Recently-appointed cross country head coach J.J. Clark has been at the helm of the distance running program at Stanford for just a few months. Since the announcement of his position in July, “coach Clark” has worked hard to learn Stanford’s system and understand the student athletes who comprise it. In the team’s first and only race this season, the then-No. 8 women and No. 7 men upset several top-five teams in the nation, picking up right where they left off last season as NCAA title contenders. Now four weeks since their season debut, the No. 4 Stanford women and No. 5 men will be back in action on Friday at the Nuttycombe Invitational in Madison, Wisconsin, with another opportunity to square up with heavyweights of the sport. Clark, who’s background in coaching extends from the Olympic scene to stints at the University of Tennessee and the University of Connecticut, brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to a program that arguably has one of the most talented rosters in the country. Ahead of Friday’s meet, The Daily’s Alejandro Salinas sat down with coach Clark to talk about his past coaching experiences, his transition to Stanford and his goals for the season.
Alejandro Salinas (AS): What were some of the main reasons for coming to coach at Stanford?
J.J. Clark (JC): For many years I was at Tennessee, and before then Florida and Connecticut, and Stanford has always been at the forefront. In fact, I was always chasing or recruiting against them. They have such a package it’s unbelievable. The academics are well-known throughout the world and there is an unbelievable athletic history as well. I came here for a race and then I started understanding why I kept losing the recruiting battles to Stanford. They have the full package. They have excellent weather, excellent academics, and excellent facilities. When I got here, I saw how they treat the student athletes holistically and how they really care about the total experience. I recognized that and I said, this is a great opportunity for me to showcase not only what Stanford’s about but my talent as a coach, as well.
AS: What would you say makes a successful season?
JC: Always getting on the podium is successful. But right now there has been a history of injuries on both teams that have kept them from winning NCAA meets. Right now, I have to figure out why this is happening and keep people healthy. Getting on the podium is always successful, but keeping them healthy is the focal point of what I’m trying to do. The student athletes here are very, very talented, and if you keep them healthy, their talents will take care of themselves and manifest into great performances. So that’s been my charge as I have talked to every student athlete here and heard their story of injury or redshirting. And it’s not a blame on anyone. You can do everything perfectly as a coach and still get injured. That’s the way it works. Sometimes people don’t take care of their bodies right, and they have to sit out a whole season. It’s kind of mysterious what makes you stay healthy sometimes but there are things we can do, such as resting, good nutrition and breaks here and there that will allow to stay healthy.
AS: How would you describe your coaching style?
JC: I’m scientific in nature, but I’m also a coach. I’m able to look at you and see what I’m going to get today. I know when is too much and make decisions instinctively without any reasons some times. I’m a coach that looks at the whole picture. I’ll use science and a lot of other signals that allow me to coach very well. In general, we care about the student athletes as a whole. I like to keep the environment fun because this is a very difficult and tough sport. It requires a lot of time and then you couple that with your academics and it’s very strenuous. Coming to practice and getting a good laugh is fun and healthy, but at the same time, I’m making sure we stay focused. It’s all that put together and good coaches know how to do it. It has to be in your personality. I coach in the style of my personality.
AS: Having just entered this role, how would you describe your interactions with the team so far?
JC: The men’s and women’s teams have been so welcoming, so helpful and so willing to accept me and my family. It’s been amazing. I had to call so many different people, such as Christina Aragon, Alex [Ostberg], [Steven] Fahy, Valarie [Allman] and others. I’ve had to lean on others to meander my way through the early weeks. I asked a lot of questions. Isaac [Cortes] took me out to Baylands and showed me some loops out there. It was very welcoming at first, but in the one-on-one sit-downs, it was trying to figure each other out. But it was so easy to figure them out because they wanted to be figured out and they wanted me to come in and go to work. Obviously, with the internet, the student athletes do their homework. They knew where I had coached and had been successful in my years. I guess it was easier to welcome me when you have a good situation. It’s been rewarding. We went to Oregon in early September and since then we have become comfortable from the coach-athlete standpoint. I’m starting to learn personalities. It makes it easier for me to do what I like to do when I bring the best out in student athletes.
AS: Who are the team leaders emerging on each team?
JC: Yes, there are several good leaders, Alex [Ostberg], [Stephen] Fahy, and DJ Principe. Others chime in at different times on the side. On the women’s side, we got [Christina] Aragon, Fiona [O’Keeffe] and Ella [Donaghu]. They all help mold and guide the team. Julia [Heymach] is also starting to shine in that capacity. I think that here [at Stanford] there are some really natural leaders, and I think a lot of us can do that. Stanford has a way of getting people who are leaders and innovators, and are not afraid to step out and lead. The athletes know their strength and weaknesses amongst the group and the person who is strong shines in that moment, and everyone’s okay with it. It helps me and the team members grow.
AS: From your perspective, what would you say makes Stanford cross country unique this season?
JC: This season is a challenge because they have a new situation, a new environment, a new coach, and they are still performing as if there has been no transition. That is unique. We came in and we went to the first meet and beat some top-five teams. Normally, there’s a little transitional period for the first couple of meets, and we’ve come right in and done a really great job. I don’t know if this is normal, but the teams have worked really well together. We were in Oregon and the men’s and women’s team are very close and they get along very well. They help each other. It’s a good environment. The transition has not stopped them from achieving their goals, which is to perform as well as you can and perform at the national level.
AS: You have a lot of experience coaching the women’s side. How do you see that experience helping you this season?
JC: First, I’m very comfortable with the guys, but I hired Ricardo Santos to work more directly with the men with my supervision. He is the men’s leader as a coach. He makes up the workouts, but we’re out there every day together. I’m at the practices with the men and he’s at the practices with the women. But I lead more on the women’s side and he’s working with the men. With that said, I’m very comfortable with the men’s team. I ran collegiately at Villanova on the men’s side. And that in itself was a great experience. I coached at Tennessee on the men’s side for a few years. So coaching men has been very natural for me. What was not natural for me in the beginning, about 20 years ago, was coaching the women because of the intricacies involved. It’s become natural coaching women and it’s always been natural coaching men because I came through the male system of track and field from high school through college. But Ricardo coaches the men’s side. It’s like football where you have a running back coach and wide receiver coach, but the head coach is responsible for everything.
AS: What’s one thing you wish people knew about you that they may not know?
JC: In my profession, I don’t look too much on what people are saying about me. More importantly, it’s what the people close to me know that means more. I can address that. I want them to know that I am a good person, I care and that I’m a good coach. And I believe the student athletes are realizing that I do care, and I’m a good person and that I’m going to help support them in whatever ways necessary for them to be successful.
AS: What has been your favorite coaching memory so far?
JC: I’ve been very fortunate to be extremely successful, and I’ve had some really memorable moments. Collegiately, obviously it was winning the NCAAs in 2009 and that same year, we were the Academic Team of the Year by the NCAA. That’s the pinnacle. You’re the academic team of the year and you’ve won the NCAA. That’s what you strive to do in cultivating student athletes. In that process, I’ve seen youngsters grow and we’ve had several collegiate records that I’ve been able to coach. But that moment I just mentioned was very special. Another special one was when my family went 1-2-3 in the 800 meters at the  Olympic Trials. I coached my two sisters and wife in the same event. One three people make the team, and they swept it. My wife was an American record holder. My sister made four Olympic teams, and my other sister made three. And my wife made five. I coached them through all that so that was very memorable, as well.
AS: What would you say has been the athletic achievement you are most proud of?
JC: I was unsuccessful in college due to training and injuries. That made me put more time into being successful for student athletes. Being unsuccessful was very traumatic and it was not a good experience. I said that if I could be a better coach and help people be successful in college, then they wouldn’t have to go through what I went through. To give them good coaching would make me very happy. That situation was a great learning experience and something that I’ve used and am proud of. I went thought that, and I used it to do something very positive. I’ve learned my sport and my craft so well that I can get others to perform at their maximum. It helped me help others be really good. I feel in that sense, it was an achievement that helped me get better.
AS: What are you most excited for this season?
JC: I’ve coached NCAA Champions, collegiate record holders and Olympic gold medalists. But the talent level here [at Stanford] is the highest talent level I have ever had at one time. I’m excited to see what can be done here. I’m excited to work with such a talented group of individuals.
Contact Alejandro Salinas at asalinas ‘at’ stanford.edu.