Finally Back Home
On the morning of Aug. 7 Jason Vigilante sat at his kitchen table with his family and peered at a computer screen, watching the Olympic final of the men’s 1,500 meters from London.
There were cheers in the kitchen that morning as Vigilante’s former pupil Leonel Manzano dashed from sixth to second in the final 100 meters to get the silver medal — the best showing by an American in the event since Jim Ryun finished second in 1968.
And there was even more reason for excitement. One day earlier, "Coach Vig" had interviewed to become the new men’s cross country coach and track assistant at Princeton University. The job opened up in July when Steve Dolan accepted a coaching job at Penn.
In the two months that followed, Vigilante accepted the job and returned to college coaching after a nine-month break.
"It just fulfills a lot of my requirements for a career move," Vigilante said. "If affords me the opportunity to coach, to recruit, and I don’t have to reinvent the wheel (at Princeton). And I’m not the guy who worries about the budget."
Vigilante, at 39, has become a coaching sensation and already has a stellar resume. At Texas (2000-08), he revitalized the distance program, coached Manzano and other top-flight runners, and deserves some of the credit for the birth of the popular running website FloTrack (he coached founder Mark Floreani). At Virginia (2008-2011), he presided over the meteoric rise of the NCAA champion Robby Andrews, who in 2010 anchored UVa to its first Penn Relays championship in 67 years.
Last spring, after resigning his position at Virginia, he worked privately with Andrews and with the miler Alan Webb as they prepared for the Olympic Trials.
In saying 'yes' to Princeton, Vigilante believes he has found a dream job. The university is just 40 miles from his hometown of Morristown, N.J. and it's an ideal place to train.
"First of all, this is the best campus I've ever seen for training," Vigilante said. "It's unbelievable. Our cross country course is 800 meters from the track. There are two miles of grass paths. On the canal, the towpath goes 50 miles and it's shaded and marked every half mile. That leads into other parks and loops with soft surfaces. Needless to say, when I saw all of this, I was really impressed."
At Virginia, Vigilante said he became bogged down by the administration of the men's and women's programs.
"I was not happy and would say I was miserable, actually," Vigilante said. "I did my best to put on a happy face but people close to me knew. It was just not a good fit for me. When I look at someone like Pat Henry (of Texas A&M), I think 'This guy is amazing,' because he can do all of that. I am who I am, and I've got strengths and weaknesses."
Vigilante wanted, more than anything, to coach and be part of the "transformation" between high school and college graduate.
At Princeton he will serve high-achieving students who also happen to be high -quality runners. The Tigers won the 4xmile and distance medley relay at the Penn Relays last spring, led by the Olympic steeplechaser Donn Cabral.
After a strong showing this fall at the Notre Dame Invitational, the Princeton men rose to No. 11 nationally in the USTFCCCA coaches’ poll.
Meanwhile, Andrews was elated when he found out that Vigilante was moving on to Princeton.
"I mean, I really thought he was kidding when he told me about it," Andrews said. "He couldn't have picked a better place than Princeton."
Andrews is still in school at the University of Virginia, but he has already turned pro. At the end of the current semester he will have 107 of the 120 credits he needs to graduate. He plans to move back home, just 20 miles from Princeton, in December, and will resume training there with Vigilante.
"I haven't run indoors since my second winter at UVa," Andrews said. "I can't wait to be back on The Armory track." While at Manalapan High School, Andrews set national high school records in the 800 and 1,000 at The Armory.
Webb, meanwhile, has decided to return to Portland, Ore., and the enclave of professional runners who live there and train for Nike. Webb is a proud new father and ready to start a new phase of his career by stepping up in distance. Over the past few years, Webb has crisscrossed the country three times — from Northern Virginia to Oregon, a return east to Charlottesville, now west again back to Portland.
The only regret, Webb said, is leaving Vigilante.
"I got a lot out of my time with him," Webb said. "The biggest thing I got from Vig is that he’s a guy who helps you help yourself. He’s good at keeping perspective. So much stress, at times, is placed on running and what your training is and the X's and O's. (Vigilante) does a good job of making sure it’s only part of the equation, helping you realize the other factors involved, like what's going in your life."
Webb got a late start preparing for this year’s Olympic Trials because of injury, and even when he was in Eugene, he was distracted by the impending birth of his daughter.
Another runner, the All-American Mark Amirault, ran at Princeton and then entered a graduate program at Virginia hoping to conclude his eligibility with Vigilante, even gaining approval for a sixth year of eligibility.
As it turns out, the two crossed paths.
"It's pretty funny," Amirault told VirginiaSports.com in September. "I come here, (Vigilante) goes there."
A request to speak with Amirault directly was declined by the University of Virginia.
Vigilante, meanwhile, is focused on trying to extend the Princeton men's streak of Heps cross country titles to three in a row.
"In (my) first meeting with the (athletic director) here, he provides you with exactly the information you want to hear," Vigilante said. "This is what we want and this is who we want to be. Football is not the most important. There are 38 sports, and we want to win the Heps title in all of them. I love that. I operate more like a sergeant than a captain anyway."
Vigilante's personality and style of coaching build confidence, Andrews said.
"Vig is so excited about his athletes and so confident about our ability," said Andrews, who finished fifth at the Olympic trials in the 1,500. "It's so awesome having that (in my corner). My dad was the same way when I was in high school."
At Princeton, Vigilante is well aware that the job is different than Texas or Virginia. His mission is to help his athletes find balance.
"I know that a lot of guys here are in engineering or they're architecture majors," Vigilante said. "Alejandro (Arroyo Yamin) doesn't have an extra half hour in the day. His reason for being here is to be a student. I would be foolish if I tried to coach him at the same intensity level that he'd like to be trained at. My job is get him where he wants to be but also help create balance, to not bite off more than we can chew with training."
Vigilante, who ran collegiately at North Carolina State in the early 1990s, said Princeton was not an option for him coming out of high school even though it was in his backyard.
"I knew my category," Vigilante joked. "Princeton is a place where Albert Einstein studied. It's a different standard here, and as essentially an outsider I didn't know what it took to be a student here. There is a tremendous amount of independent course work going on. There is no MBA or Law School or Med School, so the focus is on the undergrad, and you quickly see how committed guys are."
Vigilante said he will emphasize getting his athletes to believe in themselves, the way he always has. Andrews concurs, saying that Princeton's runners are getting one of the best coaches in the country.
"They're getting a great mentor," he said. "He's helped me so much, not only as a runner but as a person, too."