A Magazine from California State University, ChicoSpring 2015 Issue

The Decathlon ‘Ohana

Photo of Decathletes

Coach Oliver Hanf’s ‘family’ is No. 1 in nation

It’s hard to imagine the 2014 track and field season ending any better for Chico State decathletes.

At the NCAA Division II National Championships in Allendale, Michigan, last May, senior J Patrick (JP) Smith captured the decathlon title, his third consecutive national championship, with a school-record performance. Teammates Ted Elsenbaumer and John Brunk finished second and sixth, respectively, creating history as the first three Chico State decathlon teammates to be named All-Americans in the same season. The All-American title is reserved for the top eight finishers in the country.

In the team competition, the Chico State men’s team finished with 31 total points, good enough for sixth place overall and tying the highest finish for Chico State in the program’s history.

If that weren’t enough, Chico State soon learned it had won the prestigious Webb Cup, celebrating the nation’s finest collegiate decathlon programs—including those from Division I schools.

Coach Oliver Hanf

Coach Oliver Hanf

Creating ‘ohana

To appreciate how these events coalesced for Chico State on that May day last year, you must first appreciate the culture of Chico State track and field and especially the skin-tight brotherhood of multi-event athletes—the ‘ohana, “the family.” 

And it all starts with Oliver Hanf, Chico State’s track and field head coach (see photo, right).

At the Diablo Valley Track Club in the early 1970s, a father was instilling the love of track and field into his athletic nine-year-old son. Little Oliver Hanf was already competing in pentathlons, and within a few years, he’d learn to pole vault and throw the javelin, further forging his passion for track and field.

When he transferred from Diablo Valley College to Chico State in 1990, Hanf felt he was with family, despite the 150 miles away from his hometown. Two years at Chico State, where he competed as a decathlete while earning his bachelor’s degree in physical education, weren’t enough, so he stayed to earn his master’s degree in biomechanics in 1995.

After coaching stints at Paradise High School and Butte College, Hanf was named the women’s track coach at Chico State in 1999, pairing up with legendary head coach Kirk Freitas. After Freitas retired in November 2012, Hanf assumed interim head coaching duties. In June 2013, he was named head coach.

Part scientist, part track coach, the 47-year-old Hanf uses his energy and acumen to attack the season schedule like a sous chef attacks a dinner rush; only Hanf’s meals take years to develop, adding three decathletes over here, redshirting two others for a year over there, and liberally peppering former Chico State decathletes around the track as assistant coaches.

One such coach is Elsenbaumer, last year’s national decathlon runner-up, who spent two years competing under Hanf.

“Oliver is the mastermind behind it all. He brings out the very best in you. I’m just so lucky,” says Elsenbaumer, who was also a roommate of three-time national champ Smith. “I think about all the places I could have gone, and I don’t think anyone else could have brought out a better athlete in me than Oliver Hanf did. I owe a lot to that guy.”

Hanf understands the sport of decathlon. Having enjoyed multi-event success as an athlete, he speaks the language. His knack for scouting quality athletes, corralling trustworthy coaches, and fostering a track and field family results in what he calls the ‘ohana: the idea in Hawaiian culture that celebrates the connection of family and close relatives, as well as cousins, in-laws, friends, and neighbors. Members of an ‘ohana are bound together and accept the responsibility to support and remember one another.

“That’s how it is here. Chico’s very open to everybody, willing to work with folks from all walks of life,” says Brunk. “So, if you come to Chico to become a better decathlete, you’ll get the tools to do that.”

The decathlon grind

And when you’re dealing with the decathlon’s physical and mental grind, you’re grateful ‘ohana has your back.

The decathlon consists of 10 events (four track and six field) over two days. Day 1 features the 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, and 400 meters. Day 2 can be more mentally taxing, as its events are more technically challenging: the 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin, and 1,500 meters.

Hanf may have up to 10 decathletes at any time, and he tweaks the ingredients and seasoning to strike a balance between optimal performance for the individual and the team. Because of that, communication is vital. 

“The coaches and decathletes meet one-on-one at the beginning and end of fall and the beginning and end of spring, to customize and individualize their seasons,” says Hanf. “A lot of it is goal setting and working on their mental toolkit. That’s where I place a lot of emphasis. It can definitely be mentally draining.”

Linking the past with the future

Assembling a roster is easier when athletes notice the coaching staff is filled with former decathletes. These coaches are more than guys who get their thrills chucking a javelin or jumping onto a cushy mat. Chico State’s coaches are nationally recognized decathletes who competed at a high level—and are now passing on what they learned.

These are coaches like Elsenbaumer and Brunk (Chico State’s No. 2 and 3 all-time scoring decathletes, respectively), Robert Nooney (a 2008 All-American), and Brian Beeman, Chico State’s top assistant. 

“Less than a year ago, Ted and I were competing at the highest level,” says Brunk, who coaches the pole vault and discus. “But these new guys are fearless. It’s easy to coach them.”

“Ted and John are now linking the past and the future,” says Hanf. “It’s a huge boost having them as coaches. And they’re really good at it.”

Take this example: Coming into the 2015 season, Chico State junior decathlete Phillip Bailey’s best pole vault height was 13 feet, 11 inches. At the Chico State Wildcat Invitational in March, he cleared 16 feet. Hanf credits Bailey’s hard work for the two-foot improvement, but also Brunk’s tutelage.

Rebirth of Chico State decathlon

Hanf has every reason to be optimistic—but things weren’t always so rosy for Wildcat decathletes, even after national success. After J.J. Noble captured his NCAA Division II title and teammate Erick Knight turned in a sixth-place finish in 2001, Chico State decathletes didn’t earn any All-American spots until 2008, when Nooney took eighth.

Hanf calls Nooney’s finish a “rebirth of the All-American decathlete at Chico State,” and it’s hard to argue. Talor Fulfer placed fourth nationally in 2010 and fifth in 2011. In 2012, Smith began his three-year run as national champ, and Brunk placed fourth. It culminated in Chico State’s decathlon dominance in 2014, and it’s Hanf’s hope that he has the secret sauce to make that happen again.

“This time around, when JP won nationals in 2012, I really made an effort to use that energy in my recruiting,” he says.

Boasting a Webb Cup championship should be a solid conversation point for recruits. The Webb Cup is a national collegiate competition that scores decathlon programs with the same system as track and field team scoring (10 points for first place, eight points for second place, six points for third place, and on down to one point for eighth place) to determine national champions.

The scoring starts with a two-man competition. For Chico State, Smith and Elsenbaumer combined for 15,183 points. The University of Georgia had the highest two-man total (16,351), notching 10 team points, while Chico State had the nation’s fifth-highest total to earn four team points. 

Then, you go three-deep, four-deep, and so on. Boasting the ideal combination of talent and depth, Chico State finished with 23 points, beating out 10 Division I schools, including the Universities of Oregon (last year’s NCAA champions), Texas (last year’s Webb Cup winner), and Arkansas (winners of eight consecutive NCAA outdoor team competitions between 1992 and 1999). 

Positioned for continued success

Hanf and his coaching staff are determined to capitalize on this recent wave of success. 

“With a three-time national champion, that shows there’s more here than, ‘Oh, that guy just got lucky,’ ” says Elsenbaumer. “It shows that the training works. So people who see the program from the outside think, ‘Well, if I’m choosing a Division II school for the decathlon, it seems like they’re doing something right.’ And the program having three people on the podium [at national championships] shows that we as a culture value the decathlon. And we’re good at it.”

“Early in my career, I didn’t feel like I had the kind of depth to afford redshirting athletes,” says Hanf. “We had to squeeze everything we had out of our current roster. Now we’re in a place where we can be more proactive with our future. We’ve gotten to where we can be very selective.”

With numbers, talent, and time on his side, Hanf can shuffle bodies around with an eye on the future. Bailey has posted an NCAA automatic qualifying mark, and he could contend for a national championship this year. Lane Andrews and Scott Pater secured provisional NCAA qualifying marks after one meet and could potentially qualify for nationals this year. Yet all three will redshirt in 2016. 

This year’s redshirt athletes (Jake Mitchell, Jason Dunn, and Aaron Martin) will be activated in 2016.

“We feel we could have similar success this year and next year,” says Hanf. “But the year after, when everyone’s done redshirting and we bring everyone together, that is the year, in 2017, that we’re looking at a potential Webb Cup again.”

Decathlon ‘ohana

This is where Hanf works his magic, getting these young men to buy into the system, putting ego and personal goals aside for an entire year, all in the name of the team. The family. The ‘ohana

And you can bet the extended Chico State decathlete family will pay close attention. 

“There’s a real strong understanding about our history, and our history has a real strong connection with our present,” says Hanf. “They pay close attention to live results. We value that history, not just in terms of the success of the program, but also the brotherhood.

“It’s the ‘ohana. It’s the track ‘ohana, the decathlon ‘ohana.”

“Oliver does an awesome job of keeping former Chico State decathletes plugged into what’s going on now,” says Brunk. “Past decathletes know who we are, but we also know who they are, because Oliver makes us look at our history.”

Having a brotherhood of alumni behind you is all the motivation current decathletes need.

“Anyone who’s plugged into the decathlon system will know about us,” says Brunk. “There’s something going on—it’s just not something in the water. There’s training that’s happening here.”

“You feel like you’re representing the monument they’ve built,” says Elsenbaumer. “You want to maintain that and keep it going.” 

‘Ohana.

About the author  

Sean Murphy (BA, English, ’97) is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in local and national newspapers, magazines, and websites over the past 20 years.