April 25, 2013
Since University of Michigan men's track and field assistant coach Mohamad Saatara brought his talents to Ann Arbor in the Fall of 2010, the Wolverines' throwing group has improved exponentially each year.
During the first 36 years of the program's existence from 1922-57, Michigan produced at least one All-America thrower at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 18 of those years, with multiple throwers earning All-America honors in eight seasons. Names like Ralph Rose, Holly Campbell, Roderick Cox, Bill Watson, Charles Fonville, Fritz Nilsson and Dave Owen were credited with fostering a throwing haven at Michigan for decades. Their success spread far beyond national competition, as six Wolverines have competed in the Olympic Games, winning three goal medals.
However, since former Wolverine Dave Owen's national title in the shot put in 1957, Michigan has been absent from the outdoor All-America podium. And with the exception of former Michigan head coach (1975-99) and 1967 national runner-up in the indoor shot put Jack Harvey, Michigan's presence had been lacking on the national indoor scene as well.
When Saatara arrived at Michigan in 2010, he brought with him a wealth of international throwing knowledge and an understanding of the rich throwing tradition in the program's early years. Saatara also knew that Michigan had only been represented at the NCAA Indoor or Outdoor Championships by one student-athlete in the last decade (Sean Pruitt, indoor 2009).
With nearly three full years of experience under his belt, Saatara and his student-athletes have made leaps and bounds, bringing pride to throwers in the Maize and Blue once again.
In a short amount of time, Saatara developed a culture of excellence and accountability that has led two Wolverine throwers back to the national stage. In 2012 and 2013, current senior/junior Ethan Dennis qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships, earning back-to-back All-America second team honors. In 2013, current junior/sophomore Cody Riffle joined Dennis at the national indoor meet, also garnering All-America second team accolades.
Under Saatara's guidance, Dennis set a new school hammer throw record in 2012 (205-10.5 ft.) and recently improved upon that record-setting mark at 213-2 ft. During the 2013 indoor season, Dennis and Riffle set new school records in the weight throw (69-6.75 ft.) and shot put (63-2 ft.), respectively, at a dual meet against Michigan State. Dennis snapped a four-year-old record previously held by Sean Pruitt (2009), while Riffle took down former Wolverine Steve Adams' record that had been standing for 41 years.
The future of Michigan throws looks bright, as there are no graduating seniors in its six-man group, and Saatara continues to bring in some of the nation's top recruits. Four current Wolverines rank in the top five of Michigan's all-time performance list is their respective throwing events.
MGoBlue.com caught up with Saatara to talk about his passion for the sport and the keys to bringing Michigan throws back to national relevancy.
On having a larger group of throwers to work with ... "Our philosophy all revolves around high performance and with that you're going to need a group of athletes in the same event area. That's really critical because they can work together and work off each other and have a feeling of support. With the whole team you already have that, but specifically with the throwing events, it's such a niche event area, so it's critical to have that group of people that you can work with day in a day out, as well as in competition. What I'm trying to accomplish and the guys have done a great job of because it's on their shoulders, is to look at some of the great throwing programs in the NCAA -- what have they done to make them successful and what can we incorporate here at Michigan. One of the things that every great throwing group has in a collegiate setting is they all have a few guys to work together with. Not only does it take a lot of pressure off the shoulders of the guys, they also feel the bond they have with the other guys in their event area."
On the state of the throwing group when he arrived ... "Michigan has a rich tradition of throwing events -- you can go back to the history of throwing and some of the greatest throwers of all-time are from Michigan. You look at Ralph Rose, you look at Charles Fonville, who was a world record holder. We've had guys like Dave Owen and Jack Harvey, who are really high-level throwers, and even in the recent past there were some really great guys. But what I think happened is that over time, the number of guys in those event areas decreased. We feel that our obligation is to the Michigan family and the Michigan program and to the greats of the past -- we have to carry what the Block M meant to them and continue that tradition."
On what it means to him to see the success of his student-athletes ... "It's great. One of the things that people think about in the recent history of Michigan are some of the exceptional athletes in the running events or jumping events, but people tend to forget what a rich tradition Michigan has in the throwing events. When I see the guys accomplishing these goals that they've had for themselves to get our University back to where people are saying 'Michigan has throwers too', that's a really great feeling. We know that we're getting close to the potential that Michigan has in the throwing events. This is one of the best Universities with the best training environment, best support staff and that is great for throwing events -- you can really have a strong throwing program when you have that."
On getting Michigan throws back to national relevancy ... "We're starting to get that respect back. When you look at some of the great throwing programs like SMU, UCLA, Texas or in the past Oregon or USC and many of the Big Ten schools, those uniforms have a meaning. When you see the powder blue of UCLA, you know that you have to have you 'A' game and we're really working hard to have that here. With the work that Ethan (Dennis) and Cody (Riffle) and all the guys have done, now when people see the Maize and Blue, people know they better have their 'A' game. It's great to see that and know that the Block M has power when they put on that uniform. It gives you confidence that 'I'm part of this program and I'm a strong contender and can make something happen'."
On the most important thing he teaches his student-athletes ... "I've been very fortunate because I've had coaches that have instilled great qualities into me -- coach Babbitt at Cal State LA and my junior college coach, Lloyd Higgins. The first thing they instilled in me was a sense of personal accountability. You're accountable to your teammates and your program and your University, but it all starts with personal accountability. The question is: are you doing everything you can do to do your very best? Nobody has to say 'show up to practice on time' or 'work harder', it's all because you want to do it. I work really hard to bring that mentality to our guys, along with a high performance culture. It all boils down to their personal desire to break barriers with their performances and go beyond the goals they had set."
On what he looks for when he's recruiting a future Michigan thrower ... "The first thing I look at when I'm recruiting a person that wants to come to Michigan is their desire to be part of a high-level program. I want them to come to Michigan because they want to be the very best in the classroom and on the field. When I bring recruits here, I show them famous saying from Bo Schembechler on the walls and tell them that's not something someone painted on the walls because it looks cool, people here believe in that 100 percent -- The Victors, The Team The Team The Team -- those are things we are living every day when we go to training and competitions."
On the benefit of his international experience ... "I've been really fortunate -- I've been exposed to a lot of international level performances, athletes, coaches and training camps. It's great because when you look at the international level guys and what they do, they're very efficient with what they're trying to do. My philosophy about training is to find the simplest and most direct way to get the results you want. With the student-athletes at Michigan, we don't have a lot of time to waste and go in different directions, we need results quickly. We have to be efficient because guys also have to study and go to class and workouts. We try to find the best methods for that particular athlete that is going to give the best results and go with it."
On his proudest moment as a coach ... "The biggest moment was probably having two guys qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships this year, with Ethan (Dennis) and Cody (Riffle). It was so great to see the Block M when they put the names up and announced them. Nobody thought a guy like Ethan would make the NCAA Championships and he made it on his own shoulders. It was a very competitive year and he made it. Same thing with Cody -- he was the smallest guy in the meet, but he stood his ground and it was the first time he had gone to a major championship. Being able to have guys in the Olympic Games is wonderful too, when you see some of the guys that I've been able to work with and support. When you see them on the floor of the Olympic stadium, it's so great because you know the hard work paid off. My biggest sense of accomplishment comes from the collegiate athletes though, for example when Ethan set a new school record at Mt. SAC in a very accomplished meet."
Contact: Whitney Dixon (734) 763-4423