Slowtwitch Featured Interview for January, 2000
by Dan Empfield
Steven Michael Scott ran the mile in a personal best of 3:47.69 in 1982, a time that still stands as the American record. He has run 136 sub-four-minute miles, more than anyone in history. He was America's No. 1-rated miler 11 straight years, and he has emerged to become one of the America's premier master's runners.
Readers may wonder why Slowtwitch would find it topical to interview a pure runner. We found out that last September Scott debuted as head track and cross-country coach at California's newest state university, CSU San Marcos, in north San Diego County. Here, it seemed, was just the sort of place a budding young triathlete might go to better learn the art of running. Or where a pro triathlete might go near the end of his or her career to run, perhaps under scholarship, and gain a first-class education.
CSUSM is an NAIA school, and so does not have the strict eligibility restrictions for runners that the NCAA has. Although athletics are an important recruiting vehicle here, there is no interest in the usual flagship sports of a Division 1 program, such as football or basketball. Here there is track and field, cross-country and golf. Period. And while there is no golf course on campus, there is Mangrum Field, a first-class track and field facility.
Scott's first-year team reached the stratosphere. In the first semester of the first team ever at CSUSM, Scott's men's cross-country team won the NAIA Western regionals and--ranked 16th going into the national championships--continued to overachieve by placing third. His women were almost as impressive, winning their regional race and placing 17th nationally.
Slowtwitch talked to Steve Scott about his program.
ST: You don't seem to do very badly at anything you attempt. Now you're a coach of a brand-new team, the first team ever fielded by CSU San Marcos, and here you get third place in NAIA nationals. Isn't that more or less unprecedented?
SS: To do that well? I don't know, I suppose it's probably been done at some point or another.
But it comes down to luck a lot of the time, things all coming together at the right time. Some of it is skill, but you have to have luck on your side as well. We had some of that. A lot of the success you might have as a coach is due to your recruiting, but Ross Dammonn, our No. 2 guy, actually came to me. He went to Oregon for two years, and they had a coaching change. The new coach more or less did away with all the guys under Dellinger. So we inherited Dammonn, which was a stroke of luck.
ST: Why did you decide to be a coach? Why not a motivational speaker or a congressman or something?
SS: Because I've done speaking engagements, clinics for kids, and those things are very temporary. Their effect on people is temporary. I've seen so many people go through seminars and they're motivated for a week or a month and then back to their old habits. As a coach you can see people every day for four years. You can really make a difference in somebody's life. I don't want to be a Band-Aid, I want to be lifesaving surgery.
ST: I take that to mean you had a similar experience in your college life. You were at UCI and ran under Len Miller. Was he that person for you?
SS: Len Miller was the guy for me. He had that effect on me. Everything I am as a runner, everything I became, I owe to being under Len's tutelage.
ST: But as I recall, Len had a lot of good runners, guys like Ralph Serna, 4:07 and 8:45 in high school, but many of them burned out. It seemed like he'd start with a gaggle of guys and only the strong would survive, and the rest crashed and burned. Is that the kind of coach you're going to be?
SS: You have to understand the Division 1 mentality. Places like Stanford, Arkansas, Villanova, you've got to operate like that. There's tremendous pressure to succeed. As a runner you've got to know that going in. If you get a full-ride from a school like that you're going to have to be self-motivated, you've got to have a love for running. If I'm coaching in an atmosphere like that, well, I'll tell you that if you want to be great, I'm going to train you hard. Is it a tough philosophy? Yeah, very tough. What's beautiful for me here is there are no expectations. It's "field a team, do as well as you can." I can bring an athlete along more carefully here. No two-a-days every day, 80 miles a week, like when I was a freshman in college.
ST: No expectations: Didn't you kind of blow your cover, third in nationals your first semester?
SS: Oh yeah, I set myself up.
ST: Let's talk about your assistant track coaches. They are pretty high-caliber: Wes Williams and Willie Banks. How did you get these guys?
SS: Wes was an intermediate hurdler, Olympic Trials qualifier, at his best right when Edwin Moses came around. He's our sprint and hurdle coach. He was at UCSD for about eight years, he left there and we eventually got him up here. Willie Banks [world and Olympic champion triple jumper] is an unpaid assistant; he comes over when he has time, and we only have two jumpers right now. He works with them on his schedule.
ST: Your No. 1 runner, Marcus Chandler, you get the reigning California state high school mile champion. How did you do that?!
SS: Yeah, he was recruited by Arkansas, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State. I created a relationship with him early on. Here's the deal when you're talking about recruiting--we're not Division 1; a lot of athletes want to be in the big schools, big programs, so you're limited in who is interested in a school like ours. With Marcus, he wanted to be in a small school, both in size and in numbers; he wanted a low-pressure situation. When he went to some of the other schools, he'd come back and say, "That coach was a jerk." We clicked, personality-wise. He trusts me, he trusts my judgment; we liked each other.
ST: You're NAIA, so pretty much any warm body has eligibility. Does that mean former pro triathletes?
SS: As long as they haven't graduated from college--even if you're a professional triathlete, you can compete. I think I'm one of the few coaches in the country who can see the benefit in cross-training, and can make allowances for those who also want to compete in triathlon while being on the team here. A lot of coaches can't see the benefit of cross-training. I do.