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Why Chris Miltenberg left powerhouse Stanford to lead the UNC track and field program

North Carolina's director of track and field and cross country program Chris Miltenberg attends the Dick Taylor Carolina Challenge in the Eddie Smith Field House on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey A. Camarati.

When Chris Miltenberg became the director of North Carolina’s track and field and cross country program in June 2019, it wasn’t easy to walk away from the powerhouse that he had built at Stanford. It took a special alignment of factors to come to UNC, like the opportunity to rebuild a program and make it a national contender once again.

“Carolina’s got a great history, but if you look at where it was coming in this summer, truthfully it had fallen pretty far,” Miltenberg said. “We’re not coming in with the expectations high, we’re going to have to go build it to where we earn expectations again.”

A New York native and Georgetown graduate, Miltenberg coached the Cardinal from 2012 — at which point he was the youngest Division I track and field head coach in the country — until 2019. In his final year, Stanford’s men’s track and field and cross country teams won the  U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association's award for Program of the Year. Still, when the offseason came, Miltenberg realized he wanted a change.

“I watched that place take a massive toll on people,” he said. “My wife would say some days, ‘You can coach here, but I don’t know if I’d ever want our kids to go here.’”

Chapel Hill, he said, is different. Now, he’s looking to restore the Tar Heel program.

“Here, we got people that are massively driven academically and athletically, one of the top 20 schools in America,” Miltenberg said. “But people are balanced and healthy and actually happy here.”

'I've learned more about myself'

The desire to coach started in Miltenberg’s final year as a runner for Georgetown under head coach Pat Henner.

“I can remember clearly at the end of my senior year writing a letter to coach Henner saying, ‘Now I realize at the very end, this was the whole point of this entire endeavor,’” Miltenberg said. “I’ve learned more about myself and how to handle setbacks and adversity, and that was the point of the whole thing.”

After graduating in 2003, Miltenberg traveled to San Diego in hopes of qualifying for the next year’s Olympics. He had captained Georgetown’s track and field and cross country teams for multiple seasons and was a two-time All-American, excelling in the 3,000 meters and the indoor mile.

But in January 2004, he suffered a sports hernia that required surgery, ending his training. With his Olympic hopes dashed, Miltenberg knew he needed to prepare for life after running. The sport had given him a lot, and he wanted to give back to the next generation.

Hoping to land a job at a cross country and track and field program, Miltenberg emailed every college coach he could in hopes of an opportunity.

It was Columbia that first hired Miltenberg in 2004. In the three years he coached there as an assistant, the women’s cross country team won two Ivy League titles and the men’s team won a title as well.

In 2007, Miltenberg joined Henner at Georgetown as the head coach for the women’s cross country team and an associate head coach for track and field. It was the opportunity he had always wanted — complete control over a team.

He learned to understand his athletes better, and the results spoke for themselves. Georgetown’s women’s cross country team won an NCAA cross country championship in 2011, and Miltenberg was named the National Coach of the Year for his efforts leading the group.

The following year, Stanford hired him to be the director of the cross country and track and field programs.

The jump from assistant to full time head coach wasn’t smooth. It took time for Miltenberg to relinquish sole responsibility of the teams and let his assistant coaches do their jobs. So he turned to Henner, speaking with him twice a week about how to develop the program’s culture.

“Most of our conversations revolved around the big picture. How do you get your culture to be self-sustaining? How do you get to a point where you have a culture of excellence and championship potential?” Henner said. “It much more revolved around those philosophical ideas of the team. There were some x’s and o’s, but much more big-picture philosophical, cultural issues.”

Eventually, things clicked, and the Cardinals won the Pac-12 men’s cross country title in 2017 and 2018.

'His energy is contagious'

But the spark at Stanford eventually fizzled out. Miltenberg left the uber-competitive school to take over the same job at UNC. The first thing he did as the new director was meet his athletes. He got a sense of their goals and challenged them accordingly.

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Miltenberg noticed a lot of athletes were uninspired and their goals were unfulfilled. Miltenberg needed to inspire the team and get his athletes to love the sport again, like he knew they could.

Redshirt senior Alex Milligan was inspired and pushed himself because he knew Miltenberg genuinely cared.

“His energy is contagious," Milligan said. "He’s going to bring out the best in you, and every day at practice, his energy, his drive, and his own work ethic, rubs off on us. We see how much he puts into it and you want him to respect you and you want to reciprocate the same work ethic he’s putting in.”

Two of Miltenberg’s biggest points for team culture were to run with more confidence and more team-oriented running.

“Look at all the best teams and it comes down to teams that have a culture of believing in themselves, believing they can compete with anyone,” Miltenberg said. “It’s what we haven’t had here in a long time, to be honest, but that was not unique to here.”

One athlete who bought into Miltenberg’s philosophy was redshirt junior Paige Hofstad, who transferred to UNC from Georgetown.

“They feel a lot more confident, not only in themselves, but in the team as well, and they feel more positive and happy to be around each other,” Hofstad said. “I think that was the goal coming in, just trying to set everyone straight and letting them know they can do it — not only for themselves but the whole team.”

'Just a matter of time'

At this year’s ACC Indoor Track and Field Championships, the men's team placed fifth and the women's team finished 12th. But to Miltenberg, the finish wasn't a disappointment. It was a necessary step in order for the team to build confidence.

“That was many steps coming to that, and you saw it throughout the fall, throughout the winter. No matter where we go, we’re going to focus on us,” Miltenberg said. “Whether we’re running the first meet of the year against local schools or running in the ACC, NCAA Championships: take charge of our situation.”

Miltenberg saw the team culture change and is most excited about the athletes who’ve bought in to return and the incoming first-years he can shape into the culture he wants to see.

But most importantly Miltenberg wants his athletes to develop a close relationship to a coach in their time at North Carolina.

“I want every kid on our team to have a coach that they invite to their wedding,” Miltenberg said. “That they’re connected to, and, hey, that might not be me for every kid on the team as the head coach, but I’m going to make sure your event coach is in the position to do that.”

Henner, for one, believes North Carolina will be successful with Miltenberg at the helm.

“It’s not a matter of if Carolina is going to be huge on the national scene,"  Henner said. "It’s just a matter of time. He will definitely get the job done, and Carolina’s going to be one of the most powerful cross country track and field programs.”


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