June 3, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - The bus holding the Husky track team was ready to roll away from Eugene, Ore., and the NCAA preliminaries last month.
But Greg Metcalf wasn't.
UW's personable, indefatigable head coach was on a walk with Amanda Peterson. The junior transfer from Gig Harbor, Wash., and Eastern Washington had just endured a tough day with the javelin, and Metcalf wanted to spend time alone with his thrower.
"I held up the bus for 20 minutes and went for a walk around the stadium with Amanda," Metcalf said Friday, days before he takes 11 more Huskies to another NCAA championships meet. "I wanted to know what she was thinking, what she had to say,"
The bus delay was yet another, poignant example of what the 41-year-old Metcalf has been doing so exquisitely while leading Washington's track-and-field and cross-country programs for the last nine years.
Go beyond the 118 All-Americans, the eight individual national championships, the more than 200 NCAA championships entries, the national title won by the women's cross country team in 2008 or even his national coach-of-the-year award that season.
How in the name of sleep does Metcalf carve out time to lead, mentor, train, counsel, console and motivate 124 Huskies runners, throwers and jumpers with the care of a father - and through 10½ months of indoor and outdoor competition each year?
"I'm a pretty emotional guy. I'm high-energy," he says -- unnecessarily.
Sure, coaches of big-time college football teams also have 100-plus players on their rosters. But their seasons don't run for 83 percent of a calendar year. And at least those football players are all pushing in one common, team effort: scoring touchdowns and not allowing any.
Metcalf is leading a program that has, on any given day: sprinters at the Dempsey Indoor facility training down straightaways; mid-distance guys and gals doing their own laps around them; long-distance runners on treks off campus; throwers doing their thing in one corner; jumpers doing theirs in another; and vaulters sprinting, planting and jumping over there.
Beyond orchestrating all that, Metcalf is also working toward a new track facility that will replace the one now being moved with the upcoming renovation of Husky Stadium. He is also the face of the program in the Northwest's vibrant and renowned track community - if he comes up for air long enough to let that face show.
"Cross country team training begins on Aug. 29," Metcalf said, introducing his upcoming 11 months. "That season runs from Sept. 17 through Nov. 22. We take a deep breath, have the holidays, do some recruiting, then the indoor track season runs from Jan. 15 to March 15. On March 15 the outdoor season starts, and it runs all the way through the U.S. championships, up to July.
"Then we have our summer camp, maybe I get a round of golf in - and it starts all over."
All the while, Metcalf continues his recent string of top-flight recruiting. His efforts there have made Huskies track a destination for athletes from London (James Alaka's hometown) to the site of next week's NCAA finals Des Moines, Iowa (where Pac-10 XC Newcomer of the Year Katie Flood hails from), down to New Mexico for middle distance runner Gareth Gilna, and all the way east to New York and New Jersey where distance runners Mackenzie Carter (Fayetteville, N.Y.) and Allison Linnell (Colts Neck, N.J.) hail from.
Metcalf does all this with strong will, deep compassion and tireless effort. He also relies on a trusted, proven army of assistants: Pat Licari, Raul Sheen, Lauren Denfeld, Jason Drake, Reedus Thurmond and Audra Smith. Metcalf has six more volunteer assistants: recent UW runners Falesha Ankton and Katie Follett, former Husky thrower Dave Nyland, plus Kimery Hern, Leah Worthen and former Nigerian Olympian Joseph Taiwo, the father of Pac-10 champion decathlete and NCAA finalist Jeremy Taiwo.
Metcalf and his staff have somehow harmonized all their athletes into a remarkably tight group. That togetherness was evident in December when senior sprinter Jeff Gudaitis, a two-time national finalist, had surgery to remove a cancerous thyroid. UW thrower Conner Larned, Gudaitis' roommate in a Seattle apartment, was waiting with a little Christmas tree for him when Gudaitis got wheeled back to his hospital room following surgery. Metcalf and sophomore sprinter Colton Dunn arrived within three hours.
Ankton, a Huskies two-time All-American hurdler and sprinter, sent a video compilation of well wishes from the team. As Gudaitis recovered then went through a costly and harrowing week of radiation treatment and quarantine, Ankton joined Sheen, Gudaitis' sprints coach, and strength coach Smith in spearheading a fund-raising campaign. The team sold rubber bracelets in Jeff's honor through Facebook and sales tables set up on campus. Sprinter Colton Dunn and Taiwo designed them. Athletes, staffers and students alike are still wearing them all over campus.
"The closeness and family atmosphere our team has honestly is a credit to the coaches on our staff," Metcalf says, modestly. "Everyone on our staff genuinely cares about each person on the team, and that's how I want my program to be."
Though all this, Metcalf has perhaps the most understanding spouse of a college coach anywhere. Of course, it helps that Kristin Metcalf is an assistant track coach at Seattle's Blanchet High and that she also ran track at UW.
"So she understands, and she's incredibly supportive. She loves coming to the meets and races," Metcalf said. "And my 7-year-old (Mackenzie) loves coming to the Dempsey (UW's indoor facility) to watch workouts."
Even when Metcalf may want to get away from the sport in which he has become a Husky icon after being a distance runner for Washington (Class of 1993), his daughter isn't always on the same, uh ... track.
On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Metcalf's only off day, Mackenzie told Dad she wanted to go on a 1½-mile run around Green Lake in Seattle. So there went dad, off for yet another jog, just like he used to do on the dirt tracks around his hometown of Ephrata in Eastern Washington.
The stakes get much higher for Metcalf and his Huskies next week.
Scott Roth, the owner of the highest pole vault in the United States so far this year, the 4x100-meter relay team -- Maurice McNeal, double Pac-10 sprint champ Alaka, Dunn and Ryan Hamilton -- plus freshmen Megan Goethals in the 5,000 meters and native Iowan Katie Flood in the 1,500 lead Washington into the NCAA championships in Des Moines. They start on Wednesday.
Coaching has been a way of life for Metcalf since he was running for the Huskies 20 years ago. The former 5-foot-3, 116-pound wisp of a boy in high school ran for Central Oregon Community College before transferring to Washington. At UW, he would come on his own each day to the office of his track coach Mike Johnson to glean whatever experiences, insights or advice he could from just being around coaching.
On the track, Metcalf was a four-time Academic All-Pac-10 and two-time All-American for the Huskies. His best collegiate mark of 8:41.17 ranks fourth all-time among UW steeplechase runners. He also was a steeple finalist in the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials, when he was a volunteer coach for Auburn and completing his master's degree in exercise physiology.
A month later, Tigers head coach Kelly Sullivan - now the head coach at Oregon State and without whom Metcalf says he wouldn't be where he is today - informed Metcalf he was headed back home to the Northwest. He asked Metcalf if he wanted to coach Auburn's cross country team. It took Metcalf about half an 800-meter split time to say yes. "Then - Wham-O! - my career moved fast," he said.
Four All-Americans, seven NCAA championship athletes and two cross-country seasons later, he coached the Auburn men to second at the 1997 NCAA finals. Then his alma mater called him back to be an assistant for five years. In 2003 Barbara Hedges, Washington's athletic director when Metcalf ran for UW, gave him the Huskies' head coaching job at the age of 33.
Now, on the eve of leading Huskies into his eighth NCAA outdoor track and final championships as a head coach, there's no place he'd rather be. Or ever want to go.
"I love the University of Washington," he says, from his office on the third floor of the Graves Annex, with UW's 2008 national championship trophy for women's cross country on a table next to his desk. "I remember going to my first Husky home game in 1978, against Arizona State. I still have my 1978 Rose Bowl cap. I worked out in it every day. It's about shredded now. I still remember Warren Moon and Spider Gaines.
"Yeah," Metcalf said, cheerily, "I can't imagine being anywhere else."