Vin Lananna has been coaching runners for 22 years, training bodies and coaxing minds to perform the simplest athletic tasks. Though he knows practically all the tricks of the trade, he still gets caught off guard by his brainy runners at Stanford. Along with the many obvious talents they possess, as measured by SAT scores, class rankings and stopwatches, they have a gift for creating cheers. What do you expect from Ted Danson's alma mater?
On Nov. 24, a crisp, bright morning at the Furman University Golf Course, in Greenville, S.C., the seven runners on the Stanford men's team gathered in a circle moments before the start of the NCAA cross-country championships. "Stanford!" they chanted, then paused two beats. "Machine!"
"I didn't understand it at first," Lananna said later, chuckling. "I thought the machine was this grinding thing that was going to roll over things. But that seemed out of character. Finally they explained it to me: For a machine to work, all the parts have to work together. They can't work independently. Each part has to work in concert with the others."
Lananna surely would forgive opposing coaches if they didn't appreciate this message of New Age harmony, especially after Stanford edged Arkansas 53-56 to win its second straight men's cross-country team title. At last year's championships the Cardinal swept the men's and the women's team titles. This year the Stanford men were cofavorites, while the women, having trounced every team they faced this season, were heavy favorites to repeat. "Are we on the verge of seeing the first great American distance coach since [former Oregon coach] Bill Bowerman?" asked Mike Byrnes, editor of Track Digest.
From the gun, the men's 10,000 meters was the most exciting NCAA cross-country championship race in years, and it produced the closest team competition since 1970. Back and forth across the rolling fairways streamed 5,000 exuberant fans, who formed a moving gantlet that splintered once the leaders had passed and then came together again at another vantage point. They were loud too: Long before you could see the leaders, you heard a roar rolling toward you.
Besides Stanford, three teams were given a chance to win: Colorado, whose runners had taken the first five places in the Mountain regional; Michigan, led by Kevin Sullivan, a 3:52 miler from Canada; and Arkansas, which finished second last year after winning eight of the previous 12 titles. At the first kilometer Stanford senior Nathan Nutter and his junior teammates the co-captain Hauser twins, Brad and Brent, were running comfortably around 15th place, a fine start except that all seven Razorbacks were ahead of them. "Our strategy," Lananna said later, "was to run the hell out of the last half of the course."
With pale-blue eyes and a white-flecked beard that comes to a point, Lananna has a vaguely monkish aspect. His normally articulate runners hesitate when asked why he is such a good coach, though all agree he is phenomenally driven.
"He focuses on looking straight up and not setting a ceiling," says sophomore Michael Stember, who did not run at the NCAA meet but who, come spring, should be one of the top milers in the country. "Everyone gets excited about beating the foreigners at the NCAAs. Well, the point Vin makes is that the Kenyans here are third-and fourth-echelon. Being All-America has been such a goal for so many college athletes. To Vin that's not enough."
Lananna grew up in just about the last place you would associate with cross-country—the Flatbush section of Brooklyn—and was a good but not outstanding collegiate middle-distance runner at C.W Post, clocking 4:17 in the mile. After graduating in 1975, he spent five years coaching at Post before moving on to Dartmouth, where he was known for taking good but not outstanding high school runners and turning them into All-Americas. In 1986 and '87, Dartmouth, which does not grant athletic scholarships, finished an astonishing second at the NCAA cross-country meet. One of Lananna's top runners at Dartmouth was Bob Kempainen, who has made the last two U.S. Olympic teams in the marathon.
In 1992 Lananna moved to Stanford, recruited by athletic director Ted Leland, who had been the athletic director at Dartmouth while Lananna was there. "Our mission," says Lananna, "is to have a team every year that makes it to the NCAA meet and contends." Stanford, of course, is not exactly a tough place to sell. "I'm two for 159 in recruiting against Vin," one coach on the East Coast says. "He's got aid packages based on need, just like the Ivies; he's got true athletic scholarships; he's got a great academic school and great weather; and he's got that California mystique. What more could you ask for?"