Loading

In It For The Long Haul Chris Miltenberg's Journey to UNC

By Pat James, GoHeels.com

Back in the summer of 2018, shortly after the NCAA outdoor track and field season ended, Chris Miltenberg received a call from Bubba Cunningham.

At the time, North Carolina’s athletic director was simply interested in learning more about what it takes to build and maintain an elite track and field program, said Miltenberg, then coming off his sixth year as Stanford’s director of track and field and cross country. And he never, ever mentioned the prospect of a job.

Still, Miltenberg thought, “That’s a pretty special place, Carolina, with enormous potential.”

He’d held that belief for years.

As colleagues, Patrick Henner, Georgetown’s former director of track and field and cross country, said he and Miltenberg, a member of Henner’s staff from 2007-12, often talked about the programs they thought had the most potential. UNC consistently neared the top of their list.

For the same reasons it did then, Miltenberg at one point told Sean McGorty, who ran at Stanford from 2013-18, how the Tar Heels were one of the sport’s greatest sleeping giants.

“He always thought it was such a great school and that it would be very easy to build something there because similar to Stanford there’s a lot about the school that also helps to sell it,” said McGorty, whose father, Kevin, and uncle, Dennis, won five straight ACC decathlon titles at Carolina from 1986-90.

As certain as Miltenberg was of UNC’s potential, it took Cunningham’s call for him to start thinking what he was doing at Stanford could work in Chapel Hill. Over the next year, that thought occasionally crossed his mind. Then, last June, Cunningham came calling again.

This time, after not renewing the contract of Harlis Meaders, the Tar Heels’ director of track and field and cross country, Cunningham wanted to discuss Miltenberg filling the vacant position.

Since taking the Stanford job in 2012, several schools had called to gauge Miltenberg’s interest. Most he quickly turned away. But immediately, he knew he was serious about this one. And out of respect for Stanford, he didn’t want to drag out conversations with Carolina.

So, on June 25, Miltenberg flew to the Denver International Airport, where he met with Cunningham to talk about the job. That night, he returned home and consulted with his family. Then, just two days later, he called Cunningham and told him he was in.

Miltenberg’s decision to leave Stanford, one of the NCAA’s most storied programs, shocked the running community. But it wasn’t one he really made based on where he was.

It was largely about where he was going.

The chance to build something from scratch at a great academic institution was one of the most appealing aspects for Miltenberg in coming to Carolina. Even more intriguing was the opportunity for him, his wife Colleen and their four children to live in Chapel Hill, a welcomed change of pace from Silicon Valley. Perhaps the biggest determining factor, though, was Cunningham.

“Talking with Bubba,” Miltenberg said, “his vision for it sold me and his commitment to it and being behind us and what we’re going to go do and build, and that we can change this thing.”

Almost seven months later, Miltenberg is just as sure of that. And on Saturday, the Tar Heels took another small step in that process with a successful showing at the Dick Taylor Carolina Challenge, the track and field teams’ first competition under Miltenberg.

It was a new scene for Miltenberg, far away from his seven years at Stanford. But he has spent his time adjusting to his new surroundings feeling grateful for all of the choices he made, the lessons he learned and the people he met with the Cardinal, all of which led him to the Eddie Smith Field House on a rainy Saturday.

“If I had left early, when it was hard, I never would’ve learned the things I learned,” Miltenberg said. “I would’ve never learned how to do it the right way. And what I realize is I still don’t have it all figured out, but you learn as you go. Instead of trying to think you’ve got it figured out, it’s constantly learning and evolving. I had to learn to have that mindset.”

Setting the pace

By the time Miltenberg entered John Glenn High School in Elwood, New York, he’d played several sports. He wasn’t good at any of them, though. Nor was he passionate about them.

But once he started running, he immediately became hooked. No longer did he have to wait for a teammate to pass him the ball or for a coach to sub him into a game. Instead, whatever he got out of running was the direct result of the work he put in. That appealed to him more than anything.

Although a strong running culture didn’t exist on Long Island or at John Glenn, Miltenberg never let that deter him. He realized early in his high school career he wanted to run in college, and his two coaches worked with him to chase that dream.

“They let me set the pace on how much I really wanted to be into it,” he said, “and (made sure) I was the one driving how much I wanted to do it, not somebody else.”

His mom, Patty McDonnell, did the same.

Miltenberg’s parents split up when he was young, leaving McDonnell to raise Miltenberg and his three younger brothers for much of their lives on her own. Watching his mom persevere through many challenges inspired him and taught him how to be resilient. He doesn’t hesitate to call her the strongest person he’s ever known.

As much as McDonnell supported Miltenberg’s running aspirations, she always stressed academics and encouraged him to consider the big picture.

“Even when I was choosing where to run in college,” Miltenberg said, “(McDonnell was about) just making sure it had a good balance of wanting to run at the highest level and also setting myself up for the rest of my life.”

Georgetown fit that criteria.

Under the direction of legendary coach Frank Gagliano, the Hoyas’ track and field and cross country teams had long been among the nation’s elite. Many of New York’s best high school runners were part of that success. And Miltenberg hoped to follow in their footsteps.

In many ways, though, his freshman year didn’t go as planned, as he battled through two stress fractures and a bout of mononucleosis. More adversity came after the season, when Gagliano announced he was retiring from college coaching.

In the immediate aftermath of Gagliano’s retirement, Miltenberg considered transferring. Ultimately, he didn’t. And that proved to be one of the most important decisions he’d ever make, as it led to him meeting Henner, who came in as Georgetown’s men’s distance coach and became one of the most influential figures in his life.

“He empowered us to believe and commit to what we wanted to do and change the culture of our team dramatically,” Miltenberg said. “But more than anything else, he believed in me in a way probably no one had before, and certainly not in a way I believed in myself.”

Miltenberg went on to be a two-time All-American, placing fourth in both the 3,000 meters and distance medley relay at the 2001 NCAA Indoor Championships. But injuries hampered him in his last two seasons.

As it turned out, the lessons he learned then prepared him the most for what came next.

“When you’re hurt and feeling down and guys are traveling to compete and you’re home, you learn what you're made of then and you learn how to be focused on the process,” he said. “The sport taught me how to do that, and that had nothing to do with how fast I ran. It was like, ‘You can take that and go do anything.’”

'Whatever it takes'

Colleen Miltenberg (née Kelly) was a freshman at Georgetown when she met her future husband in the fall of 2000. It wasn’t until January 2001, though, when they reported back to school early for their first indoor track meet, that she truly started to get to know him.

“I could tell he was the type of person who knew what he wanted and wasn’t going to let anything stop him from getting where he was going,” said Colleen, also a track All-American at Georgetown. “There wasn’t one specific thing he was going for at that particular moment. But I could just tell he had this drive in him.”

A business major, Miltenberg initially shared the same goal as many of his classmates: to one day work on Wall Street. Over time, though, his interests shifted. And even after completing the prerequisites for medical school, he still didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life when he graduated from Georgetown in 2003.

All he knew for sure was he wasn’t done running.

So, along with his college roommate, Miltenberg moved to San Diego, where he spent the next few months training with hopes of qualifying for the 2004 Olympic Trials. He came close. But once again, an injury derailed him – and led him to start preparing for life after running. Not until he began contemplating what that would be like did he think of coaching.

“I thought, ‘Man, if I can go to work every day and give that back to the next generation, that’s the greatest job in the world,’” he said. “‘And I’ll do whatever it takes to be able to do that.’”

Upon reaching that realization, Miltenberg started emailing every college coach in the country, looking for an opportunity. Eventually, he found one at Columbia. And in his three years there, the women’s cross country team captured two Ivy League titles, the men’s team won its first in 25 years and nine student-athletes earned All-America honors.

Working with Willy Wood, then the Lions’ director of track and field and cross country, opened Miltenberg’s mind to other coaching techniques. Those served him well at his next stop, a familiar one at that.

In May 2007, Miltenberg received a call from Henner, telling him Ron Helmer – Georgetown’s director of track and field and cross country since Gagliano retired – was leaving for Indiana. Henner was planning to apply for the vacant post. If he got it, he wanted Miltenberg to join his staff as an assistant and coach the women’s distance runners.

The opportunity to return to Georgetown was one Miltenberg relished. So in the ensuing weeks, he worked with Henner to develop the strategic plan that helped him earn the director’s job, and in turn, brought Miltenberg back to Washington D.C.

Looking back, Miltenberg often wonders why Henner and then-Georgetown athletic director Bernard Muir trusted him, a 27-year-old. But what Miltenberg lacked in experience, he made up for with a strong work ethic and contagious passion.

“He just had a great energy and excitement about him,” said Emily Infeld, one of Miltenberg’s first recruits at Georgetown. “And I was super drawn to that. Then, once I went on my official trip, I was like, ‘I love the dynamic of the team, I love the culture that I feel like he has set forth on the team.’ And I was like, ‘I need to be a part of this.’

“I knew something special was going to happen.”

In Miltenberg’s first year, the Georgetown women’s cross country team placed 28th at the NCAA Championships. The Hoyas went on to take ninth, 21st and fourth the next three years. Then, in 2011, he led them to the NCAA title and was named National Coach of the Year.

Overall, Miltenberg’s student-athletes earned 44 All-America honors (eight in cross country and 36 in track and field) in his five years as Georgetown’s head women’s cross country coach and associate head coach for track and field. He coached 22 individual second-place finishers and one individual national champion – Infeld, the 2012 NCAA champion in the 3,000.

“We had such a small, close-knit team and he really worked individually with every athlete, and I think that was huge and part of why we were so successful,” said Infeld, a 2016 Olympian. “And we just had so much fun with it. We really wanted to do well and we loved it and he was so passionate and we were passionate about it that it all melded so well together.”

Still, Miltenberg wanted more.

Colleen knew from the moment her husband entered coaching that he wouldn’t settle for being an assistant his entire career, even at a place as special to them as Georgetown. The more success the Hoyas had, the more Miltenberg’s head-coaching aspirations grew. So did his belief that he could take what was working so well at Georgetown and apply it to an entire program.

Miltenberg never thought he’d have a chance to do so at Stanford. But on July 8, 2012, Brien Bell – now the head coach of Syracuse’s cross country and track and field programs – texted Miltenberg, informing him that the Stanford job was open.

At the time, Stanford was also without an athletic director. That, however, didn’t stop Miltenberg from emailing as many athletic-department officials as he could, which later led to a phone interview. Some time passed before he heard anything else. Then, coincidentally enough, Muir – who’d left Georgetown for Delaware – was chosen as the Cardinal’s new athletic director.

Five years after hiring him at Georgetown, Muir again took a chance on Miltenberg, naming him Stanford’s 19th head coach/director of track and field in one of his first acts as athletic director. As thrilled as he was, Miltenberg started thinking then of everything he was leaving behind.

“Just the proposition of totally taking over a program and it’s all on your own shoulders, that’s pretty scary,” Henner said. “But deep down, he and I both knew he was ready to do it.”

At least in some ways.

A wake-up call

On Aug. 27, 2012, the day after Miltenberg’s 32nd birthday, Stanford announced his hiring, making him the youngest head coach in Division I. At the time, he was too naive to comprehend how big of a deal it was for someone his age to take over such a prestigious program.

He was also too inexperienced to know how to get it off the ground.

The Cardinal had already started cross country practice and were just a few days away from its first meet when Miltenberg finally arrived on campus. Immediately, he went to work with both cross country teams. But he was forced to balance that with coaching all the sprinters, jumpers and throwers until he hired his staff.

Because he’d never done that before, that proved to be one of his biggest challenges. Not only did he not have anyone who’d previously worked for him who he could contact, but he also didn’t know what kind of person fits in best at a place as unique as Stanford.

At that point, Miltenberg said he thought in many ways he was solely responsible for his success. So instead of hiring a head cross country coach, he hired two distance assistants who were primarily tasked with recruiting duties as he coached the distance runners himself. That didn’t make life any easier as he attempted to acclimate to his new role and surroundings.

“That first year nearly killed me,” he said. “I still think about how hard that year was, just trying to figure out what the heck we were doing.”

As difficult a time as that was for Miltenberg, it was also trying for Colleen. After Miltenberg left for Stanford, she stayed behind in Washington D.C., for about two extra months to finish her job, sell their house and pack their belongings, all while taking care of their two eldest children, then a 2-year-old and a newborn.

Even after moving to California, Colleen didn’t see her husband much. Initially, she’d viewed the idea of being home full-time as one of the most appealing aspects of Miltenberg taking the Stanford gig. But it contributed to a feeling of isolation.

“So many days he would come home and he would be the first adult who I had interacted with all day,” Colleen said. “It was definitely a tough year, not my favorite year of all.”

For two years, Miltenberg took a full-throttle approach to his job, pushing himself and his staff to the brink of exhaustion. Had the results been better, he might’ve stuck with it. But because the Cardinal was inconsistent and he felt as if some student-athletes were slipping through the cracks, he decided to make a change. That came in the form of hiring Elizabeth DeBole (née Maloy), who he coached at Georgetown, as his women’s distance assistant.

Miltenberg credits DeBole for much of the success that followed. He regrettably didn’t give her as much control, though, as Henner had with him.

The longer Miltenberg went without a national championship, the more determined he became to live up to Stanford’s standard. The thought of being one of the Cardinal’s few coaches without an NCAA title drove him. So did knowing he was being judged from the outside.

“At that age, I was fueled as much by insecurity as anything else,” he said. “I’m young, so many people in the country were resentful that I had that job. We had had some success at Georgetown, but there were people who had a lot more success than me who didn’t get that job. So, I was on a mission to prove I belonged there – and there’s a massive flaw in that.”

It took the lowest point of his career for him to learn that lesson.

From the moment he became a head coach, all Miltenberg ever heard was things would be different once he had a roster full of student-athletes he'd recruited. The 2016 cross country season, his fifth at Stanford, supported that claim, as the men and women finished second and fifth, respectively, at the NCAA Championships. It also gave him more hope for what the Cardinal could accomplish that next spring.

Then, things unraveled. Over the winter, several of his runners on the men’s side suffered injuries that lingered into the track and field season. It only got worse from there, as the men finished last at the Pac-12 Championships and sent just one runner to the NCAA Outdoor Championships.

That representative, Grant Fisher, won the 5,000 meters, making him Miltenberg’s first outdoor national champion on the men’s side at Stanford. But not even that could lift Miltenberg’s spirits.

“I was in a down place,” he said. “I was not sleeping, I was not taking care of myself, I was blaming myself for these guys getting hurt and why we weren't better. I was putting all this weight on myself. And in the summer of 2017 is when I was like, ‘I’ve got to change. I’ve got to change the way I’m doing this or else I’m going to go do something else.’”

He opted for the former. And over the next two years, he got back to having fun again and started checking in with himself more.

Although he never empowered his assistants to the same degree as Henner, Miltenberg began letting them do more. Dylan Sorensen, now a men's distance assistant at UNC, accepted the same position at Stanford in July 2017. From the moment he arrived, McGorty, a 10-time All-American for the Cardinal, saw how Miltenberg trusted Sorensen, allowing him to run team meetings. He also encouraged Sorensen to meet with the runners individually. That, McGorty believes, helped Miltenberg get a better pulse of the team.

“It’s hard when you have at least maybe 20 guys on the team; that’s not even including the women,” said McGorty, the 2018 NCAA champion in the 5,000. “So you have to understand it might not be the same for every athlete, but hope everyone knows at the end of the day you still want them to succeed.

“I think (Miltenberg) would try to make that clear in team meetings, and also what I think he learned was how if he’s confident he’s spread his message to assistant coaches, that they are branches of his tree that can reach further into everyone’s lives.”

As enjoyable as Miltenberg’s last two years at Stanford were, they were also his most successful.

In cross country, the Cardinal men's and women’s teams each placed fourth at the 2017 NCAA Championships, marking the first time they both finished inside the top four since 2006. They then each took fifth in 2018. That same year, the men’s team won its second straight Pac-12 title.

In track and field, the women’s third-place showing at the 2018 NCAA Outdoor Championships was two points out of first and matched Stanford's highest women's finish ever. Last spring, the Cardinal men placed fourth at the NCAA Indoor Championships, marking its highest finish since 2007. It then took fifth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, good for its best finish since 2001.

For those efforts, the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association named Stanford the Terry Crawford Women's Division I Program of the Year in 2018 and then the John McDonnell Men’s Division I Program of the Year in 2019.

“We hit it those last two years really well,” Miltenberg said. “I’m not saying that’s because of me; I think it’s because I finally got out of the way and started doing it the right way. We had a lot of success those first five years, but I think we took another a big turn those next two.”

And that made leaving so much harder.

A chance to be special

Upon returning home from the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships, Miltenberg started telling Colleen how he thought 2019 could finally be the year the Cardinal captured the national title that had eluded it since his arrival.

So many times throughout her husband’s Stanford tenure, Colleen had heard him say such things. And every time, something happened, whether it was an untimely injury to one of his top runners or the team simply not performing its best when it needed to most.

Colleen thought of all those instances last June, as she and Miltenberg deliberated over UNC’s offer. At that time, Miltenberg still believed the Cardinal was on the verge of taking a major step forward, making the idea of leaving hard to imagine, especially given all the time and effort he’d put into getting the programs where they were. But how could he stay, knowing the opportunity to go to Carolina was so undeniably perfect for his family and might not come around again?

“I said to him, ‘Let’s say we stay, you win (a national title) and then we wake up here the day after cross country nationals and we said no to UNC, then what?’” Colleen said. “He was kind of like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ It was definitely hard, and I could tell it really wore on him and weighed on him in making the decision.”

It did throughout his first cross country season in Chapel Hill, too.

“I cried a lot,” Miltenberg said. “I had a lot of days even this fall where I’d be driving in to work sick to my stomach, thinking about what we were missing.”

With Miltenberg’s help, senior Paige Hofstad became the first Tar Heel since 2015 to qualify for the NCAA Cross Country Championships in November. That, however, was one of UNC’s few highlights. Meanwhile, Stanford’s women won the Pac-12 title and the NCAA West Regional before placing third at the NCAA Championships, where the men took sixth.

Miltenberg missed being a part of the Cardinal’s success. More than anything, though, he missed the relationships he had with his student-athletes.

A great reminder of how important those are came soon after he arrived at Carolina. Given his credentials, he went into his first team meeting thinking all the student-athletes would be excited about having him as their new head coach. But no one seemed to care. And he knew they wouldn’t until he showed how much he cared.

Since then, one of Miltenberg’s main priorities has been building trust with them. Those relationships might not be nearly as strong as the ones he had at Stanford as of yet. But in time, they surely will be.

“I think one of his strongest abilities is his ability to coach the whole person and figure out, besides the training load, the mileage they’re running or the weights they’re lifting, what the are demands on that student-athlete,” Henner said. “You have to take those into account when coaching them. I think that’s something he’s very, very good at is making connections and coaching a whole person.”

And making those relationships last.

“We’ll still maybe at least once a month try to talk on the phone,” McGorty said. “If not, we’ll still constantly be texting. He basically became a second father at Stanford for me. I was very fortunate to have that close relationship with him, and know I’ll have that for the rest of my life.”

McGorty now trains with Nike’s Bowerman Track Club, along with Fisher, Infeld, Vanessa Fraser and Elise Cranny – the last two of whom ran for Miltenberg at Stanford. The five of them jokingly refer to themselves as “Milt’s Crew.”

While in Portland, Oregon, for the Nike Cross Nationals in December, Miltenberg met them for a dinner over which they rehashed old stories and asked Miltenberg about his new job.

“He just sounded so excited about the future and building this,” Infeld said. “That made me be like, ‘He’s so excited. He’s going to do incredible. He’s ready to do this. He’s super motivated.’ I just think he’s so talented and such a great coach that I have no doubt the program is going to thrive.”

At 39 years old, Miltenberg is still the youngest head coach among Power 5 programs. But he no longer feels the same need to prove himself that he once did at Stanford.

Many hard lessons helped him learn that’s not what coaching is about. It’s about building up the people around him, his assistant coaches and his student-athletes. And only that can lead to him building the sort of program he’s always envisioned that UNC can become.

“I’ve been really, really lucky,” he said. “I’ve been some great places with some great people, and I’m excited to really build this thing into something really special. Not only can we become the best team in America, we can build something that we’re all going to be really proud of in every regard – not only in terms of what our student-athletes are doing while they’re here, but what we’re setting them up to do after they leave here, too.

“Certainly we’ve got a long way to go and it’s a lot of basics right now. But we’re going to build something really special over time. And that’s what I’m excited about, is being in a place where we’re in it for the long haul.”

Credits:

Anna Keefer, Jon Gardiner, UNC Athletic Communications