COVER STORYDec. 8, 2006
“I Coach. You Run.”
Ten years ago, cross-country was barely a varsity sport at American. Now the Eagles are running with the best schools in the nation.
By Huan Hsu
(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)
Matt Centrowitz needs to piss. The trouble is that he’s stuck in a park in Lock Haven, Pa., surrounded by the Susquehanna River, round hills, a clear blue November sky, and a cross-country race. The head coach of the American University track and cross-country teams has just seen his women off, standing right behind them on the starting line and leaning forward as the starting gun fired. He now has less than six minutes to take care of his bladder or he’ll miss seeing his squad as they pass the first mile marker.
Centrowitz finds a bank of portable toilets but the lines are a dozen people deep. “Hey,” he says in his native Bronxese, “I’m gonna take a nice outdoor piss, a country piss. Let it breathe a little. It doesn’t get to come out and play much anymore.”
But the spectators positioned along the course are already beginning to rumble, signifying the approach of the racers. Centrowitz clamps down and heads to the mile marker just as the pack emerges from a cornfield. He claps and shouts his encouragement when his runners, mostly positioned in the top half of the field, stream past him.
Centrowitz’s women are a young team and not expected to contend; they’re running to gain experience for next year. He leaves the cheering to his assistants and resumes his search for a toilet so he can get down to business. In about an hour, his men’s team, having wrapped up the Patriot League conference title two weeks before, will compete for a third straight national championship berth.
Such a feat would be unprecedented for American. It may be news to most sports fans, but the little—and little-known—school in Tenleytown competes in Division I, the highest level of collegiate athletics. Making nationals even once would have been unthinkable back in 1994, when Centrowitz arrived on campus as a part-timer and took the first and only head coaching job he’s ever held. American track and cross-country had not been competitive since the 1970s, when a protracted decomposition began that eventually stripped track of its varsity status.
In less than 10 years as the full-time coach and with just a handful of scholarships, Centrowitz has single-handedly revived the moribund program and rebuilt it into a national-level team. Thanks to Centrowitz, American, yes, American University, now regularly trades punches with big-time sports schools oozing with boosters and scholarship money such as Wisconsin, Colorado, Notre Dame, Arkansas, and Texas.
Each of the nine National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) regional championships that takes place across the country fields 25 or so teams, and the top two at each earn automatic invitations to nationals. Ever since the conference championships, Centrowitz has harped on finishing ahead of Princeton, which he figures would send the Eagles to nationals. In its pre-season media guide, Princeton suggested that it would compete for a spot at nationals. To motivate his runners, Centrowitz twists this bit of data and tells them that Princeton declared it would make nationals at the expense of the Eagles. But knocking off the Tigers will depend largely on the performance of Centrowitz’s top runner, Steve Hallinan, who has been sidelined for most of the fall with a mysterious illness.
On the way to the course this morning, American’s bus passed Navy’s but failed to catch Princeton’s, a failure that Centrowitz hopes isn’t an omen for the men’s race. As Centrowitz hustles through the lot where all the team buses have parked in neat rows, he momentarily considers taking a leak between two of the buses. Then he spies Princeton’s and grins. “Maybe I’ll take a shit on Princeton’s bus,” he says.
“I never butted heads with a coach,” says Centrowitz. “Coach said, ‘do another one,’ I did another one.”(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)
On an October day threatening to rain, Centrowitz calls the men’s cross-country team to the line for its first interval. A bear of a man, Centrowitz wears shorts, a golf-tournament wind shirt, Asics running shoes, and a cap proclaiming him #1...dad, signed in puffy paint by his three children. He carries a stopwatch in one hand and the workout in his head. He sends off the first four men to run mile repeats at 65 seconds a lap. They leap into motion in a tight pack and cruise by as if swept along by a current.
The next group heads off with a target of 67-second laps. Led by Brian McCabe, a junior with an itchy trigger finger, they immediately string out.
“Look at that, they’re already not together,” Centrowitz mutters.
“Hey!” he shouts. “McCabe! Drop back!”
What cross-country coach in his right mind scolds a runner for going too fast? Each workout is designed for a specific purpose—race simulation, speed building, maintenance, or recovery, for example—and Centrowitz adjusts the lap times according to the purpose. They’re also designed to hone a runner’s internal speedometer; it’s imperative that runners be able to tell the difference between even one-second increments of pace. Exercising temperance during a workout teaches the runner not only when to step on the gas but also increases the number of gears available to him.
“Relax, guys,” Centrowitz yells. “I want you to win the race, not the time trial.”
Centrowitz, 51, has been holding back since his college days at the University of Oregon. He was the steadying upperclassman for future Hall of Famer Alberto Salazar and other freshmen ponies who would gallop to the front of the pack and set a pace faster than their coach, Bill Dellinger, had prescribed. Even on the hardest workouts, Salazar would push the pace faster and faster until a voice from the pack, Centrowitz’s, barked for them to slow down. Practice often became a tug of war between the brash, young Salazar’s desire to cut loose and Centrowitz’s compulsion to follow the guidelines. “We wouldn’t listen to too many guys, but when Matt scolded you, you listened,” says former teammate Steve McChesney. “I think Matt saw the reasoning, the big picture. The rest of us just saw an opportunity to run fast, which is a lot of fun. At times, I think my career would have been better if I’d been as disciplined as Matt.”
Centrowitz’s second group of runners comes through the first 400-meter lap in 63 seconds. Those four seconds might not seem like a big deal, but in track, four seconds per lap is a huge difference in both time and level of exertion. Over a mile, four seconds per 400 meters separates a very good high school runner (4:15) from a world-class one (3:59). Extrapolated over a 6.2-mile cross-country race, four seconds per 400 meters adds up to nearly a minute and a half, which is roughly the difference between finishing in 100th place and 5th at nationals.
They slow down marginally but still run the second lap in 66 seconds. Centrowitz again shouts for McCabe to slow down. McCabe doesn’t alter his pace, so Centrowitz folds in his bottom lip and emits a piercing whistle that gets his attention. “Stop!” he bellows.
McCabe grudgingly steps out of line, followed by the other runners.
“McCabe, what’s the matter with you?” Centrowitz demands. “I told you 67 or 68. What didn’t you understand about that?”
“I don’t know!” McCabe shouts back.
“Well, go figure it out. Maybe you should go to the trainer and get a Q-tip. Clean out your ears.”
Centrowitz sends a steaming McCabe off for a jog. When he returns, still staring daggers, Centrowitz calls him over and puts a meaty hand on his shoulder. “OK, I’m sorry, but this is called coaching, or else you’re the coach,” he says in a softer voice. “It’s called discipline. Get used to it.”
(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)
They’re very good coaches, and if you want to be coached by them, that’s OK, just let me know.”
Centrowitz leans back in his office chair and rubs his head as he finishes up a phone call with a recruit, an Ethiopian-born high schooler in New England. So far the boy has flown under the radar because his mile times aren’t superb, but Centrowitz senses talent for the longer distances. The boy tells Centrowitz that American is still in the running, but he has other schools he’d like to visit.
“I would treat you the same as my own son and tell you that you gotta follow your heart,” Centrowitz reassures the boy. “But I’ll kill you if this happens, OK?”
Centrowitz wraps up his conversation with the recruit and his phone rings immediately. Another recruit has just returned from a college visit. Centrowitz asks him what he liked most about that campus. “The scenery, huh?” Centrowitz says. “We can beat that scenery. We got some skirts down here that you won’t forget. Yeah, you like the sound of that? You’re gonna like the taste of that, the feel of that, and everything. Hey, this school’s 70 percent girls. You didn’t know that? And they’re all homesick for their boyfriends, so help them out.”
Despite his considerable people skills—Centrowitz seemingly can befriend anyone—recruiting is perhaps the part of coaching that he enjoys the least. While the women are a young, developing team, the men are top-heavy with upperclassmen. “We really have to bring in some blue-chip recruits,” says assistant coach Terry Weir. “Coach can outrecruit anyone but he doesn’t like to. I tell him, you gotta get out there, get in their living rooms. But he’s like, ‘Fuck you, if you know so much about recruiting, you go.’ He’d rather take care of his own runners.”
For all of Centrowitz’s accomplishments and American’s steadily rising academic profile, very few of his athletes grew up dreaming of competing for the university. Most had never even heard of it until late in high school. American University is a small, private liberal arts college with 5,866 students; the average enrollment for the 2005 NCAA championship field, dominated by flagship state universities, was 18,829. And the other private schools in the race weren’t exactly no-names—Stanford, Dartmouth, Brigham Young, and Georgetown, to name a few.
The lack of name recognition hurts most in recruiting. American was the sixth smallest school at the 2005 national championships. Two of the programs with smaller enrollments than American, Dartmouth and William & Mary, have the history, academic reputation, and cachet, not to mention financial resources, to go after just about any recruit in the country.
“In running, you can’t get ahead of yourself,” Centrowitz says. “You just take care of today.”(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)
So far, Centrowitz has resisted the urge to pursue international athletes, one of the surest and fastest ways of building a competitive program. In keeping with the Centrowitz ethos, the practice is equal parts fair play and pragmatism. He doesn’t have the recruiting budget to pay for international airfare, and his scholarships are few and thus too valuable to commit to a single runner; most foreign recruits won’t consider a school that can’t offer a full scholarship. Either way, the program has earned the respect of the running community. Runners and coaches alike describe it as having a homey feel. “If I had a son who was a distance runner, I wouldn’t have any qualms sending him to that program,” says Army head coach Jerry Quiller.
Though the NCAA allows cross-country and track programs a combined total of 30.69 scholarships, 12.69 for the men and 18 for the women, American has only three each for the men and women, which Centrowitz spreads out as best he can. The fully funded programs—those able to offer the NCAA maximum in scholarships—can bring in a dozen freshmen, run them into the ground, and see who’s left standing. One scholarship runner who doesn’t pan out won’t hurt a school like Georgetown, where many of their walk-ons turned down scholarships elsewhere, but it can be an albatross for American. Centrowitz can’t miss, which is why he has 12 men and 11 women on his cross-country roster while his competitors have two or even three times that amount. “With the Ivies or places like Duke, Stanford, and William & Mary, they open the door a little and let in as many as can get through,” Centrowitz explains. “I can’t do that.”
(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)
Instead, Centrowitz relies on undiscovered gems to fill out his teams, and he has an uncanny way of sizing up someone’s potential for greatness, thanks to decades of lining up for races and trying to deduce who could be broken and who would dog him until the end. He grabbed one woman when he saw her jogging on campus, and she turned into a member of a conference-winning relay team. Another runner, Pat MacAdie, wasn’t even sure he was going to run in college and ended up a two-time conference cross-country champion. Assistant coach Sean Duffy came to American as a good-but-not-great miler from Philadelphia and wound up finishing third in the 1,500 meters at the 2005 NCAA championships. That earned him a running contract with Nike. The list goes on. “We’re like the Army,” Centrowitz once told MacAdie’s mother. “We take anybody.”
Mostly, he’s just looking for someone he’ll get along with. “I’m looking for a city kid, not some kid who’s going to go up to Colgate and [stare] at a hill all day,” he says. “That kid isn’t going to appeal to me. I like kids who like a little action, a little loud, a little fun.”
Centrowitz’s reputation for sniffing out late bloomers now precedes him. Sometimes schools will hear about Centrowitz recruiting an athlete and jump on the same runner—they figure he knows something they don’t. That’s how Centrowitz lost his top recruit to Princeton this year. “They thought I had this relationship with him,” he says with a chuckle. “But I’d never seen him fucking run. I liked his times; I liked him on the phone. But Princeton or American, what would you do? He almost still came because he wanted to run for me, but his parents came down on him. And I understand that to a point.”
Centrowitz also whiffed on his own son, Matthew, one of the best prep distance runners in the country, who ended up signing with Oregon. Not that he tried very hard. “He wanted to go to American his whole life, but now it’s time he saw other colleges,” he says. “You know, it’d be pretty sad if he didn’t want to go someplace else and test himself against new people and new situations. I think that’s very healthy.”
American’s rise to national prominence hasn’t escaped the notice of Centrowitz’s fellow coaches. “It takes a special type of person who doesn’t get discouraged by having less resources, needs to recruit harder, and needs to get luckier with the kids he brings in,” says Vin Lananna, the current Oregon coach and de facto king of collegiate distance running. “My opinion of Matt is he’s a blue-sky guy, and that’s an important attribute when you’re trying to build a program.”
In the past few years, the Eagles would have won the conference title even if all seven of the other teams combined into one.(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)
But Centrowitz is also reeling from the biggest recruiting loss of his tenure at American. Kevin Tschirhart was a big, strong runner from Long Island who reminded Centrowitz of himself—a seemingly perfect fit for American, which recruits heavily from Centrowitz’s home state. Described as a BAMF—Bad Ass Motherfucker—on a running message board, Tschirhart was the gem of Centrowitz’s recruiting class, and Centrowitz committed more scholarship money to Tschirhart than any previous recruit.
As a freshman last year, Tschirhart proved to be a wise investment, finishing fourth overall at the conference cross-country championships, 18th overall at regionals, and fourth for the team at nationals. This spring, Tschirhart abruptly decided to transfer; he’s now at the University of Virginia. “The official reason he transferred was that he wanted a higher-profile academic school,” says Centrowitz. “That was a new experience for me. But I transferred, too. I don’t hold it personal. I’m a father; I know kids change their minds.”
Team captain Conor Lanz hosted Tschirhart on his recruiting visit to American and remains in touch with him. “Coach is a tough guy to get along with, and he’s not for everybody,” Lanz says. “Kevin and Coach didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of thingsÉand I think he was expecting to have a lot more say in his training. Coach wants to get inside and change the person. If you’re unwilling to change how you do things, I think there will be problems.”
Doubting a coach is an anathema for Centrowitz. Not long after he transferred to Oregon, Coach Dellinger drove him into the Cascades; about 12 miles away from camp, he stopped the van and told Centrowitz to get out and run back to camp. Centrowitz, whose boyhood parkland had always been framed by skyscrapers, scanned the never-ending folds of green and imagined being torn apart by a bear.
“The one who leaves here with the most fun, wins,” says Centrowitz. “I see a lot of coaches and they’re not having fun. I don’t want to be them or at their schools.”(Photographs by Darrow Montgomery)
“Are you sure?” he asked with wide eyes.
“Yes,” Dellinger said.
“Will this make me a better runner?”
Centrowitz took off without another word.
“I never butted heads with a coach,” he says. “Coach said, ‘do another one,’ I did another one. That’s what I find interesting about these fucking guys these days. They’re know-it-alls.”
Centrowitz didn’t have much formal running training as a boy, unless you count scampering into and then away from trouble. His parents divorced when he was in second grade, and his father was largely absent. Though his brothers were good students, Centrowitz was preoccupied with hanging out on the corner, breaking windows, and causing mayhem in the streets.
After middle school, Centrowitz’s mother moved from the Bronx to Queens, where the schools were better and she could stay home to shepherd her wayward son. Centrowitz enrolled in Andrew Jackson High School, home to one of the best track programs in the city. Determined to make something of himself, Centrowitz decided to go out for the team.
Phil Kreitzer, a junior and one of the team’s best milers, remembers a muscular, 6-foot, 175-pound freshman showing up one day and tirelessly running laps. He asked Centrowitz if he had ever run before. “No,” Centrowitz answered. “I just saw you guys running and thought it’d be a nice thing to do.”
Centrowitz worked weekends at a butcher’s shop, which prevented him from racing much that year, but he was just happy to be on a team. His times improved dramatically over the season, and when he finally got a weekend off for the freshman-public-school championship, he won it.
Centrowitz moved back to the Bronx after that year and enrolled in Power Memorial Academy. He went on to have one of the most decorated prep careers in New York history. In 1973 he ran a 4:02 mile, which remains the New York state record. Craig Masback, the CEO of USA Track and Field, was a schoolboy contemporary of Centrowitz, and remembers him as “a running god watched by the rest of us with aweÉtour[ing] the Armory track in imperial fashion.”
By then, just being on the team wasn’t good enough. “I wanted to win every race, break every record, run faster than anyone else ran,” Centrowitz says.
After graduating from Power Memorial, he took a scholarship to Manhattan College, coached by Frank Gagliano. While at Manhattan, Centrowitz met Oregon coach Dellinger at a meet, felt an instant connection, and gave up his scholarship to move to Eugene. As heralded a runner as he was, Centrowitz’s transfer to Oregon didn’t make waves. Running is to Eugene as football is to South Bend, or basketball is to Chapel Hill, and there were already plenty of proven talents running laps around Hayward Field. One of them, a guy named Steve Prefontaine, the James Dean of running and already an icon at age 22, tended to overshadow pretty much everyone.
Centrowitz quickly established himself as one of Oregon’s best. He broke Prefontaine’s school record in the 1,500 meters, qualified for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and anchored the 1977 NCAA champion cross-country team. He also took freshmen under his wing and gave away shoes and sweat suits to kids who needed help with equipment. “I enjoyed using my status, my celebrity in the little world of track, to help others achieve,” Centrowitz says. “And I got a kick out of seeing the underdog succeed. If the best kid on the team is going to dinner with him, basically telling him he’s worthy, then he starts to think maybe he is worthy. These days, I see a lot of kids self-destruct because they don’t think they’re worthy of victory.”
Centrowitz won the 5,000 meter Olympic trials in 1980, but Cold War politics led President Jimmy Carter to boycott the games. Tired of the all-consuming running mentality of Eugene, Centrowitz moved back to New York to train on his own. To help pay the bills, he took a job as an assistant coach at St. John’s University.
At a welcome party, he met Beverly Bannister (no relation to Sir Roger), who had run the 400 and 800 meters at Hunter College and occasionally worked out with the St. John’s team while pursuing a master’s degree in psychiatric social work.
Not long after they began dating, Beverly ran into a college teammate who asked if she was seeing anyone. “Yeah, this guy Matt Centrowitz,” she replied nonchalantly.
The friend’s eyebrows leapt. “The Matt Centrowitz?” she cried. “The two-time Olympian and 4:02 high-school miler?”
That night, Beverly asked Matt to come clean about his accomplishments, but he said they weren’t important. Instead, Matt seemed far more interested in Beverly’s internships at Bellevue and Columbia Presbyterian. They married in 1984. “What struck me was his humility,” says Beverly. “He never talked about himself.”
Still, Centrowitz’s pride gets the better of him every now and then. He once spoke to a New York recruit who told him that he was hoping to break the state record for the mile. Centrowitz played dumb and asked the recruit what the record time was. “4:08 or something,” the recruit said.
“No, it’s 4:02,” Centrowitz said. “Know how I know that? Because I own it!”
Centrowitz (third from left) always tried to make sure the Ducks stayed grounded.
Centrowitz moved to Washington in 1992 to help coach the Enclave, a group of post-collegiate runners sponsored by Reebok and headed up by Gagliano, who had become the coach at Georgetown. Fall was the slow period, so when Centrowitz heard about the vacancy at American, he figured it would be a fun opportunity to do some college coaching. Both the men’s and women’s teams were perennial doormats with barely the minimum number of athletes required to compete. Centrowitz was paid $7,500. “It was basically a glorified intramural program,” he says.
Most of those early years were spent figuring out the do’s and don’ts of coaching young athletes. He learned that having the men’s team room together could build camaraderie, as long as they did so on campus; living off-campus gave the men a bit too much freedom for their own good. He also learned that housing the women together was a bad idea both on- and off-campus. “I tried that one year with the women and it ruined the whole fucking season,” he says with a laugh. “It was like World War III in there—who was talking to who, who was being a bitch, this and that.”
Though Centrowitz obviously knew the heights a top-flight running program could achieve, he never spent much time plotting his ascension. “In running, you can’t get ahead of yourself,” he says. “I stayed in the present a lot. You just take care of today.”
In 1996, a new athletic director, Lee McElroy, arrived. The next year, he reinstated the track program, hired Centrowitz full-time, and gave him a couple scholarships. These days, Centrowitz can boast 20 all-American certificates since 2000—more than the rest of the league combined—and an entire class of American upperclassmen knows nothing but conference championships and national berths.
Centrowitz receives a few calls every year from schools interested in interviewing him for vacancies, but he says he has no plans to leave. “As far as I know, I’m too busy having fun doing what I’m doing,” he says. “The one who leaves here who has the most fun, wins. I don’t have the best car, the most money, the biggest office, but I’m still happy being in my own skin. I see a lot of coaches and they’re not having fun. I don’t want to be them or at their schools.”
Besides, Centrowitz has plenty to keep him busy at American. “Coaching two teams, it’s like having 10 kids,” Centrowitz says. “Someone’s always hurting. You can’t ever sit back and enjoy it or take it all in because you’re always running around.”
Centrowitz had one of the most decorated prep careers in New York history. His 4:02 mile remains the state record.
This season, Hallinan is hurting. The 6-foot-2, 145-pound junior from Philadelphia was a phenom his first two years and had his sights set on a Top-35 finish at nationals and making all-American this fall. But he came down with a cold early in the season and spent most of September trying to figure out why he couldn’t seem to shake it. He ran under the weather at the Navy Invitational, didn’t get better after a couple weeks off, and has spent most of the past month convalescing under Centrowitz’s watch.
At the end of September, Centrowitz returned to Eugene, Ore., for the inaugural Bill Dellinger Invitational. The race, hosted by the University of Oregon, featured some of the best teams in the country and was the biggest event the team had ever competed in outside of nationals. The American men entered the race ranked No. 29 in the country, but they couldn’t help gawking as they rubbed elbows with the country’s cross-country royalty. “It was a little scary,” says Lanz. “But I think that’s the reason Coach brought us out there, to show us what goes on at the national class year round.”
Centrowitz had warned his team that the race would start out much faster than it was accustomed to, but no one was prepared for it. The team never settled in, and American was out of the race by the first mile; the Eagles finished 12th out of 13 teams. Oregon easily won the race, placing eight runners before Lanz, American’s top finisher, crossed the line in 44th place. Even worse, Hallinan struggled through “one of the worst races of my life,” and finished 89th.
The coach went back to the drawing board with the team; they would not race again until the conference championship. He also shut down Hallinan and ordered a full medical workup for him. Doctors eventually realized that Hallinan was suffering from asthma and prescribed an inhaler. Though he was cleared to run, Hallinan spent most of October in limbo, frustrated and disappointed, his confidence shaken by his performance in Oregon.
Not wanting Hallinan to see what he’s missing, Centrowitz keeps him isolated from his teammates. “You have to time it perfectly,” says Centrowitz, “so that when he digs down, something’s going to happen and he doesn’t get a flat tire or go into oxygen debt, which is what happened in Oregon. We had to build him up so that he knew when he put foot on pedal it was going to go.”
Centrowitz has just a few short weeks to nurse Hallinan back to being a contributor. “The first step is to get him healthy and to believe in himself,” says Centrowitz. “Then we’ll move along slowly, give him one or two big gulps, and off he goes.”
The team has not competed since the disaster at Eugene, and Hallinan is nowhere near racing shape. Centrowitz has decided to gamble on training his men for the regionals, which determine who goes to nationals. But if Centrowitz can’t get Hallinan back in time, it might not matter. “This is the playoffs,” says Centrowitz. “If you don’t do well in one of them, you’re done.”
With conferences on the horizon, Centrowitz continues to spoon-feed Hallinan and watches him for signals about how he’s feeling. He knows the course in Lock Haven is flat and smooth, so he tailors the workouts for that course, giving Hallinan rhythmic track work to prepare him for the pace he expects the pack to run.
More important than building Hallinan’s body back up is building his psyche back up. Centrowitz checks with Hallinan every day, makes sure he eases back into his running, and when he senses him feeling nervous about all the time he’s missed, he reminds him that many world records have been set after athletes have returned from injury. He also designs every workout so that Hallinan can ace it. “We can’t afford another setback, or even an average race,” Centrowitz says. “We have to get him to jump right back in where he thinks he belongs and pick up where he would have been.”
For his first hard workout, Hallinan runs five 1-mile repeats without problem. A few days later, Centrowitz puts him through 1,200-meter repeats, and he nails them. Centrowitz decides to put him back with his teammates. Hallinan naturally worries that he’ll never catch up in time, but Centrowitz assures him that all the training he had done over the summer was “money in the bank.”
And that might be the real genius of Centrowitz: He seems to know exactly which motivational buttons to push and when to push them. After a bad race during MacAdie’s sophomore year, Centrowitz got in his face in front of his entire family. “What happened to you?” Centrowitz screamed. “You’ve got no guts.” The next day, MacAdie ran a personal record. “He’s a great motivator,” MacAdie says. “He can find a way to get more out of you than you thought you could, whether it’s patting you on the back or telling you that you’ve let yourself down. It’s this relationship where you’re never really on balance, because in his eyes you still haven’t done anything. There are guys who have hated him for weeks on end because he gets under your skin.”
Centrowitz knows he isn’t the easiest coach to run for, but getting under people’s skin is part of his method. “I don’t have to be a perfect person,” says Centrowitz. “Honesty is more important than being perfect. Sometimes you have to get in someone’s face. I don’t like to do it, but change is hard, and that’s what it takes.”
Robert Johnson, the men’s distance coach at Cornell, spent four years in Washington during the tail end of the Enclave days training for the Olympic marathon trials and heard all the stories about a profane, unruly coach named “Centro.” One day Johnson was up at the American University track and saw what looked like a football coach unleashing football-coach-style histrionics on a group of runners. He dismissed Centrowitz as a buffoon.
Then one night Johnson, suffering from a nagging injury, went up to the track to limp through a run. Centrowitz happened to be there, and they jogged together for a couple laps. Centrowitz had seen Johnson around and knew that he was training for a marathon, so he asked what he was doing there so late. Johnson explained that he was hurt but was trying to get in some work. “You’re an idiot,” Centrowitz told Johnson. “You’re hurt and you’re trying to run 30 minutes? Either you’re hurt or you’re not, so get healthy. Don’t be so insecure.”
The short interaction, in which the coach cut to the core of his psyche, was enough to convince Johnson to genuflect at the altar of Centrowitz. “That one experience with him just clicked,” says Johnson. “I was like, that guy is a genius. I was so inspired mentally. Whatever he said, I viewed as coming from God. Wow, if he was your coach and he told you to believe in yourself, you will.”
In early November, the Eagles head to Hamilton, N.Y., for the conference championships. Hallinan, the defending champion, has been back with the team for about a week, but Centrowitz leaves him at home, not wanting to subject him to the long trip and forecasted wet weather. Centrowitz figures that Hallinan has one good race in him and doesn’t want to use it at conferences. “It’s like a kid who wakes up on Christmas morning,” he says. “He’s not worried that he only got three hours of sleep. He’s bouncing around like crazy. That race in Lock Haven is Christmas morning for Steve.”
Besides, the conference title is all but conceded to the Eagles. In the past few years, they would have won even if all seven of the other teams combined into one. Despite missing Hallinan and cold, rainy conditions on a difficult course, the men take five of the top eight spots to win their fifth straight league title.
The week before regionals, the men are feeling the pressure, and practice gets chippy. On the last 400 meters of a 3-2-1 (3-lapper, 2-lapper, 1-lapper), someone flies up from the back, upping the pace. Hallinan calls for him to knock it off, but he doesn’t, setting off a final stretch punctuated by shouts and curses. Cut it out! Fuck you! Shut up! You shut up!
They cross the line and Dan “Beans” Beardslee, a senior from Boston, hollers for everyone to shut the fuck up. “We’ve got to run together on Saturday, and we’re screaming at each other like 6-year-olds!” he says.
Two runners almost come to blows, but Centrowitz is unfazed. “Hey Ashley,” he cracks to one of the women just arriving on the track. “You missed it. We had six guys fighting over you to get the chance to date you. Just another day in your life, right?”
Centrowitz then takes Hallinan under his arm. “Steve, come here,” he says. “Now, keep your mouth shut, son.”
“But he was coming up on my shoulder,” Hallinan protests, still jumpy.
“What did I just say? Keep your mouth shut.”
“Well, it was annoying.”
“Look at me,” Centrowitz says. “Keep your mouth shut. I coach. You run. I tell you the pace, you do it. I’m sorry you’re annoyed, but that’s part of growing up.”
Hallinan deflates. “OK,” he nods.
Two weeks after winning the Patriot League, the Eagles line up in Lock Haven for the regional championships. Centrowitz likes the course, a pancake-flat series of loops around soccer and corn fields. Without having to worry about covering attacks going up and down hills, the men can race as if on a track, settling into and maintaining a 4:55 mile pace. The other piece of good news is that Hallinan is back and looks to be in fine form. “If we want to make nationals, we need him,” says Weir. “He’ll make us a lot better if he can run what he can. I have no idea what he’ll do, though. That’s the fun part.”
Centrowitz is guardedly optimistic. Most of the teams have spent the season running 8-kilometer courses. The regional course, like the national championship course, is 10-kilometers, and none of the teams have faced the physical and tactical challenge of the longer distance. The race favorites, Georgetown, Princeton, American, and Villanova, are all seeing one another for the first time this season. “On paper we’re third or fourth, but I’m going to predict second for us,” Centrowitz says.
Cross-country races are scored by adding up the places of the top five finishers for each school, the lower the total the better. Every team wants to place as many of its runners as high as possible. At regionals, placing five in the Top 20 is a good formula for making nationals, but it really comes down to making sure each runner beats his counterpart.
American slipped into second place last year when its No. 5, Awit Yohannes, a senior with a powerful finishing kick, passed Princeton’s No. 4 and No. 5 over the last 400 meters. “Are you ready to beat their little blue-blood asses?” Centrowitz snarls one day after practice. “If you hit them in the front, they’re gonna crack. If you don’t, they’re gonna get cocky. They’re gonna come at you early, and you need to run shoulder to shoulder with them, and if you smell dead meat, you gotta go. That’d feel good, huh? Beat that school that wouldn’t let you in?”
Samuel Chelanga, a Kenyan freshman from Fairleigh Dickinson University, quickly opens up a big lead that he won’t relinquish. Everyone knows he’s going to take off, but since he’s running as an individual, the teams aren’t concerned about catching him.
“You’ve got 75 yards; you look great,” Centrowitz calls out as Chelanga passes the first mile marker.
The pack rumbles through with all seven American runners in the Top 20.
“Great!” Centrowitz shouts. “Stay relaxed.”
Chelanga hits the two-mile mark at 9:30. The pack, still relatively tight, follows 20 seconds later. Centrowitz expects the race to start any minute, as Georgetown typically makes its move after about two-and-a-half miles.
At the third mile, junior Brendan Fennell leads the pack, followed closely by Hallinan, Lanz, Yohannes, and four Georgetown runners. “That’s the look!” he tells Hallinan, who appears strong and loose. Centrowitz jogs from point to point, trying to keep up with the race. Three freshmen women, having already run their race, spy Centrowitz and tease him about his running.
“Yeah, I need some spikes, some wind aiding, maybe [assistant coach] Bridget [Bowers] behind me pushing my fat ass,” he jokes as he catches his breath.
After the women dart off to the next mile marker, Centrowitz watches the racers stream away and says to no one in particular, “I used to get around a little better.”
For the women’s race, the cards were on the table after the first mile and there wasn’t much movement over the course of the race. But the men trade punches throughout, making moves and countermoves. The coaches all try to get a sense of their teams’ places by counting runners as they go by. The early word is that Villanova is laying waste to the field, with five runners in the Top 25. Centrowitz misses the fourth mile and gets a report from Duffy. “We look good,” he says. “Fennell and Hallinan look relaxed, Conor looked OK, Awit’s hanging. Beans is hurting.”
“And Carlos [Jamieson] is out to lunch,” grumbles Centrowitz. “Who’s our fifth?”
“Aw shit. We’re not going to nationals. Shit!”
On the way to the fifth mile, Centrowitz runs into Peter Farrell, coach of the Princeton women’s team that had won the first race handily. “Where to next, coach?” Farrell asks.
“You tell me,” Centrowitz says. “You’re going to Terre Haute [for nationals] and I’m trying to figure out if I’m going to New York a week early.”
Villanova is still leading the race with Georgetown firmly in second place. “This last mile’s going to be hairy,” Centrowitz says. “They gotta go.”
“There’s only four minutes left in the race,” Farrell says.
“And I said that two minutes ago. Shit.”
Centrowitz meets up with Duffy at the finish and starts counting runners. Hallinan and Fennell fly by, headed for Top 10 finishes. Lanz turns in one of the best races of his career with 14th place. Yohannes makes the turn for the home stretch right behind Georgetown’s No. 3, 4, and 5 runners. With the race all but conceded to Villanova—so far the Wildcats have four runners in the Top 15—American’s nationals hopes may well depend on Yohannes finishing ahead of the trio from Georgetown.
Once American’s Top 5 cross the line, Centrowitz grips the arm of a former Enclave runner and watches intently for the No. 5 runner for Princeton. By now everyone has heard the news: Villanova’s No. 5 pulled a hamstring and dropped out. Despite running a nearly perfect race, the Wildcats are out of contention. When Princeton’s No. 5 finally comes in, Centrowitz grabs the Enclave runner’s shoulders and lets out a triumphant shout.
Hallinan takes 5th place, tops for the Eagles, and makes the all-Region team. He wears a broad, satisfied smile as he cools down. “I thought Coach handled the whole situation perfect,” he says of his restoration. “It’s easy for a coach to just forget about a guy or be pissed at him, but he didn’t get mad, didn’t yell, he was always helpful. I don’t know if any other coach would or could handle a situation like that.”
Though the official results have yet to be released, there’s general agreement that Georgetown and American made it through. Coaches begin to congratulate Centrowitz. As clouds gather overhead, a woman in a Villanova cross-country sweat shirt approaches Centrowitz. “You guys win?” she says. “I had you guys winning.”
“I dunno,” says Centrowitz. “By my math, anything’s possible. That’s public-school math for you.”
The skies open up right when Centrowitz receives the official results: American finished behind Georgetown in second place and is going to nationals. Although the Eagles will go on to finish 26th out of 31 teams at nationals, just making the race separates them from the almost 300 other Division I teams that did not.
Back in Lock Haven, Centrowitz whoops. “Hey Ed, where we going tonight to celebrate?” he asks assistant Edmund Burke.
“The Tombs,” Burke jokes, referring to the Georgetown University hangout.
“Ha!” Centrowitz says. “We’ll go to the Tombs when we win nationals.” CP
Copyright © 2006 Washington Free Weekly Inc.