Hiring raises issue of athletic achievement vs. experience

by Scott Bradley

When the University named Steve Plasencia as its head cross country coach two weeks ago, the hiring seemed to represent a recent trend in the Big Ten.
Unlike in revenue sports throughout the conference, such as basketball and football, coaches in cross country and track and field appear to be landing jobs based on their athletic careers rather than their coaching qualifications.
Plasencia, a former Gophers All-American runner and two-time Olympian, has never coached at the collegiate level. Although he has established himself as a world-class athlete, his only coaching experience is with the Nike and Asics club teams.
But Minnesota isn’t the only school lately that has hired a former athlete with little or no coaching experience over highly-qualified coaches. Michigan State offered its men’s track and field job to alum Charlie Green last fall. Green did not have any coaching experience at the time.
The significance of that hiring is who the administrators overlooked. Randy Huntington, an internationally known trainer and former collegiate coach at California and Oregon, applied for the job at Michigan State but wasn’t even offered an interview.
Huntington is best known for coaching Mike Powell, the world record holder in the long jump. He has also helped train football players in the NFL.
Although Plasencia has had an outstanding career as an athlete, he has never had the responsibility of recruiting, organizing meets or overseeing a budget. The other two finalists — William and Mary’s Walt Drenth and Michigan State’s Jim Stintzi — recently coached their programs to the NCAA championships.
After meeting each of the candidates, most of the athletes recommended Drenth.
Men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart said the decision to hire Plasencia wasn’t an easy one and that all three finalists were highly qualified.
“It would be hard to turn my back on a national, Olympic-caliber runner as well as a product of our program and first-rate human being,” Dienhart said.
“There’s nothing wrong with Walt Drenth. But there’s nothing wrong with Steve Plasencia either. There’s no one that I talked to who said there’s anything wrong with any of the candidates.”
Drenth’s coaching credentials speak for themselves. Drenth has led the small Division I school in Williamsburg, Va., to the NCAA championships three times since he arrived in 1990. Before that he coached Central Michigan to nationals on two occasions.
Drenth, who competed at Central Michigan, has coached four runners who have produced 14 All-America certificates in cross country and track and field. The Gophers have not qualified at nationals since 1981 and have not produced an All-American in cross country since 1984.
Dienhart said he wanted to hire a person who could rebuild the program into the prominence it experienced under former head coach Roy Griak. Griak retired last fall after coaching at Minnesota for 33 years.
Plasencia was hired to a three- year contract April 22 with a starting base salary of $44,000. Dienhart said Griak, who continues to work with the team as an administrative assistant, will help Plasencia adjust to his new job this summer.
Some throughout the Big Ten believe Plasencia would never be considered for a head coaching job in a revenue sport under the same circumstances. Robert Chapman, a former assistant coach at Indiana and current graduate student, said Plasencia’s hiring represents a disturbing trend in college coaching.
“(Plasencia) could end up being a great coach,” Chapman said. “But picking a guy with no experience over a guy who’s taken a small school to nationals consistently? It seems like a no-brainer.”
Drenth said he believes he was qualified and would have made a good coach at Minnesota. But he said there’s never a shoe-in when applying for any job.
“I think I was dealt with honestly and fairly by Mark Dienhart and his staff,” Drenth said. “And I think they made the best decision they could. They have an opportunity there to be really good, and I think Steve Plasencia will do a tremendous job.”
Dienhart said one big factor he considered when he made his decision was the input from men’s head track and field coach Phil Lundin and Griak. Plasencia, who ran under Griak in the 1970s, will work as an assistant track and field coach in the spring.
“If there had to be a person who received more individual support, it was Plasencia,” Dienhart said. “He was strongly supported by Phil Lundin, and that’s important because they have to be on the same page.”
Plasencia joins a famed cast of men’s coaches at the University who competed for the Gophers. Doug Woog (hockey), John Anderson (baseball), Dennis Dale (swimming) and Griak all are Minnesota alumni.
The University’s decision to hire Griak in 1963 translated into a Big Ten cross country championship by 1968. Time will only tell if Plasencia can successfully replace his mentor.