plays host to the Pac-10 championships. The Duck men have won the title two of the last three years; Lananna expects nothing less this time.
He wants to draw bigger crowds, make the program more visible. His supporters say his hiring signals the beginning of something big. After all, they insist, it is what Lananna is all about.