VOL.10 NO. 4 SPRING 2001
It hits you as soon as you look up the names in the U of U phone directory: Mike Jones, Coach, Minor Sport; Elizabeth Launiere, Coach, Minor Sport; Mike Litzinger, Coach, Minor Sport. Those are listings that would make Rodney Dangerfield proud. Talk about no respect.
Away from the glamour of televised coach’s shows and ESPN’s Sportscenter, away from shoe contracts, tens of thousands of screaming fans, and annual marriage proposals from various suitor schools toil the coaches of non-revenue-producing sports. What’s it like to run Olympic-event sports—track and field /cross country, women’s volleyball, and swimming—that, for the most part, get missed by the spotlight and the sports page?
On the Run for 22 Years
Mike Jones has been the University of Utah cross-country and track-and-field coach for just about as long as anyone can remember—22 years, to be exact. A homegrown talent, Jones came to the U from Davis High, where he had coached track teams to seven state titles.
When he became the track-and-field/cross-country coach, the U was debating what to do with the program. It had already combined the men’s and women’s programs; the women’s program was two years old, and the men’s was only a partial program. Still, Jones achieved success, with the women’s cross-country team winning the national championship in 1983.
But that year also saw the expansion of Rice Stadium—and then everything changed. The stadium expansion involved dropping the field level 18 feet, narrowing the area surrounding the field for added seating. Unfortunately for Utah Track, that also eliminated the track. Jones says the plan was to build a new track facility elsewhere on campus, but there was one problem. “That was the year of the big floods, and the state legislature decided to spend money on the floods rather than on a new track.” Seventeen years later, the U still has no track.
So where does the team practice? The university made a contribution to the Salt Lake City School District to help build the track facility at East High School.
Thanks to that donation, Jones says the track at East “belongs to the U every day from noon to two.”
But the lack of an on-campus facility hasn’t stopped Jones and the success of his program. In his 22 years, he has coached 24 All-Americans, five of whom were Olympic Trials qualifiers.
The lack of serious cash flow doesn’t stop him, either. “You have to coach more to have success rather than having success simply because you have more money. I think we put more into coaching than some of the other programs because of our lesser facilities,” he says proudly.
One secret has been Jones’ “Developer Program,” which focuses on recruiting local kids and developing their talents. He says that after a couple of years of coaching and training, his unknowns can often compete with the highly touted “blue chips” recruited by other schools.
With his sport’s Level 3 status, Jones has to be creative, even with scholarships. Because his is a non-revenue-producing sport, he can break apart a scholarship to make it go further, providing one student with fees, another with books, and another with tuition, all from the same scholarship.
He also has to be creative with his drills. At one time, the women had to practice throwing events, such as the shot put, in a gymnasium. To prevent damage to the floor, Jones hung heavy tarps from the ceiling, with thick mats beneath them. The athletes would launch their throws into the tarp, where they would hit with a thud and fall harmlessly to the mats below. “It was almost impossible to gauge distance,” Jones says with a smile, “so we only worked on form.”
And what of those fancy shoe contracts with the likes of Nike? “Oh, no. The big sports get those,” laughs Jones. “We get something like a buy-one-get-the-second-one-free kind of thing.”
But Jones has persevered. Through his efforts and energy, the women’s program was reinstated to a full track-and-field program in 1996, competing in all events.
And now Jones’ own coaching race is sprinting toward the finish line. He is retiring at the end of the current season, after the meets in June. It will open up more time for his other loves—golf and four-wheel touring.
Jones wants to see the track program continue to work toward becoming a Level 2 sport. The first step, he says, is to build a big indoor facility to make practice and competition from November through May a bit more tenable. “If they really want to emphasize track and field, that would be the direction to take.” Of course, it would help to build the University’s own outdoor track first.
Stalking Spiking Success
Jones isn’t the only coach with dreams of moving up a tier or two. Beth Launiere, coach of the women’s volleyball team, doesn’t have to look far to see a program to emulate: Western Athletic Conference powerhouse Hawaii. “It’s an incredible environment for volleyball,” Launiere says. “The players have celebrity status on the island. All of their matches are televised. Their home matches draw from 8,000 to 10,000 fans. It’s amazing.” At Hawaii, women’s and men’s volleyball are revenue-producing, Level 1 sports.
Meanwhile, Launiere’s nationally ranked team, which climbed as high as 18 th in the nation this year in the USA Today poll, spikes and digs in front of an average of 757 fans per game at Crimson Court.
Launiere is far from satisfied with that. “I want to draw 1,000 to 1,500 every match,” she says, “so that we outgrow Crimson Court and have to move into Huntsman.”
When Launiere came to the U in 1990, things didn’t look nearly so rosy for Ute spiking. Prior to her arrival, the women’s volleyball team went 1-32. A native of Michigan and a graduate of Aquinas College, Launiere was hired away from the University of Illinois, where she had spent two seasons as an assistant coach.
“The opportunity here was great,” she says. “It certainly couldn’t get any worse. The administration really wanted to build up the program and has stuck with that vision. They want to take it to the next level.”
One could argue that the program is already there. This was the team’s sixth 20-win season in the last seven years (23-8 overall, 10-4 in the MWC), and it received its third consecutive invitation to the NCAA Tournament (getting ousted by powerhouse Hawaii in the second round). This year’s squad even knocked off the then-number-one-ranked team in the nation, Stanford, on September 5.
Only 36 years old and already 10 years into her tenure at the U, Launiere is now U volleyball’s winningest coach. She loves Salt Lake City and when not coaching is hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, or hanging out with her two dogs. And, of course, thinking about her job.
“I want to put a product on the floor that people want to see,” she says. “Could we ever be like football or men’s basketball? No. But,” she adds determinedly, “we could be like the gymnastics program.” “I want to put a product on the floor that people want to see.”
Making Waves in the Pool
Mike Litzinger is the new kid on the block in this coaching trio, taking over men’s and women’s swimming in June 2000. He came to the U from Ohio State University, where he was the men’s assistant coach.
The move was an easy one. “This school has a great tradition in swimming and diving on the men’s side,” Litzinger says. “Plus, my family had been here on ski vacations, so I knew a bit about the place. I think the U and Salt Lake are these incredible, well-kept secrets.”
Litzinger has an apparel contract with Speedo, which supplements team funds and gives the swimmers lots of free duds. That, along with the impressive swimming facilities, makes Litzinger very excited about the potential of his new program. “I certainly see us winning the Mountain West Conference. With the women, that is going to happen very quickly, maybe in three to five years. The men may take a bit longer,” he says. “But ultimately the goal is to be on the national scene consistently, in the top 10 or top 25.”
How will he get there? Be glad you’re not a swimmer. During the season, Litzinger’s athletes train 20 hours per week, the maximum allowed by the NCAA. How does that break out? If you want to be a Ute distance swimmer, jump in the pool and put in 17,000 yards a day—that’s 10 miles for those of you counting laps.
The teams train from 5:30 to 7:45 every morning, then again from 3:30 to 5:30 in the afternoon. Meets are usually on Fridays and Saturdays.
No wonder Litzinger says his is a “training-oriented” sport. It is based on the overload principle: a few weeks before big competitions (the conference championships and the NCAAs), his swimmers start winding down so they can peak at the meet. The remainder of the season, however, there are times when the training regimen and the meet are far from in sync.
And scouting, an intricate part of most sports, means little in the pool. “Times don’t lie,” Litzinger says. His only real strategy comes in dual meets, deciding the events in which to place his swimmers based on the strengths of the opposing team. “That’s a bit of a chess match,” he says, “because you only worry about the 121 points needed to win.”
Litzinger recruits against big swimming powers like Cal, Stanford, and Auburn, mostly in California, the Pacific Northwest, and the Intermountain region. He has at least one advantage when recruiting these days— the rebuilding of his team. “My pitch is simple,” he explains. “Swimmers like to be first, so I say ‘How would you like to be in the first class? I can build a team around you, laying the groundwork for the championship teams of the future.’”
As for his new home, Litzinger says he “settled in the right spot. I learn something about the University every day that impresses me.” The easy availability of golf also appeals to him, although he admits, “My mind is always on swimming, even when I’m out on the course.”
—Randy Hanskat is a writer in University Marketing and Communications.
Copyright 2001 by The University of Utah Alumni Association