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How Chris Miltenberg led the No. 5 UNC men's cross country team to new heights

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UNC Track and Field head coach Chris Miltenberg has worked hard to rebuild the program and its culture from the ground up. Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications

The very first practice Chris Miltenberg, the director of cross country at UNC, oversaw in 2019 told him all he needed to know about the team's culture.

It wasn’t good.

In fairness, Miltenberg and his coaching staff were the third different set of coaches in three years for the program. The team was worn out. 

Still, runners would joke about being too hurt or too tired to complete a workout or losing to competitors in meets. These weren’t just jokes for Miltenberg — they reeked of an acceptance of inferiority.

“The way you talk reflects the way you think,” Miltenberg said. “And even when you think you're making a funny joke, if it's underlaced with negativity and underlaced with fear and self-doubt, that's pervasive. And we had a lot of that on our team.”

The growth of North Carolina men's cross country began with building a more positive culture.

When Miltenberg arrived in 2019, his coaching staff worked toward deconstructing the team's low expectations of itself. Not only did success follow, but the Miltenberg era created a winning culture. In the ACC Championships on Oct. 27, the men won for the first time since 1985 and now hold a No. 5 national ranking.

Changing the culture

Miltenberg needed to show the Tar Heels that they could win. Pedigree helped in this regard — he won a women’s cross country championship as a coach at Georgetown in 2011 and coached 30 cross country runners to All-America honors at Stanford.

But building belief required more than experience. Miltenberg needed runners who would embody a new mentality. He credited former Tar Heel Brandon Tubby for taking that responsibility on for the men's team.

Practicing at Umstead Park in Miltenberg’s first month, Tubby recalled stopping 20 minutes into the run because he hadn't eaten properly before practice. As he headed back to where the team vans were parked, Tubby ran into a frustrated Miltenberg.

“He was like, ‘Brandon, if you really want to be good, you have to figure out how to eat,’” he said.

Tubby said Miltenberg would frequently challenge his runners when he saw a bad habit getting in the way of their goals.

Miltenberg sent weekly individual plans to the athletes aimed at helping them improve, and the plans worked. In the 2021 indoor and outdoor track seasons, Tubby reached new heights. He recorded an under four-minute mile for the first time in his career at the 2021 ACC Indoor Championships and qualified for the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships for the first time.

When it comes to recruiting, Miltenberg looks for runners who would fit best within the program's expectations of a 365-days-per-year running lifestyle. In his words, he doesn't try to "talk anyone into coming."

After his first recruiting visits in 2019, he remembered a team member asking him why no recruit stayed afterward for the Saturday football game. That was the point: The visit was reflective of the challenge recruits had to accept.

“We scare people off, probably, and we’re okay with that,” Miltenberg said.

New blood, new levels

The recruits who weren’t scared off helped continue to build a competitive culture. Whereas previous teams may have doubted their abilities to reach new heights, the new recruits did it without hesitation.

Miltenberg attracted highly-touted high school runners like junior Parker Wolfe, who was the 2020-21 Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Player of the Year.

Wolfe said he spurned established programs in favor of building something new at UNC under the guidance of Miltenberg. He already knew some runners in his class, like Ethan Strand, from competing against them in national races, and was excited to join forces in Chapel Hill.

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"It's just something special about you and your best friends going out and trying to build something really cool and trying to be one of the best teams in the country," Wolfe said.

Wolfe feeds off the team culture that Miltenberg created in the years preceding his arrival. He enjoys running next to teammates who have similar goals of running at a professional level. He regularly talks about qualifying for Olympic trials with Strand.

“I always thought running was just kind of gonna be part of my college experience,” Wolfe said. “But these guys have really made me realize how much I like it.”

Wolfe was one of seven runners who qualified for the NCAA Championships last season. For comparison, UNC sent no runners in 2018, the season before Miltenberg arrived. And now, Wolfe is UNC's first individual conference champion this century.

The talent leveled up. There were no new bells and whistles in attracting that talent, though. To create a nationally competitive program, North Carolina’s newfound culture did the talking.

"Winners and losers have the same goals, right? So it's not about your goals," Miltenberg said. "It's about what you do day after day and your systems to achieve your goals."

@dmtwumasi

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com