By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In his 38 years, Bryan Fetzer has lived in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, California, Mississippi and Indiana.
“That’s 10,” Fetzer said. And that’s enough for UVa’s new director of track & field/cross country.
“I’m tired of moving,” Fetzer said in his McCue Center office. “I’ve moved enough in my life. I want to buy a house, relax, enjoy.”
When the 2011-12 academic year began, Fetzer was the lead assistant coach and the recruiting coordinator at Harvard, and he had no plans to leave Cambridge, Mass., at midyear. But after Jason Vigilante unexpectedly resigned in late November, Virginia needed a replacement to oversee its track & field and cross country programs. Fetzer had talked to UVa officials in 2008 during the search that ended with Vigilante’s hiring, and so his interest was piqued when the job came open again.
That he had an inside source in Charlottesville who raved about UVa made the position even more attractive. During Fetzer’s three years as an assistant at the University of California, the women’s basketball coach in Berkeley was Joanne Boyle — the same Joanne Boyle whom UVa hired last spring.
“Joanne’s a good friend and a great person,” Fetzer said. “Obviously, I got to ask her a lot of questions.”
“I got to ask her the real questions,” Fetzer continued. “And her responses were so favorable, about the commitment to being good, the type of school, the type of kid that was going to be here, and the administration. To be good, you have to have a commitment from the folks at the top, and she spoke so highly of the administration. It was very interesting to me, because I was at a point in my career that I had interviewed for a lot of different jobs, for head coaching jobs or director jobs. A lot of them just weren’t the right fit. So I wanted to make sure that when I did take one, it was the exact fit [at a school where] I thought we could really be the type of program that I wanted us to be. And this fit everything.”
Boyle mentioned Fetzer to Valerie Richardson, UVa’s associate director of athletics for programs.
“I said, ‘Now, I don’t know him as a coach — I’m not a track person — but he’s a great person, he’s a great recruiter, the staff at Cal loved him, his kids loved him,’ ” Boyle recalled.
UVa announced Fetzer’s hiring on Dec. 20. He ended 2011 in Atlanta, where he watched Virginia’s football team take on Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
His interest in that sport is no surprise. Fetzer was a four-year letterman in football at Canisius College in Buffalo. A defensive back, Fetzer was a team captain as a senior. He also ran track at Canisius, “but I was terrible,” he said with a laugh.
“I was a sprinter, but I just wasn’t very good. They started to have me learn the decathlon, but it was too much for me to try to learn between football and stuff.”
The son of a longtime football coach, Fetzer followed his father into the coaching profession. In January 1996, he headed south to Ranger College, where Fetzer worked with the school’s football, track & field and cross country teams. He also served as strength coach and a dorm supervisor at the Texas junior college.
He was head women’s track & field coach at Ranger, which didn’t have a men’s program, and the team became a national junior-college power during Fetzer’s tenure. He found that he enjoyed coaching track more than coaching football.
“I’m a very Type A personality, I guess you could say, and I like to be efficient and I like to be organized with things,” he said, “and it just seemed like we wasted a lot of time watching film over and over again on things we didn’t need to watch. Or going over things that just didn’t seem real relevant to me.
“And then there was the recruiting part of things. Fortunately or unfortunately, coaching in junior college with some really, really good athletes, I got to see kind of the shady side, with the SEC schools and Big 12 schools coming in, and it was so far away from what I believed morally and ethically. I had some great mentors along the way [in football], but I just kind of realized that this wasn’t what I was called to do.”
Even so, Fetzer said, “I think one of the reasons why I’ve been successful as a coach in track is because of the football background. Because it is the absolutely most comparable sport to track. We’ve got 90-plus kids on the team.”
His staff includes four holdovers — Julie Stackhouse (middle distance/women’s recruiting coordinator), Ross Richardson (throw), Michael Eskind (jumps and multis) and Matt Downs (operations) — plus two new assistants.
Todd Morgan left the University of Florida to coach the women’s distance runners at Virginia. Pete Watson left the University of North Carolina to join the staff at UVa, where he coaches the men’s distance runners and serves as men’s recruiting coordinator.
Fetzer works with the Wahoos’ sprinters and hurdlers. As a head coach, he said, he hopes to emulate Texas A&M’s Pat Henry.
“He’s an administrator,” Fetzer said. “He coaches some of the athletes, but he doesn’t try to coach too much. And I think you can fall into a big problem in track if the director or the head coach tries to do everything. My view is that I’m the CEO of the program.”
Fetzer oversees six teams: men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s indoor track & field, and men’s and women’s outdoor track & field. “But inside those six sports,” he noted, “there’s actually even more. To be good in the throws or be good in the field events, specifically, is a lot different than being good in the sprints, being good in the distance. But it’s my job to get everybody on the same track and get us together as a unit.”
On the eve of the 2007-08 academic year, Fetzer left Cal to become an assistant coach at Mississippi State.
“It’s the SEC,” Fetzer said. “It’s supposedly what every coach wants, especially in football and track, and having an opportunity to see the pressure, the finances — all the things that make it what it is — was interesting, an incredible learning experience, and I had an amazing boss [in head coach] Al Schmidt. Greg Byrne was the athletic director when I was there, and he was an incredible person to learn from.”
Three years at Mississippi State, however, were enough for Fetzer, who left for Harvard before the 2010-11 academic year.
“Starkville was a little small for me,” he said. “I loved some of the athletes I had, but the best way to describe it is, it just didn’t feel like it was a great fit.”
He had a friend, Cathrine Grace Erickson, on the coaching staff at Harvard, and she asked him if he knew anyone who might be interested in a position that was open at the Ivy League school.
“She described Harvard,” Fetzer recalled, “and the more she described it, the more it interested me. I said, ‘It sounds a lot like Cal.’ So away we went. I loved my time there. It was a great fit. So when this situation came around, it seemed like it was very similar to Cal and Harvard, especially Cal.”
The location appealed to him too. He still has many relatives in Johnstown, Pa., the city where Fetzer was born. (He later spent a year in Richmond as a boy.) His mother lives in Cincinnati, a brother is in Charlotte, N.C., and another brother is in Fayettevile, N.C.
“So within about four hours I can get places,” Fetzer said. “That’s exciting, to be in a situation like that.”
He held his first team meeting Jan. 9. Before then, though, he had called or e-mailed every member of the team, “just to reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m your new coach,’ ” Fetzer said.
“My biggest concern is that there are some kids that have been here for four years and have had four different coaches in certain events … I want to create stability, and I want to create a family environment. I want them to understand that we’re here, and I’m going to do everything I can over the course of time to keep my staff together.”
Fetzer also has been an assistant at Ball State and head coach at Gardner-Webb during that school’s transition from Division II to Division I. At UVa, he took over a program whose standouts include Robby Andrews, a two-time NCAA champion in the 800 meters.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in certain areas,” Fetzer said. “We have a lot of holes. We’re good in certain things, but the overall depth’s got to be a lot better. We’ve got to get more of it. I’m not satisfied with having a Robby Andrews. I want a lot of Robby Andrewses, in both genders.”
When Fetzer coached at Cal, Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett, both now in the NFL, ran track when their schedules allowed. Fetzer said he would welcome UVa football players who want to run track in the offseason.
“Having played college football, I understand what the demands are,” Fetzer said. “I think a lot of college track coaches think that you have to be full-time track to be good at track, and that’s a myth.
“If you had a football player who was going to run a mile, yeah, that’s a little different. But when you’re talking about sprinting, that’s what football is. It’s essentially the same thing. You don’t do much extra. Just be an athlete. Stay healthy and happy and have fun. That’s a quote that I was told a long time ago: ‘Keep athletes healthy and happy, and then they have fun, and you do well. Great things happen.’ “
Good things are happening for Virginia track & field, thanks in large part to the generosity of Amy Griffin. A UVa alumna, Griffin pledged $5 million to help her alma mater renovate Lannigan Field, long one of the least impressive track & field facilities in Division I. The upgrade was another reason the UVa job interested Fetzer.
“You’re building a new track,” he said. “There’s a great cross country course. You have things here. The Internet’s a powerful thing now. You can do a lot of research, and seeing all the new facilities that had been built [at UVa] in the last 10 years, it was a pretty strong statement that they’re committed to being good. I think sometimes the schools that are very high academically, like Virginia is, sometimes they’re not committed to being good athletically. And there’s a distinct difference between just fielding teams and wanting to actually be good. They obviously show that here.”
The track project has two phases. The first will be completed in time for UVa to host the ACC’s outdoor championships this spring. Fetzer couldn’t be happier about the timing.
“My simple goal for that, for the championship, is to make sure every kid that’s in the ACC comes here and says, ‘Wow. I made a mistake not going to Virginia,’ ” Fetzer said, “and to put on a show that the community likes, that hopefully they will come and support.
“It’s kind of a sign of things to come. I think big on everything. I want to host USA Track and Field events here. I want to potentially host some professional meets here. I definitely want to host some high school meets here. I was joking with somebody [recently]. I said, ‘Eugene is considered Track Town USA. I want this to be Trackville USA.’ “