When head cross country coach Steve Dolan left Princeton in the summer to become the new track and field director at Penn, many worried about the future of the program. With little over a month from the announcement of Dolan’s departure to the start of preseason, the search was on in earnest to find a suitable replacement to guide the two-time Ivy League Triple Crown squad. Just a few weeks later, however, initial anxiety turned into excitement and relief when acclaimed distance coach Jason Vigilante joined the staff.
Before coming to Princeton, Vigilante was the head men’s cross country and associate head men’s track and field coach at the University of Texas before becoming the head coach of both sports for men and women at the University of Virginia. During the past year, Vigilante left UVA and became the full-time personal coach of professional athletes Robby Andrews and Alan Webb. A New Jersey native, Vigilante is excited to return to his home state and the collegiate arena.
“What motivated me to come here was that this is a tremendous opportunity for me. I competed in Jadwin [Gymnasium] when I was in high school, and it’s close to my family,” Vigilante said. “But more than that, when you’re recruiting, you can honestly tell kids that this is the best education in the country, and that’s special. I believe that Princeton has a real desire to be as competitive as we can be athletically, and that’s a thing that motivates me.”
Over the past 12 years, Vigilante quietly rose to prominence as a coach and is now widely recognized as one of the best middle-distance and distance coaches in the country. While at Texas, Vigilante helped guide the Longhorns to 12 Big 12 conference championships as well as four straight top-20 finishes at the NCAA cross country championships. Of Vigilante’s athletes at Texas, 37 achieved All-America status, while 1,500m runner Leonel Manzano won four NCAA individual championships from 2005 to 2008 before moving on to take the 1,500m silver at the London Olympics in August. In 2008, Vigilante coached the Texas indoor distance medley team to a world record of nine minutes, 25.97 seconds.
From 2008 to 2011, Vigilante led the Virginia Cavaliers to 32 All-America honors, while the men’s 4x800m relay team won back-to-back Penn Relays championships in 2010 and 2011. Andrews won two individual NCAA championships in the 800m before leaving UVA to continue training professionally with Vigilante and Webb.
Nevertheless, Vigilante knows he has big shoes to fill at Princeton. As he begins to work with his student-athletes, he hopes to start where Dolan left off and to continue to develop the Tigers into national and even world-class competitors.
“Coach Dolan recruited them here and I have a ton of respect for Steve — he did a phenomenal job,” Vigilante said. “The guys on the team have incredible group chemistry, and they’ve all bought in to being great athletes and students. That’s a lot of credit to [Dolan]. I let them know right away — I’m not here to change anything. I’m here to help them take subtle steps to help them become what they want to be.”
At a school like Princeton, being a student-athlete can be demanding. However, Vigilante sees the busy lifestyle as an advantage.
“Being an athlete is only applicable two hours a day, and being a learner and growing is something you have to do as a human being, and that happens every day,” Vigilante said. “I think it’s very helpful to be in a position where, when you’re training, you’re training, and when you’re not, you’re not. I know that’s a very simple statement, but you can really sit around and spend a lot more attention on your athletics than need be. The best athletes I’ve ever coached have also been the best students.”
When it comes to Vigilante’s training routine, there is no secret. Vigilante’s main focus is simply making it easier for his athletes to run farther, faster. A key emphasis is developing endurance through pure work, whether it is through tempo runs, long runs or intervals. Following that, he implements strength training to help his runners move more efficiently and run at a faster pace with less effort.
“For me, the most important thing is aerobic ability — how hard you can run without it really affecting your blood chemistry in a negative way,” Vigilante said. “I don’t rely on one particular thing. I try to really rely on being the talent you can be through using your time efficiently. Every day, we’re touching a little bit on everything.”
While Vigilante encourages his runners to be immersed and involved in schoolwork and other activities away from practice, he still demands the most from his athletes.
In order for them to fulfill their potentials as runners, he tells them that they need to live the right lifestyles and maintain focus on long-term goals.
“I think more than anything you have to be true to your training and what you’re doing. It’s got to be important. You can’t casually train to be an NCAA champion, it’s got to be part of your lifestyle,” Vigilante said.
“From that, you’ve got to live it every single day and live right. That means taking care of your body, adopting good habits and training for the moment. What is the moment that you’re going to reflect back on for the rest of your life?”
However, as a coach, Vigilante isn’t always the one pushing his athletes as far as they can go. Sometimes, he must be the one to recognize when he needs to hold them back.
“My coaching philosophy is to be 100 percent healthy and 85 percent fit,” Vigilante said. “If you can do that, you’re going to be all right, there’s no doubt. But I can’t help a guy who’s injured chronically, so I can’t over-train him or push him too hard.”
In addition to coaching at Princeton, Vigilante intends to train Andrews and perhaps Webb. Whether or not Webb will decide to join Vigilante in Princeton is still undecided, but Andrews will be moving to New Jersey in December.
Meanwhile, Vigilante is simply excited to be back in New Jersey. After getting to know the town and campus, he is impressed with the wealth of options available for training — from Weaver Stadium, to the West Windsor Fields cross country course, to the trails on the canal and surrounding woods.
“I’ve always believed that there’s something special about the training up here in New Jersey,” Vigilante said. “I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s our delicious air. I like being here, I like being able to train here and there’s some kind of an edge you get. It’s an odd statement, I know, but I think it’s true.”
As the men get ready to start racing seriously in cross country with the Notre Dame Invitational on Sept. 28, Vigilante is eager to see how well they can do. With Princeton already ranked 14th in the national poll, he is determined for the Tigers to do big things.
“I’m coaching at one of the best universities in the country, one of the best universities in the world. At the end of the day everything we do is part of the best,” Vigilante said. “I like to challenge myself, I like to challenge others, I like to be part of a winner. So for me, this is just absolutely exciting.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/20/31169/