Wariner changes coaches, loses aura
- By Josh Peter, Yahoo! Sports - July 28, 2008
Fewer and fewer people ask Jeremy Wariner how a white guy can be so fast, and under most circumstances that would be a relief. Only now people are wondering something almost as indelicate about Wariner, the slender Texan who in 2004 became the first white American to win an Olympic sprint medal in 40 years.
Essentially, people want to know if he’s nuts.
In January 2008, Wariner parted ways with Clyde Hart, the coach who trained him while he won the gold medal in the 400 meters at the 2004 Olympics, captured back-to-back world championships and entered 2008 as a heavy favorite to win gold again in the 400 in Beijing.
“What in the world is he thinking?” Deon Minor, Wariner’s business manager, said recently with a grin. “Why did he leave Clyde?
“ … That’s what people want to say, but they won’t say it around us.”
After the 2007 season, his best yet, Wariner grossed approximately $1 million in prize money and endorsements. Yet Wariner asked Hart to take a pay cut, according to the coach.
It went over about as well as Hart asking Wariner to run in high heels. The partnership was over.
“I regret that it came to this,” Hart said. “It’s a bittersweet deal.”
Sporting diamond-studded earrings, a thick gold necklace and mirrored sunglasses, Wariner still cuts a figure of supreme confidence. Nearly two weeks ago in France, the 24-year-old clocked the fastest 400 of the year (43.86 seconds) to reestablish himself as the man to beat at the Olympics.
But it’s clear Wariner has lost more than a renowned coach. Gone is his aura of invincibility, too.
He qualified for the Olympic team with ease as one of America’s top three runners in the 400, but in the final at the U.S. Olympic trials, Wariner lost to LaShawn Merritt. It was Wariner’s second defeat to Merritt since he split with Hart. Before changing coaches, Wariner had won all 12 of his head-to-head matchups with Merritt.
Suddenly, Wariner finds himself headed for an unexpected showdown with a fellow American in Beijing and entangled in an unwanted soap opera. This story, however, is about more than a coaching change because Clyde Hart was far more than Wariner’s former coach.
Hart, 74, is a legend in track and field circles.
He trained Michael Johnson and helped guide the five-time Olympic champion to world records in the 200 and 400. Hart also is the longtime track coach at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he forged his relationship with Johnson and Wariner, both Baylor alums.
Whereas USC is known as Running Back U. and Penn State is known as Linebacker U., Baylor is known as Quarter-Miler U. So maybe it should be less than shocking that after winning the gold medal in Athens, the first thing Wariner, then a sophomore, told Hart was, “Coach, I broke the school record.’ ”
That would be the school record in the 400 – a record that, until Wariner crossed the finish line that day in 44.01 seconds, had belonged to Johnson. With a chuckle, Hart reminded Wariner he had just won an Olympic gold medal.
But for Wariner, there are gold medals and then there is the gold standard: Johnson, who’s still the world-record holder in the 200 and 400. So naturally, after Wariner won at the 2004 Games and turned pro, he hired Johnson as his agent and secured Hart as his full-time, personal coach.
It seemed like the perfect combination as Wariner shifted the focus from his skin color to his speed and took aim at Johnson’s world outdoor record in the 400 of 43.18. At the 2007 world championships in Japan, Wariner clocked a 43.45, a personal best and third-fastest time ever, with only Johnson and Butch Reynolds having run faster.
But in January 2008, not long after Wariner declared he would break the world record and Hart said he thought his prized young runner had a good chance, Wariner presented his coach with a 10-page contract, Hart said.
In the previous three years, Hart presented Wariner with a one-page document that called for the coach to receive a base salary of about $75,000, 10 percent of Wariner’s contract with adidas and bonuses that netted the coach between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, Hart said.
Johnson, by contrast, gets a 20 percent take as Wariner’s agent, according to Hart, who said Wariner expressed financial concerns when he presented Hart with the new contract.
“He didn’t think he was taking home enough money after he paid his income tax and his agent and me,” Hart said.
The new contract called for Hart to receive a base salary of $50,000, fewer bonuses and no reward if Wariner won the gold medal at the Olympics, according to Hart, who said he was given a month to consider the deal but needed only four days to turn it down.
“I’m not a discount coach,” Hart said.
Instead of reworking the deal to Hart’s satisfaction, Wariner sought the services of Michael Ford, an assistant coach at Baylor who specializes in sprints and ran the 400 under Hart’s tutelage. Ford asked for a week to consider the offer, but it had nothing to do with the contract terms.
“I was thinking about the backlash,” said Ford, who ultimately accepted the job.
Perhaps worried about a similar backlash, Johnson said he never pushed Wariner to leave Hart nor pressed him to stay with the coach who helped guide Johnson to unprecedented feats.
“I believe in Jeremy, and Jeremy’s come a long ways in the last four years,” Johnson said. “When he first started, had he made a decision like that, I didn’t have as much trust in Jeremy and his decisions as I do now. And I trust his decision. … ”
“It’s obviously a weird situation for me because I’m close to both of them,” Johnson added. “They were both respectful enough and smart enough in our individual relationships that it would make sense to leave me out of it.”
Johnson continues to provide technical advice, including pointers on how Wariner can improve his start. But the full-time coaching duties now rest with Ford.
‘TIMES HAVE CHANGED’
LaShawn Merritt, right, beat Jerermy Wariner in the 400m competition in Berlin, Germany on Sunday, June 1, 2008.
Hart accepted his decision, too, according to Ford. But the media was less understanding, especially after Merritt ended Wariner’s nine-race winning streak June 1, 2008, in Berlin.
“He lost to LaShawn, and I had a reporter like, ‘Oh, it’s because he left coach Hart,’ ” said Minor, Wariner’s business manager and a former track athlete at Baylor. “How are you going to say that? That it’s because he left coach Hart? What about the other races that he won?”
Four weeks later, Wariner arrived in Eugene, Ore., at the Olympic trials for a news conference where adidas unveiled a new shoe specially designed for Wariner and dubbed the “Lone Star” in tribute to his home state.
With his soft Texas twang, Wariner explained how the shoe was crafted to suit his unique running style. But minutes later, Wariner probably would’ve preferred to lace up his new shoes and bolt rather than face a flurry of questions.
One reporter asked Wariner why he’d dumped his coach to save a few dollars.
The Texan stiffened.
“I didn’t do it to save a few dollars, to start off with,” Wariner said. “I did it because I felt like it was time for a change. Coach Ford, my new coach, has the same philosophy as coach Hart. My workouts are exactly the same.”
Not true, said Darold Williamson, Wariner’s training partner and a former teammate at Baylor who also cut ties with Hart and hired Ford as his personal coach.
Williamson said Ford’s regimen calls for more sprint work – regular intervals at 100 and 150 meters – which is something Wariner wanted in 2007 despite Hart’s protestations. Wariner continues to toy with the idea of one day competing in the 200 and 400, just like Johnson did.
Hart wanted Wariner to focus exclusively on the 400, and the dynamic between pupil and teacher changed.
“I was always the boss as the coach,” said Mike Nelson, who coached Wariner at Arlington (Texas) Lamar High School. “ … When you get in the pros, he’s your boss because he’s paying you the money. For me that would be a tough situation, to be the coach of a pro athlete.”
Though Williamson said he has not talked to Wariner in detail about the coaching change, he said Ford is less rigid than Hart and open to change.
“Coach Hart has been doing it so long that he’s like, ‘This is what it is and this is what we’re going to do.’ ” Williamson said. “Times have changed. A lot has changed about the race and the people on the track. You can’t just do what you did the last 35 and 40 years.”
Added Minor: “The difference is coach Ford is a lot younger and I think he can kind of relate better to Jeremy and Jeremy can be more comfortable sharing his thoughts and everything with coach Ford.”
But there was another potential source of friction.
In addition to coaching Wariner, Hart also coached Sanya Richards, the American record holder in the women’s 400. Late changes to Wariner’s schedule last season created complications. While Wariner competed elsewhere on a handful of occasions, Hart was with Richards, who was competing despite suffering from a potentially fatal immune system disease.
“Clyde knew that Jeremy was not happy about him not changing his schedule” so Hart could attend Wariner’s meets, said Hart’s wife, Maxine Hart, “But the thing was, Sanya was ill and fighting for her life to compete.”
But during a recent interview, Clyde Hart said he thinks scheduling conflicts had little, if anything, to do with the split. He pointed out that the personable Richards, who Hart still coaches, has significantly more endorsements than the taciturn Wariner.
“I don’t want to come across as a bitter old man,” Hart said. “But there’s a lot of people that think there may have been some jealousy.”
“I don’t think he would be jealous of her,” said Ford, Wariner’s new coach. “I know they train at the same track, and so I know he supports her and she does likewise. So I don’t think there’s a jealousy issue there.”
Hart also scoffed at the notion that Wariner could duplicate the results he got from Hart’s workouts even as implemented by one of Hart’s proteges.
“The best illustration would be if you passed out a recipe to make a stew and you gave the same recipe to 10 different people and said come back tomorrow and give me the stew,” Hart said. “Probably none of the stews would taste the same. Some people are going to put in a little extra salt, a little pepper, or sugar or Tabasco sauce.
“It’s the human touch.”
Hart leaves little doubt who he thinks makes the best stew. So far, Wariner’s times indicate his decision could be a recipe for disaster.
This year, 2008, Wariner has yet to match the personal best of 43.45, much less approach Johnson’s record of 43.18. And getting answers from him after Wariner left Eugene to resume his racing schedule in Europe has proven difficult.
Two weeks ago (July 2008) in Rome, a day after Wariner beat Merritt by one one-hundredth of a second in their first head-to-head matchup since Eugene, Wariner’s business manager returned a call for an interview request. Minor, open about the subject during an interview in Eugene, was polite but direct: Michael Johnson has instructed them to say nothing more about the coaching change.
But Hart wants to set the record straight. In Eugene, after saying it was “time for a change,” Wariner intimated the timing made sense because he expected Hart to retire in the next couple of years.
“That’s the part that’s wearing thin on me,” Hart said. “We just need to get that straight. He shouldn’t be embarrassed by the fact that it was a business decision.”
“I guess he felt he could get that coach (Ford) for a heckuva lot less and use my same workout with my name on it,” Hart added. “So I guess he got a pretty good deal.”
The comments were laced with sarcasm, and reinforced a question that will linger until the Olympic 400 final on Aug. 21, 2008. Did an effort to save $50,000 to $100,000 sabotage Wariner’s chances of winning another gold and the financial windfall that would come with it?
If so, some say that’d be nuts.