The John Zupanc Interview – University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Head Track and Cross Country Coach.
tips4running.com is very proud to introduce Coach John Zupanc. He is a very successful college cross country and track and field coach. His UW-Oshkosh indoor track and field team won the 2009 Division III National Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field Championships, in only his fourth year as head track and field coach.
Before he was the head coach, he was an assistant coach of track in charge of the distance runners. He began coaching cross country in 1982 and the distance runners for track in 1981. As the head cross country coach his team has won four NCAA Division III championships. During the late 1990’s I ran both track and cross country for Coach Zupanc.
David Tiefenthaler – First of all congratulations on the Indoor and outdoor Track National Championships.
John Zupanc – Thanks, we have a great group of guys that are very competitive. We have had this goal on the horizon for the past four years so to achieve a long range goal is very satisfying.
DT – Before we jump into all of the coaching questions, when did you first start running?
JZ – I started in my senior year at Monroe High School under Clarence Bruess.
DT – Did you run track or cross country in high school or college?
JZ – I ran just one year in high school, instead of football in the fall and golf in the spring. I went to UW and did not run since I was so new to it and really had no thought I could do it at the college level.
DT – I know you were pretty serious about training for marathons when I was in school. Do you still run competitively?
JZ – I still train hard and race when I can. I did the InStep Indoor Marathon at the Petitt Center in January. I had never done an indoor marathon and thought why not give it a go. It was not as boring as one would think. I am shifting my training right now in preparation for the USATF Masters National Track and Field Championship that will be held at the Oshkosh Sports Complex. Not sure what I will be racing yet but thinking the steeplechase and either the 1500 or 5k.
DT – What personal running accomplishments are you most proud of?
JZ – I am very proud about finishing 18th in the 1985 Boston marathon and winning the Lakefront Marathon in 1986.
DT – Now we will move to the coaching questions. Being the head coach of a track team is incredibly different than just coaching the distance runners. How have you managed that transition?
JZ – I have really enjoyed the challenge and stimulation that being the head track and field coach brings everyday. The variety of personalities and managing so many events, assistant coaches, and athletes has been a lot of fun.
DT – I know you began coaching cross country at UW-Oshkosh in 1982, and as a distance track coach in 1981. Did you coach anywhere else previously?
JZ – I was middle school coach at Starbuck Junior High in Racine, boys track and field and girls cross country in Antigo, distance coach at Madison Edgewood, Badger Jets Coach, and graduate assistant coach under Badger head coach Dan McClimon. This was all occurred from fall of 1975 through 1980.
DT – What motivated you to be a coach and teacher at the college level?
JZ – I was teaching in Antigo and was really getting into my training in 1976 to 1978. This got me interested in exercise physiology, so in the summer I was going back to UW Madison to pick up Physical Education courses to prepare to go to graduate school at Madison in Exercise Physiology. I started the Ex Phys masters program in the fall of 1978. This really developed my interest in human performance physiology.
DT – Have you ever considered coaching at a Division I school, or do you envision staying at UW-Oshkosh for a long time to come?
JZ – I have considered it but only for the Badger distance position. It was very flattering for the Badgers to have an interest and that would be the only place I would even consider. After all I am a Badger, both as an undergraduate and graduate student. I plan to be at UW-Oshkosh forever.
DT – Is it tough to recruit talented runners because you can’t offer scholarships as a Division III school?
JZ – Sure there are some challenges but we are a very competitive program. We excel at the national level in cross country and track and field. We can present student-athletes with an opportunity to compete at a national championship and earn All American honors. We take great pride in taking good athletes and developing them into national caliber athletes. Many of our student-athletes could have earned some type of scholarship to DI and/or DII program but realized that in most cases our teams were better than the DI and/or DII teams that were offering scholarships. Obviously I am not talking about the Badgers or Gophers or Oregon or Stanford or other big time programs. Distance running and track and field are easy to measure and we point recruits to make the comparison between our guys and those of the scholarship program they are considering.
DT – I had a teammate in high school earned a full scholarship at a Division I school for running, but he ran only one year and then quit the team. I ran for you at UWO all the way through my senior year. The way my friend described Division I running seemed much different than my experiences in Division III. This leads me to believe that being under a scholarship isn’t always a great thing for an athlete. What are some of the major advantages that an athlete has as a non-scholarship Division III school?
JZ – When you are under scholarship, it is a job. You are being paid to do a job and that your obligations are dictated by this. All athletes feel pressure to do well, the self imposed pressure, and scholarships only add to this pressure. Sometimes it takes the fun out of the sport. Our guys run because they love to run and want to improve. We provide them with opportunities and it is there choice how to pursue and if they want to pursue them. We are not holding anything over them; they do it because they want to do it.
DT – Even though UW-Oshkosh is a Division III school, I noticed that our conference, the WIAC (Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) runs comparable times to many Division I conferences. Can you explain why this occurs year after year?
JZ – We recruit very good student-athletes and provide them with a good environment for improvement. Some of the top guys in the conference would be able to make just about any track and field team in the country. It just might have been that they were not ready to go DI right out of high school. This could be for a variety of reasons: not mature physically just yet, not mature enough mentally, wanted to stay closer to home, wanted a smaller college, new to track and field, wanted to contribute at a high level instead of being redshirted as a frosh, liked the coaches, guys on the team, the campus.
DT – Without going too far in depth, what is your training philosophy for your distance runners?
JZ – Distance running is about becoming stronger. Let me use this example. Most of our recruits can easily run a sub 5:00 mile and go under 10:00 in the 2 mile. But can they go sub 15 for 3 miles or sub 25 for 5 miles? Most likely not, so what is missing? Not the speed to do it but the strength to maintain that speed for a longer period of time.
We build mileage gradually over the first two years of college so that the runner can stay healthy and injury-free. As a frosh most of our cross guys do 50 to 55 mpw, in track do 55 to 60 (if they are a distance runner), move to 60 to 65 over the summer, and then to 65 during the sophomore cross country season. A huge key to success is to stay healthy, only taking time off because you want to take it not because you are injured and need to take it. Consistent training over the long term will bring success.
A second key area is to remember that everyone is different. You have to mold a training program that is tailored to that individual at this point in their career.
DT – Let’s say a high school runner is planning on running competitively at the college level. What are some things he can do during his Junior and Senior year to prepare himself for the next level?
JZ – Compete. Learn to love competition and thrive under pressure. Stay healthy and be patient with your training, all good things come with time. Mileage is not the only factor that affects performance, so do not get carried away with miles.
DT – I am coaching at the high school level and many of the runners I have coached have gone on to run in college. What are some of the best things a high school coach can do to prepare a high school runner for running in college?
JZ – Put them in uncomfortable situations, for example in races they cannot win or do not like. Find out if they love to compete or just love to win. Instill a passion for the sport, the love of training and competing.
DT – You have won conference, regional, and national championships as a coach. Many of your runners have become All-Americans, as well as won individual National Championships. Is there any particular accomplishment you are most proud of in your coaching career?
JZ – There are so many moments, each year has things that make it memorable. Year in and year out it is simply watching guys mature, grow up, from frosh to seniors to alums to careers to their own families.
One of the best moments was back in cross country of 1988 when we won our first national championship and my wife’s team won the women’s title on the same day. Each of the national titles is memorable for the guys on that team, each one is unique.
DT – I just began coaching at a school that hasn’t had a tremendous amount of success in cross country or track. What are some of the things you suggest could help build the program into a success in the years to come?
JZ – You have to make it fun for your team, have a sense of humor, laugh, roll with the unexpected. Come to practice everyday with a positive attitude and make sure your athletes do as well. No matter what happens in the day reserve practice for a time to escape, to get into the training or the racing. Practice time is the time to do what you love to do and enjoy it.
As a coach you have to be demanding as well. Make your athletes accountable for their actions. All choices have ramifications. Develop simple but clear expectations for your team….be on time, be prepared, bring a positive attitude, do your best everyday, strive for excellence.
DT – Thanks coach for your time. As a former UWO Titan, it makes me proud to see you leading UW-Oshkosh to a National Indoor and Outdoor Division III Track Championship. Good luck in Cross Country season.