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THE MIRACULOUS MIDLES
By GLENN THOMPSON
Brian Blutreich (pronounced BLUE-trick) was a pretty fair athlete in his day, but if it weren’t for his imposing stature, you might just forget about that given his coaching resume.
A native of Mission Viejo, Calif., Blutreich, earned All-America honors in the discus and shot put three times each at UCLA from 1986-90, winning back-to-back Pac-10 discus titles in 1989 and 1990. ‘Blu’, as he’s known to many, graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and went on to earn a platter spot on the 1992 Barcelona Olympic team.
After starting his coaching career at UC- Santa Barbara, he headed east to Chapel Hill. Under Blu’s coaching guidance, the University of North Carolina became one of the nation’s premier collegiate throws programs. In 2007, Tarheel Justin Ryncavage defended his ACC and NCAA outdoor titles in the men’s javelin as part of dual 1-2 sweeps with teammate Adam Montague, the NCAA East Region Champion and Field Athlete of the Year. Blu also guided Nick Owens to two All-America honors and ACC titles in the weight throw and hammer throw. His 2006 labors earned him his second National Assistant Coach of the Year honor as voted by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
The 2007 season capped a career in Chapel Hill that included:
Ø Seven individual NCAA champions (three in 2006)
Ø 29 All-Americans
Ø 45 Atlantic Coast Conference event champions
Ø Two 2004 Olympians
Ø Men’s throws coach for Team USA at 2002 World Juniors
Ø Coached wife Lynda to 3x USATF champion in the javelin, AR and 2000 Olympic berth
In July of 2007, after 11 years at UNC, the 40-year old Blutreich stunned the throws world by packing up his family and lengthy resume and migrating west to Norman, Oklahoma, where he took over the reins of the largely anonymous University of Oklahoma throws program. In the process he left behind a cupboard full of talent, including incoming freshman hammer superstar Walter Henning.
Blu was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his recent move, coaching philosophies, and more.
Long & Strong: It will be strange seeing you in a color other than light blue. What were the factors that prompted your move from Chapel Hill to become a Sooner?
Brian Blutreich: I am still not used to being in Oklahoma colors. I remember the first time I put on the OU shirt and it felt pretty weird. I have been some shade of blue for many years. Whether it was as an athlete at UCLA, a coach at UC Santa Barbara, or the past 12 years at UNC. To be honest I was not looking to leave North Carolina this past year. Oklahoma approached me after USA’s and presented me with an opportunity to take a look and see if I would be interested. I personally had never been to the state of Oklahoma in my life. So I had no idea what the state and the university were like. Growing up in California, we were taught about the dust bowl and it was Native American country. From what I knew about the track and field program over the years, it had a sprinkle of people here and there but not a lot of track and field tradition.
The first factor that interested me about OU was my wife and I had really been trying to figure out what we wanted to do since our oldest daughter was entering kindergarten. Having two coaches in the family made it tough for everyone. As many coaches know, our business consists of long hours and not a lot of pay. The second factor was UNC made it clear (on a very positive note by the way) there really was not any room for advancement. Whereas OU was quite the opposite; do a good job, do it the right way and you will be rewarded for that work. Working at OU has allowed my wife to be a full time mom and that is priceless. Finally, professionally there were a lot of roadblocks to navigate and you had to wear many hats as a coach at UNC. I had no problem with that because I had learned so much about the running of a track and field program. The problem is that at times it outweighs actually coaching and recruiting. In that respect I was ready to move on and have the freedom to push my coaching ability to see what I could actually achieve.
L & S: You left behind one helluva recruit in Walter Henning (L&S, April 2006). How difficult was it to tell him and your athletes you were leaving?
BB: I would have to say making the phone calls to the existing team members and the incoming recruits is by far the toughest thing I have had to do as a coach. There is a lot of blood sweat and tears that go into coaching from developing relationships with the kids in the recruiting process to the day-to-day effort on and off the track. Having the chance to see these kids grow, pursue their dreams, help them become better citizens, and having the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives is what it is about. We came a long way in my time at UNC, and it is always hard to say goodbye to family members.
In terms of my incoming recruits, especially Mary Angell and Walter Henning, it was even more difficult. There are times you just click with a person and I think with these two we were pretty dialed in. My wife put it best: "I do not even want to be in the same state as you when you call Walter and his parents." I have been coaching for a decent amount of time now and have been fortunate to work with some talented people and great human beings. I am at the point now of new challenges. Laura Gerraughty, Nick Owens, Vikas Gowda, and Justin Ryncavage really pushed me to become a better coach in all of the events. I think Walter was that new challenge for me. Not to see if he can win an NCAA championship, but to see if I could help him maximize his potential, whatever that may be. In that process I know I would have to take things to a new level in all aspects and that is what gets me excited to have a chance at that. I am going to miss that opportunity. The amount of stress I put on myself that week I informed everybody was unreal and took a toll on me mentally and physically.
L & S: What appeals to you the most about the Oklahoma program? What will be your greatest challenges in building the throws squad in Norman?
BB: There were many things about OU that caught my interest once I took a visit here. First, as mentioned above, my wife could be a full-time mom and the education for my daughters is much more desirable. In terms of the track and field program, the current staff all came in two years ago with an absolute bottom of the barrel team finishing I think10th and 12th at conference. In two years the men won the Big 12 conference meet and the women placed 4th. So I knew it could get done with the right commitment. The athletic director has made track and field here at OU a pretty big priority with a new outdoor track facility a few years back and a very generous budget that gives us a lot of freedom to recruit, travel and supply us with the tools we need to be successful. It was nice to see people excited about track and field and administrators showing a genuine interest in all facets of the program. Another positive here is since the state is right in the middle of the country recruiting both coasts and traveling to both coasts will not be so extreme.
I think the biggest challenge for me here will be getting kids to take a look at the university. As I have already told many people, the campus here at OU is not what you think. I am still impressed as I continue to explore the university. The President here has done a tremendous job over the last decade raising the bar for the whole university to where it is in the top ten public schools for education/cost. What kind of took me aback is OU has the #1 enrollment of national merit scholars per capita in the nation. This is not just an athletic factory. We do have something for everybody at every level. It is just getting kids to take that leap of faith and get on board.
L & S: In recent years you’ve been as successful, if not moreso, as any other Division I throws coach. What are some of the keys to your success?
BB: I try to keep things pretty simple in my life and my coaching. I have never tried to be something I am not and think that I am a better coach than I am just because my teams have had success. If I need help, I try to go get it. The ability to continue to evolve as a person and as a coach is the key. It was time for me to leave UNC to continue the evolving process. So far it has been great. As I stated earlier, I try to make things simple, even if they are not, and do those simple things with great passion and expertise. As anyone knows, some kids buy into it greater than others. Finally, my goal is to try to maximize the ability of each individual based on their genetic makeup and how much love they have for the sport. It cannot be forced or you will lose that person in the end.
L&S: Does Lynda miss coaching?
BB: She does miss the day-to-day interaction with the kids and teaching, but does not miss the long hours at meets or recruiting.
L&S: We’ve all heard about the constant letters, phone calls and text messages to high profile gridiron and hoops recruits. You’ve pulled some of the best talent in the country, including Henning, Laura Gerraughty, Nick Owens, Vikas Gowda and Justin Ryncavage. How does recruiting star throwers differ?
BB: Recruiting is crazy. Sometimes it makes no sense whatsoever. As the world of quality throws programs grow, the talent pool seems to also be dropping. It is becoming more difficult every year to recruit. There are great programs all throughout the country now as opposed to 20 years ago. I am sure if you ask any coach, they probably could tell you many crazy recruiting stories. Sometimes you really think you have someone committed, and the next minute they change their mind and many times their reasoning is a bit odd. That is the mind of many 17-18 year- old kids. Sometimes it does make you lose your mind a bit.
As for me, you win some and you lose many. I hope to try to attract one solid kid a year and over a four-year period, I would have a few good ones like you mentioned in the question. Now there are also years that I came up empty. That is the nature of the profession not to mention how much scholarship allotment is provided.
I do not do anything special in the recruiting process. I was a highly-recruited athlete out of high school, and I could tell the programs that were trying to sell me a bill of goods and that did not turn me on. Kids are pretty perceptive (not all, of course) but if I truly have to sell something, it probably will not work out because I am a horrible salesman. I present what the school and I as a coach have to offer and see where it goes. I think it is important to recruit character as well. Sometimes that might keep the group going in those tough times. All the kids I had at North Carolina were completely different from each other but had the same common goal and that was to throw far. Being at the University of North Carolina did get my foot in many doors, but the bottom line is to get top kids, you need to know what you are talking about and then prove it to them.
L&S: Tell us what you are looking for in a scholarship thrower (size, grades, distances, personality, etc).
BB: Every event has its certain prototypical size and abilities as you can see watching a world championship meet. At the collegiate level if you can find those types of people, that would be great. The bottom line is the ability to move something fast. That critical moment that cannot be taught but just enhanced. You cannot make an 11.00 100-meter sprinter into a 10.00 sprinter. Sometimes genetics is a tough thing to beat even if your kid has the best technique and the best training plan in the world. I can not tell you how many times I told my athletic kids you got out massed today. So in terms of athletic scholarship from partial to full aid I try to find as close to a prototypical kid as I can and work your way down. Understanding, from a pure athletic standpoint, height is not always a critical factor as many people think at the collegiate level. It is a nice bonus to have, but there are just so many total package athletes out there you are going to have to show how good a coach you are to take the other kids to the next level.
Another factor I look for which is hard for head coaches to understand sometimes is the heart and will factor. There are a lot of decent kids athletically who can develop with the: I will do what it takes and live the sport approach. I think this may be the most important factor in recruiting that gets lost in the pure raw numbers as the indicator for the business end of the sport.
As far as grades go, you need to find the right fit for your university. I have found most, not all, of your upper echelon throwers are on the brighter end of the spectrum. Some may be book smart and others street smart. For me there has been a pretty good correlation of hard-working intelligent kids and good throwing. As a college coach it is nice not to have to worry about whether or not they will be eligible to compete. Let’s face it, if you want to compete at the collegiate level, you must pass classes whether you like it or not. To throw for me, there must be a genuine motivation to graduate. I have had a 100% graduation rate in 15 years of D1 coaching.
L&S: Can you contrast who you were as a coach when you started your career, and who you are now?
BB: I am pretty much the same person now as I was when I got into the profession. I would like to think I am wiser and a better teacher now having gone through the rigors of recruiting, learning about the sport, and teaching through a trial and error process. Most good coaches go through this process because each kid brings a new challenge and that is what I like about my profession, and I think I am getting better at that every year. I think my gift is the ability to get kids to understand what I am trying to teach them.
Having a wife and kids now has changed my view on many topics in my profession, but the passion to help kids reach their dreams and goals on and off the track still burns inside me.
L&S: Which event is the most challenging for you and why?
BB: Each event has its issues but the most common difficulty is teaching someone hammer from the very start. We are so limited in time with the NCAA calendar, and hammer takes probably the most time in terms of repetitions in the early development phase. The indoor season creeps up on us very fast, and the worst thing to do is have your kids throw the weight for long-term development of the hammer. Getting shot/discus kids to understand how not to drag the hammer in such a short time is probably the biggest challenge because they want to see instant results, especially when it comes to early season. That is the nature of competition. Our system is pretty much backwards for newcomers but not bad for kids who understand the event later in their development.
Javelin can be difficult as well. Fortunately, there is more time to work on technique, and most of your javelin throwers are not doing another event. First, I have found unlearning years and years of baseball, softball and football throwing mechanics is the biggest challenge. Second, understanding how to fall into your plant and not push into the plant is tough. Finally, getting kids to understand how to stay healthy whether it be how to dress and warm-up during practice, working on technique (not trying to kill most of the time), and paying attention to the details of all of the conditioning facets of how to train for the event.
L&S: Can you give us an overview of your training strategies?
BB: From a throwing standpoint, I am a big advocate of as many correct repetitions as possible. Most workouts do not necessarily have a flat bottom number of throws. I try to get as much quality out of a session as I can in terms of just general training. Some workouts may be long if we can keep putting good numbers into the bank but can be very short if the brain and body do not work with each other on a given day. If we have a long throwing session, I might lighten up the lifting session or vise-versa for a short session. I do treat the javelin differently. I am much more cautious and not very lenient on "oh just one more coach". Health is everything in the javelin, and I just have to have a different mindset when I coach that event. To use an analogy, you can only drive a car into a wall so many times before it breaks. In terms of multiple event athletes, I do have to keep an eye on number of repetitions a little bit because there is only so much fuel in the tank for the whole session of the day and the amount of mileage you can put on a car in a given year or over a long haul of a career. As you can see, I like to use analogies in my teaching.
I always tell my kids make something positive happen every day, and you are bound to improve. If you have a bad throwing session, kick some butt in the weight room, get positive reinforcement in a film session, or just catch up on some sleep. Whatever it is, you make something good happen everyday.
L&S: What advice would you give throwers looking to break into the profession, and young coaches looking to climb the ladder?
BB: Well, if you are looking to get into the profession these days, try to get your foot in the door wherever you can. The problem becomes can you or are you willing to do what it takes to stay in the profession financially? Most entry-level jobs require some supplemental income. Once you do get in, try to network with a lot of different coaches, not necessarily just throws coaches. When it gets down to it, this is a who-you-know business. A great way to do this is attend as many seminars/clinics as you can, meeting and learning as much as you can about the profession and the sport. People will notice, no matter what level, the programs that consistently get kids to improve and have success. L&S