“Coaching, that’s a seven-day-a-week, 12-month proposition with an athlete,” director of Cal track and field Tony Sandoval says to me on a spring afternoon midway through his last season of coaching.
After almost 50 years coaching track and field and cross country, Tony Sandoval is bringing those 12-month propositions to an end. The coach is calling his time after 37 years at Cal. He’s been around the block a couple of times, and he’s still finding ways to teach people things — even a nosy reporter who asks him too many questions.
“There’s nothing in the academic environment that rivals the coach and athlete relationship,” Sandoval says. “We change their lives, and then they go on off and they’re even more successful in the real world. I don’t know how you can quantify that.”
The first thing you learn when talking to Sandoval is that he cares about the athletes he coaches. Any question about improvements that could be made or about a bad performance are shown the door. He knows his pupils are balancing athletics and academics, so he takes some of the pressure off.
But Sandoval, like any good coach, knows his sport.
“He’s very technical,” says mid-distance runner Benjamin Micallef, whom Sandoval coaches on a day-to-day basis. “Half of my training is reading; he sends me a lot of articles about what he’s doing, why he’s doing it.”
Micallef seems to enjoy this aspect of his training. He’s constantly mentioning things he has learned from his coach — fast-twitch muscle fibers, anaerobic bases.
“I’ve learned a lot about track — about actually running. A lot of coaches don’t like to be questioned. It’s like, why are we doing this? He’ll explain why,” Micallef notes.
That technical training gets balanced with a more relaxed approach.
Micallef nods, “It’s the opposite in a race, very hands-off.
Micallef also gets to prioritize school. He and Sandoval will have conversations about his major, philosophy. Practice times are flexible and fit with classes. Track is a priority, but it’s not everything. There are little life lessons in the mix.
“I’ve also learned how to manage my own situation. He’s not going to tell me to stretch, but I know I have to,” Micallef explains. “I’ve had to pave my own path, which he’s allowed me to do.”
That’s what Sandoval tries to do — he tries to let people grow. Sandoval will tell you that the best thing about a freshman is that they become a sophomore. He says it every time he’s interviewed. He says it to the athletes he coaches. It’s a thing
“Yes, you want to win, and you want to be on the podium, but being on the podium is a result of their growth from adolescence into adulthood,” he continues.
Sandoval coaches track, but he also coaches people — people who are in many ways learning what it means to be people. This goes for everyone. There are no favorites.
“Everybody is special, everybody is unique. Everybody is a painting. I don’t want to say one painting is better than another — they’re just different,” Tony replies when asked to talk about particular athletes or successes. There’s no one person; he means everyone.
Tony Sandoval is calling it quits on a career that has bridged two millenia. At the end of our interview, he remembers the first time he came to the Bay Area for the 1979 Cal Invitational.
“God, I wonder what it would be like if I lived or coached here,” he remembers thinking. Now, here he is, finishing a 37-year career at Cal.
“Dreams are out there to be fulfilled.” Tony Sandoval smiles after spending a career helping his athletes fulfill those dreams.
Jasper Sundeen covers track and field. Contact him at