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.’”