By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 16, 2014
Following the departure of former coach Fred LaPlante last season, the future of the Michigan men’s track and field team was uncertain. The team was coming off its fourth-straight season near the bottom of the Big Ten, and year-to-year improvements were marginal at best.
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Enter Jerry Clayton.
Clayton, who coached the Auburn men’s and women’s teams for 15 years could have easily continued coaching for years to come and retired a Tiger. He led the Auburn women to a 2006 national title and has coached 85 All-Americans and 16 NCAA champions in his 30 years of Division-I experience.
So how did the Wolverines pry Clayton from a program that, for good reason, would have likely kept him around forever?
“The thing that really intrigued me,” Clayton said, “is that Michigan’s tradition in the Big Ten over the years has been the most dominant track and field program, but it’s kind of fallen on some bad times lately. It’s a really good challenge to see can we turn this thing around and get it back to where I remember.”
The answer certainly matches the typical mantra for Michigan coaches. How the Wolverines will actually fare in their first season under Clayton, though, isn’t yet clear.
The Wolverines return some key performers from last season, including senior Ali Arastu, who was the Big Ten runner-up in the 400-meter hurdles. Arastu will be a key contributor for Clayton’s squad and should be expected to make a run at a conference title again this season.
Senior Herman Washington took ninth in the 100-meter hurdles at the Big Ten Championships last season, but has plenty of room to join the conference’s elite this year.
“I know I’ve performed better than what I did (at last season’s Big Ten meet),” Washington said. “I just have to bring it all to the meet and be a competitor.”
Washington will be a captain this season, along with juniors Mark Beams and Cody Riffle.
Beams is coming off a productive cross-country season and is focused on a top finish in the 5,000 meters.
“If I had to take a guess (at the time it will take to challenge the leaders), it would be around 13:50,” Beams said. “That’s something I think I and a couple of my teammates are capable of.”
Redshirt junior Mason Ferlic should be among the Big Ten’s best in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and will join Beams on a distance team that should be a huge asset to Clayton.
“We’ve been improving every year since coach (Alex) Gibby has been here as our head distance coach,” Beams said. “This year I think we finally have things lined up to where we should be able to put up some significant points in the 3K and 5K distances.”
Michigan may see the most improvement in its field events, where its new coach is a master.
Clayton was a two-time NCAA qualifier in the shot put at Illinois and helped the Fighting Illini to seven Big Ten titles as an assistant between 1980 and 1989, specializing in field events.
“We’re very strong and have some good leadership in the throwing events,” Clayton said. “The area in our evaluation right now that we’re a little weak in is in the jumps. That’s an area we want to try to improve upon.”
If anyone has the experience to do that, it’s Clayton — one of the few coaches who has trained athletes in every field event over the course of his career.
Leading the way for the throwers will be Riffle, a shot putter who is coming off a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten last season and figures to benefit in a big way from his new coach. Joining Riffle as a thrower-to-watch is Ethan Dennis, an All-America honorable mention in the hammer throw.
The bright spots for Michigan are gleaming, but even with a big acquisition like Clayton, the team has plenty to prove before it can be talked about the way the new coach would like it to be.
Then again, that’s exactly the type of challenge he signed up for.