Track & Field: Princeton's longest-tenured coaches share history, vision
Covering the wall above the desk of men’s head track and field coach Fred Samara are mementos and pictures of achievements and athletes from years gone by. For every snapshot, he excitedly recalls each athlete, from the former Ivy League champion who now engineers space shuttles to the famous Olympians. For Samara, the mural is a glimpse back into the brightest spots of the long and illustrious history of the track and field program that he has guided since 1977.
Just two doors down in Jadwin Gymnasium is the office of women’s head track and cross country coach Peter Farrell, who has been working at Princeton alongside Samara since the sport’s inception for women at the University in 1978. Together, Farrell and Samara are the two oldest active head coaches at Princeton. Over the years, Samara, a graduate of Penn’s Wharton School, and Farrell, who attended Notre Dame, have combined their skills to lead the men’s and women’s programs into a class of their own.
“We’re distinctly different people,” Farrell said. “Samara has a real business sense, where I’m sort of a more personal kind of guy. The unique combination of the two, in my mind, cinched the leadership in this group.”
Both Samara and Farrell fell in love with the sport at a young age.
“My first introduction to track was when I was nine or 10 years old,” Samara said. “My dad used to take me to Madison Square Garden and to all the indoor track meets there. He took me to Franklin Field to watch the historic U.S.-Russia meet, which was legendary.”
Excelling at several sports as a young teenager, Samara’s talent for track became obvious as he progressed into high school. Channeling his overall athleticism, Samara tried the decathlon and fell in love with the event. Before he had even moved on to college, Samara was one of the top decathletes in the nation. In 1976, three years after graduating, Samara made the Olympic team and finished 15th in Montreal.
Farrell, who like Samara grew up in New York City, went to a high school where running, rather than football, was king, and naturally followed his older brother Tom’s footsteps into the sport. Three years older, Tom Farrell won a bronze medal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City in the 800m. At Notre Dame, Peter Farrell graduated as one of the Irish’s best and most versatile athletes, competing in events from the 400m to cross country. He earned All-America honors twice in the 800m and ran the distance in one minute, 47 seconds by the time he was a junior.
After a certain point, however, it was time to hang up the spikes. Farrell taught high school students at Christ the King in New York City, while Samara joined a doctor who was studying the effects of exercise on juvenile diabetics.
“When I couldn’t devote the time and energy into being as good an athlete as I could be — meaning that it was over — I needed to stop and to get away from the sport,” Farrell said. “It consumed me from a psychological standpoint. I felt it would be good to get away from it.”
Neither Farrell nor Samara could resist the lure of track and field for long, and they eventually came to miss it. Farrell threw himself into coaching and built a successful girls’ program at Christ the King from the ground up. Eventually, Samara and Farrell were tapped to become coaches at Princeton.
Samara’s task was to vitalize the men’s ailing sprint program, while Farrell was faced with starting an entirely new women’s program.
“When I came here, Princeton didn’t have a successful track and field team. Coach Larry Ellis wanted someone to come in with more of a sprint background,” Samara said. “My personality, that I think I instilled in the guys, was that we weren’t going to be second-rate. We were going to be the best team in the league, starting now.”
Coaching the first group of women in a world of men’s sports at Princeton, Farrell had deeper concerns to deal with.
“Our first uniforms were bought at the U-Store. We had no money. Those first women really cut a path for the people here today,” Farrell said. “These places weren’t built for females, they were built for males, and they were always just trying to integrate women into them. The biggest difference between now and 1978 is the resources that students have.”
The prospect of not having scholarships to offer prospective athletes was another challenge that was difficult to accept at first.
“I questioned whether I would want to coach a college team that didn’t have full scholarships. How am I going to get success without scholarships?” Farrell said. “This many years later, I thank God I don’t have scholarships. I listen to my colleagues at other schools, and the heartache and decisions they go through. I’m just so happy I don’t have to deal with that, and have such fantastic student athletes.”
Farrell’s and Samara’s teams became more and more successful. By 1980, the men won an Ivy League crown indoors. Gradually the caliber of both programs rose to the national level — even producing Olympians like distance runner Lynn Jennings ’83 and shot putter August Wolf ’83.
Now, Samara and Farrell promote what they feel is an unparalleled overall undergraduate experience to recruits — one that is worth the money.
“They’re so well taken care of now, and it’s something that I’m proud of,” Farrell said. “It’s easy to sell this campus, it’s easy to sell this education, and now I feel that I can sell the culture of this program as a really competitive one. You can achieve your athletic goals while getting the best academic education in the country.”
When it comes to training, few can rival the coaches’ passion for the art of the sport and the dedication that they have towards excellence.
“Peter is really intrigued and interested in the culture of the sport,” senior co-captain Greta Feldman said. “He engrains in you these stories, knowledge and passion that just make running so much more enjoyable.”
As he did from himself, Farrell demands the most out of his athletes.
“He never lets you relish too much the success that you have. He’s always looking towards bigger and better things,” Feldman said. “He’s someone who will always stress the importance of deferred benefit. The work we do now is for bigger success down the road; if we’re running well now, we’ll be running that much better later in the season. He stresses that this isn’t it, this isn’t the top, there’s always more work to be done.”
Still, both Farrell and Samara temper their hard training by taking a holistic approach to the development of their athletes, starting from when they arrive as freshmen.
“We want students to be blended into the fabric of Princeton University. You want them to be happy student-athletes that are above-board and thriving in this environment,” Farrell said. “There are demands on their energies that are different than at other places. My goal is always development, but development at their pace.”
Similarly, Samara stresses what most driven and motivated athletes hate to hear. According to his philosophy, it’s not the athlete who grinds out 400-meter repeats every day who does best; it’s the one who gets proper rest.
“One of my cousins was an NFL football player, and when I was 16, he said, ‘I hear you’re a pretty good athlete. I’m going to give you one piece of advice: Rest is as important as training,’ ” Samara said. “Anyone can kill themselves, but I’d rather have someone under-trained than over-trained. I’m always telling my guys, ’85 percent.’ Your body is like a tire, and you have to be sure you’re not wearing it out.”
Samara’s background in the decathlon gives him a large depth of knowledge and personal experience in the different events going on around him.
“He gives so many people the same time,” junior co-captain Tom Hopkins said. “He’ll go over to the long jumpers, the sprinters, the hurdlers, the pole vaulters ... We always joke that we should build him a watchtower in the middle of the track so he could stand there, watch everyone and yell at people through a megaphone.”
Apart from his already extensive knowledge of the sport, Samara is also resourceful, according to Hopkins. During practices, he is always looking for things to improve in his athletes — whether it’s technique to tweak or weaknesses to strengthen.
“On the fly, he’ll just devise a drill to fix a specific problem you’re having,” Hopkins said. “It’s happened to me many times. He’ll just like grab a broom and a stick or something, tie them together and say, ‘Here, jump over this.’ And it works.”
Between them, Samara and Farrell have won 60 Ivy League titles — 34 for Samara and 26 for Farrell. But for them, the success of their season is not just predicated by their team’s performance at Heps.
“A successful season is one where we continued to maintain the team concept here at Princeton. I tell athletes in high school, ‘If you don’t buy into a team situation, then you don’t belong here,’ ” Farrell said. “Track and field can be a very individual sport, but we make a lot of effort to ensure that we do have a team atmosphere — that it’s not just sprinters over here, throwers over there and distance runners way out there somewhere. When you do that, the athletes buy into it, and they will perform for each other and for Princeton.”
Both Farrell and Samara have had their golden years. Farrell never forgets the surprise he felt when his women did what no other team in Ivy League history had done before, placing first through fifth at the 2009 Heps cross country championships. Samara fondly remembers the team that dominated the League and won three triple crowns in a row from 1997-98 to 1999-2000.
But more than that, Samara and Farrell want to be able to look back and see that their athletes got the best possible overall experience.
“As a head coach, you’ve got to think in bigger terms. You’ve got to think in terms of tying the alumni together,” Farrell said. “I want to be part of a place that isn’t just four years, where athletes come, do their part and then leave. I want something where the athletes are tied back to the University forever, and that’s what I’m getting here at Princeton.”
At the end of the day, Samara tries to instill the same passion he felt for competing in track and field that he felt as an athlete — and he never plans on stopping.
“I’m never retiring. The old saying is that they’re going to drag me out of here. That’s why I work out every day, to stay in shape to keep being here,” Samara said. “I’d just like to keep seeing us have amazing enthusiasm on the team. I want us to keep performing at the highest level, being the model of the student athlete, trying to win and never losing sight of what a great sport track is.”