Clyde Hart, 73, has coached track for 50 years, and the longtime Baylor coach is the acknowleged guru of the 400. Michael Johnson won two Olympic gold medals in the event with Hart's coaching. Johnson retired in 2001, but three years later Hart had another Olympic 400-meter champion – Jeremy Wariner.
The 23-year-old Wariner is a favorite to win the event at this year's world championships and next year's Olympics in Beijing. He's also closing in on Johnson's world record.
Hart also coaches Sonya Richards, a former University of Texas sprinter who is the world's top female 400-meter runner.
Hart spoke about the event, his athletes and why he keeps going in his 70s before a recent workout at Baylor. Excerpts:
How did you become the guru of the 400?
If you study track, you'll notice something immediately: The track is 400 meters around, so it's got to be important. The 400 plays a big part in track and field. To build a track program, you can do so many things with 400 runners.
If you want to have a successful track team, that's a good place to start, because 400 runners can drop down and run the 200, those guys can be made into intermediate hurdlers, they can go the 800, they can run on relays, it's a good place to build. When you get a shot putter, if they can't make it in the shot, they're probably not going to make it.
How did you revolutionize coaching the 400?
When you've been at this business as long as I have, you're going to get better. I really believe I'm a better coach today than I was last year and the year before. I think if Michael were running today, he would be running faster than he did in 1999. It should be that way. I'm continuing to learn.
You learn from your athletes. Our lab is the track. We aren't able to bring a kid in every day and put them on a treadmill or hook them up and draw blood to test them. We observe them as coaches. You gradually eliminate those things you feel like they don't work and keep those things that work. We don't make drastic changes, but we make subtle changes every year.
I train my 400 people today more like I trained my 800 and 1,500 runners 20 years ago. I think there's a lot of misinformation on the 400. I think training for the 400, the demands are different than we thought. The 400 is a sprint-type event, but it doesn't necessarily have to be trained like a sprint event. The aerobic capacity (in training) is greater in the 400 than people ever thought it was. They thought the majority of it was anaerobic running, and it really isn't.
You teach your athletes pace by training them with a machine that beeps. Explain your concept of pace in the 400.
The race starts at 200 meters. The first 200 sets up the race. You want to hit a certain speed, come through there, and then you make your moves. If you're going to make a mistake, I'd rather a young man come through in 21.5 than 20.5, because you don't find a chair over there (at 200 meters) where you can stop and rest. We've got a saying, you don't fool Mother Nature. If you go through (200) too fast, the party's probably over.
When Michael set the world record (43.18), it was basically 21-22. Michael was like in fourth place (at 200), maybe fifth. The others were going out at 20.8, 20.9, which was ludicrous. None of them broke 44. It's because they didn't run their own race.
Your training programs are out there for other coaches to follow. Does that bother you?
It's been published all over the world. I have no problem with that at all. It used to worry my athletes. I remember Michael asking one time, "Coach, do we want people to know what we're doing?" I said, "Michael, there's no secrets out there. The things you're doing, I stole from somebody else. We refined it, we changed it.
We're not like football coaches who lock up their playbook. Track and field is a universal sport. You want people to improve. You certainly want your kids to win, but I've never known a track coach that wouldn't share information.
Training programs are great, but you've got to have somebody who's experienced, who knows where to make changes. You've got to be able to interpret it and apply it to your own athletes.
Compare Jeremy Wariner and Michael Johnson coming out of high school.
Jeremy was a much more highly recruited athlete. Michael never won a state championship in Texas, he was second. The young man who beat Michael, Derrick Florence, went on to win U.S. Juniors and the world juniors. He went to a neighboring school south of us and he never beat Michael when they became freshmen. We recruited Derrick. He committed to us, and at the last minute we couldn't find him to sign him. I got to thinking, I need a relay man, we're short. I remembered Michael, so I headed straight to Dallas. We felt he'd give us some help on the relay team immediately. He not only did that, the rest is history.
Jeremy was the Texas high school champion in the 200 and the 400. He had the second or third fastest time as a schoolboy in the 400 (in the nation) and the fastest time in the 200.
You thought you'd retire when Johnson retired, but then Jeremy came along. How much longer do you expect to coach?
I'm committed to this next Olympics and we'll play it by ear after that. I don't really have anything else to do, to be honest. I'm not very good at golf. If I was better at golf, I might think about (retiring). As long as I'm healthy and happy I'm going to continue coaching. I enjoy it, and I think working with young people keeps you young.