Same Story, Different Coast

Updated: Dec 23, 2019

Flashback to the summer of 2018.

Washington head coach Greg Metcalf is the subject of a report alleging that he used verbally degrading comments towards his athletes during his tenure with the Huskies. Details aside, the allegations were enough for Metcalf to step down - leaving a massive coaching opportunity available for the right candidate.

However, despite the attractive coaching vacancy, no one seemed to suspect that the Powell's would leave the helm of the legendary Oregon distance group. Clearly, that was an oversight as both Andy and Maurica Powell would eventually leave Eugene for Seattle. Between the Powell's departure and Edrick Floreal leaving Kentucky for Texas, the collegiate coaching realm was thrusted into a massive ripple effect of new signings.

Pete Watson left Virginia for Texas, Ben Thomas left Virginia Tech for Oregon, and Brad Herbster took a coaching position at Pitt.

However, one coaching change that most people didn't seem to appreciate enough was Coach Andrea Grove-McDonough leaving her position as the women's distance coach at Iowa State to become the head cross country coach (for both the men and women) at UNC.

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In her first year with the program, Grove-McDonough proved to be an effective leader for a team that was in desperate need of a spark. The Tarheel men showed glimpses of promise during the cross country season while the women captured most of our attention with a handful of respectable performances on the track.

Morgan Ilse emerged as one of the top distance runners in the ACC while the rest of the women's roster began to see significant progress and improvement on their times. It was far from perfect, but at the very least, it was an encouraging first year for Grove-McDonough.

When UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham announced last month that Harlis Meaders (UNC's Director of Track and Field and Cross Country) would not have his contract renewed for performance-related reasons, it seemed understandable. The Tarheels had failed to stay competitive in the ACC and did not seem poised to make any notable improvements any time soon.

At the time, it seemed safe to say that Grove-McDonough was going to have full control and oversight of the UNC distance program. That is, after all, why they pulled her away from Iowa State...right?

However, rather than promoting from within or hiring a sprints/hurdles specialist for the Director role, UNC doubled down on their commitment to the distance events by hiring Stanford coach Chris Miltenberg.

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The decision for UNC to bring on Miltenberg (and for Miltenberg to leave Stanford) is confusing at best and leaves us with a handful of questions - many that we don't know the answer to.

Why would UNC hire a respected (and accomplished) distance coach just to bring in another distance coach one year later? If they thought Grove-McDonough wasn't ready for the role, why not bring in a sprints or hurdles specialist to become the new Director instead?

As for Coach Miltenberg, why would he leave Stanford? Why would he step away from an accomplished powerhouse program that was primed to give him continued success?

One must think that a significant increase in pay would be a good reason to move from one coast to another. However, the challenges that come with completely revamping and rebuilding a struggling program have enough potential to jeopardize the long-term job security of anyone in that Director role.

Just take a look at what happened with Harlis Meaders. He was hired by UNC back in 2012 and now, just seven years later, he will not be returning to Chapel Hill. While it may seem like an exaggeration, Miltenberg is walking into a high-risk, high-reward situation at North Carolina.

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Of course, none of this is to suggest that Miltenberg was a bad hire - only a confusing one. In the seven years that he was at Stanford, the Cardinal secured six NCAA podium finishes in cross country between the men and women. His ability to recruit some of the nation's most elite young stars has given the Palo Alto-based university an arsenal of overwhelming talent.

In fact, before his time at Stanford, Miltenberg led the Georgetown women to the 2011 NCAA national title in cross country. Simply put, the newest addition to UNC's coaching staff has a proven record of constructing powerhouse programs.

But what does this mean for Coach Grove-McDonough? Naturally, it was expected that she would have full reign over the Tarheels distance program. But with Miltenberg now (assumedly) leading the charge, will she be inclined to look elsewhere? Maybe...Stanford?

As outrageous as that scenario sounds, she wouldn't be the worst candidate. During her time at Iowa State, she was mentored by established distance coach Martin Smith. As a result, Grove-McDonough's athletes were able to produce a handful of strong performances at the national level. After a solid first year at UNC, she may have a good enough resume to end up in Palo Alto.

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We could go on forever, listing a handful of coaching candidates who we think could end up taking one of the most attractive coaching positions in the NCAA. But frankly, without any insider information, our predictions would be no better than anyone else's.

Yet, there is one aspect of Miltenberg's move that we haven't mentioned yet: potential transfers.

When the Powell's left Oregon for Washington last summer, they indirectly brought a handful of their athletes with them. Distance standouts Mick Stanvosek, Tanner Anderson, Katie Rainsberger, and Lilli Burdon all left the Ducks to join their conference rival. Not only that, but star distance recruits such as Josh Hoey and Brodey Hasty each opted to take their talents elsewhere. Could the same thing happen at Stanford?

For the men, it's a tricky balance.

When the Powell's left Oregon last year, it was the veterans who came with them - not the youngsters. Right now, the Cardinal men have an experienced squad capable of bringing home the cross country national title this fall - a goal that Oregon realistically wasn't going to achieve in 2018.

Would the elder stars on this Stanford team really decide to go elsewhere despite knowing that if they stuck together they could win it all? I don't have the answer to that, but the idea of hoisting an NCAA trophy may be enough of an incentive for them to stay.

The women's team, however, is in a different conversation as they were coached by Elizabeth Debole. There is likely far lesser incentive for the women to transfer than there is for the men based off of Miltenberg's departure, but Stanford's 2020 roster doesn't list Debole as a coach either. Could Miltenberg be bringing Debole with him to UNC? What does that mean for Grove-McDonough? Will we also see a few of the Stanford women transfer out to follow their coaches? Your guess is as good as mine...

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We've seen this story before, but this year seems uniquely different.

North Carolina isn't the same caliber program as Washington.

There wasn't already an established distance coach at Washington when the Powell's arrived.

The Oregon men and women didn't have the potential to win a national title like Stanford does now.

The current Cardinal recruiting class doesn't rely on only two recruits.

So throw what you know out the window.

We're in for yet another wild ride on the summer coaching carousel...