Pre-NCAA Interview: Stanford Coach and Olympian Jeff Kostoff

Following up on yesterday’s interview with the three Cardinal distance swimmers competing at NCAA’s this weekend, we got on the phone with Jeff Kostoff to discuss his path back to coaching, the state of distance swimming, and how he thinks about training different types of swimmers.  Hope you enjoy!

SwimSwam: You were out of coaching for a pretty long time, and working in the “real world” outside of swimming. What brought you back to coaching at Indiana University a few years ago?

Jeff: I pretty much spent all of the 90’s teaching and coaching. We don’t need to go over a strict chronology, but I spent about five years teaching high school, both private and public.  I actually coached summer league for pretty much a decade at that time, as well.  And then there were also four years in there where I was an assistant coach at the University of Maryland, and I did a little club coaching in the D.C. area.  It wasn’t until ’99 that I got out of coaching and teaching entirely, and I went into working with system integration and computer software until 2013.  And, you know, that was basically just being in the D.C. area and trying to make more money.

The last job I had I was working with a company that did system integration for the federal government, primarily in the intelligence community, so that was some pretty interesting stuff. Except, in general, I just really didn’t like it that much <laughs>.  So, I actually started trying to get coaching jobs again, and I think the first resume I started sending out was in 2007.  I had been sending resumes kind of pointlessly for six years before I got the job at Indiana, and a lot of that I think—I mean, I know—is because college coaching is a really small world; if you’re not already in it, it’s really hard to get in it.  I’m pretty sure my resume did not make sense to athletic administrators.

SwimSwam: Yeah, that’s a good point, the coaches know who you are, but the administration and people making these decisions on who to bring in may not know your name.

Jeff: Yeah, they may have no idea.  That I was an Olympian, you know, doesn’t matter.  I’ve also found recently having been back in college coaching–from just getting to know people a little bit better–for a lot of college administrators, coaching outside of college doesn’t really matter that much. That’s really all they’re looking at; if you’re not currently coaching college, then your resume (usually) just gets chucked.  I got lucky that Ray knew me from back in the day, because he’s from the Bay Area originally, and he was a freshman in college when I was a senior.  He had remembered me, and he basically just took a chance and got me back into coaching at Indiana.  So I spent three years there as an assistant in Indiana, and that brought me back in the game again.

SwimSwam: How did that role progress over three years, from getting “back on your feet”, so to speak, in the first season to the third season?  How did you find things had really changed within the sport since you were last involved?

Jeff: I mean… Yes, things have changed, but I think there’s a lot of things that are still fundamentally the same.  These kids have gotten obviously a lot faster.  The depth is more significant, and I think a lot of club programs are are developing kids much more extensively before they get into college. There’s newer developments as far as developing speed, and those sorts of things, but I think a lot of the stuff is the same.  I certainly picked up a lot at Indiana in terms of specificity of training that I wouldn’t have been familiar with otherwise.

And then also I think what was really useful about the experience was Indiana’s very hard core on the recruiting side of things.  It was a really great job for me to be in, because at the time that I was in Indiana I was single, and I didn’t have any obligations, so I actually traveled a lot.  I think when I was totaling it up at the end of three years, I visited somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 USA Swimming clubs in three years.  That, to me, was an incredibly valuable experience; not only did I meet just a ton of club coaches, I also saw a lot of what people are generally doing, and that really helped me tremendously with my understanding, and also just making contacts out in the swimming world.

I still use a lot of my own stuff, as well, but I’ve added to it. I think what happens is the more time you spend in coaching, you just just add more tools to your to your toolbox.  To me, one of the biggest challenges in coaching is, on the one hand, having an overall sort of philosophy and an overall gist of your program, but at the same time, being able to allow for individual differences.  That’s one of the things I fundamentally believe as a coach is that you can have kids that are swimming in the same events, but they don’t necessarily need to be trained the same.

SwimSwam: What kind of stuff do you still bring back? The guys mentioned yesterday that they did the 3×5000’s set (with True Sweetser doing four).

Jeff: Well, the 5000’s, THEY wanted to do <laughs>, I was not pushing that.  I mean, I think it helps. I think it’s really good for training for a mile, because if you do even just one 5000, and you’re going as fast as you possibly can, that’s the kind that’s the kind of thing that makes a mile seem short.  And to make a mile kind of seem like the distance that it is (which is a relatively short distance in the grand scheme of things), that’s the kind of work you need to do.  But I didn’t necessarily push that with these guys, because I know a lot of kids are not really doing that.  I don’t think people need to train like I trained.  There’s plenty of sets that I’ve augmented or changed a little bit and thrown at my swimmers.

But I think when I say “I do a lot of things the same”, I think one of the core things that I do is training a lot of IM.  That goes back to Ed Spencer and I; as I kind of became a 400 IMer, we discovered that if you’re going to train distance and you train freestyle all the time, there’s going to be a limit to how much freestyle you can do.  You really you really overstrain all the specific muscle groups that have to do with freestyle, and that if you incorporate more IM training (whether you can swim breaststroke or not, it doesn’t really matter), it’s going to help you get more in without really tearing down your freestyle so much.  And that’s one of that’s kind of a fundamental piece to whatever I do.  The other reason why I like that is just because I really think that you always need to work on your weaknesses and you always need to become a better swimmer.  So even if you haven’t done much IM, or you may never swim it in a meet, I really want to develop pretty much anybody as an IMer.

SwimSwam: What’s the most impressive things you have seen your group do in practice this year?

Jeff: Let’s see… I don’t really have anything written down, but regarding True and Liam, I mean, just doing the 5000’s was pretty impressive.  When they did that at Christmas, they really drove that. When I talked to them about it, I was really actively discouraging them from doing it, because when I did 3×5000’s, I had been swimming 5000’s for time a lot; that was a regular thing that I did one or two times per season, at least.  And so when I tried to do three in a row, I had done a lot of 5000’s.

Prior to this year, Liam hadn’t swum even a 3000 straight.  They wanted to do it anyway, and Liam made it through 3×5000’s, one of them under 49 minutes.  I think the second one where he was over 49 minutes, he was around 49:05.  For someone that has never even swum one 5000 under 50 minutes, that’s pretty good.  True was a little bit faster than Liam for three, and then he tried to do the fourth one, but the wheels started to come off the wagon a little bit the last 1500, and he just missed making the fourth one. But again, very impressive effort for both of them.

In terms of the day-to-day stuff, they’ve done some really good work on various sets, and I’m trying to pick out particular times, but I’ll just say that the level of work they did over the course of the season was just really, really high.  I don’t know if you got into this with True at all, but True and I have been going back and forth a bit this year, because he always wants to do more.  I found out a couple of weeks ago or maybe about a month ago that he was actually swimming two more times a week than I knew of on his own.  That is kind of a battle we’ve had; I don’t want you to swim more, I want you to swim what I give you faster.  Him trying to get his head wrapped around that will be ongoing.  But even then, True has had swum some really fast swims.  He can regularly do sets of 300’s where the fastest ones will be getting down under 2:40, and Liam’s right there with him.

And then Grant’s on the other end of the spectrum.  He was over with Tom Kremer a lot [focused more on mid-distance].  Grant is one of those swimmers, where his ability to focus in a training session and in meets is pretty exceptional, and as a result of that ability to focus, I think he doesn’t need to train necessarily as much as someone else . Also, looking at True, he’s a miler, swimming down to the 500, Grant is a 200 guy swimming up, and Liam is somewhere between.

SwimSwam: It makes sense. For a group of guys, as talented as they are, with the goals they have, there needs to be individualization and tweaking things for each guy.  It would be disingenuous to train them all the same.

Jeff: Yeah, exactly.  They’re all three different, just out there and trying to swim to their maximum ability.  I think there’s a lot of intersection, but I don’t want to have a cookie cutter mentality with those guys.  Because at the same time, they’re pretty competitive with each other, especially in the 500.  That’s going to be a battle.  When we were in Texas, and Liam came out third, by a few hundred behind True, he was glad to go 4:12, but he wasn’t happy about being third.

And that’s the thing; I don’t show any favoritism, I’ve explained to the guys along the way that “this guy’s doing this because this is what he needs to do, and this other guy is doing this because this is what he needs”.

SwimSwam: So, I asked the guys this… You had three guys go 4:12 in December. Last year there were only four guys under 4:13 before NCAA’s. This year there are 13. Were you surprised what happened at these other conference meets, and did it change your thinking or planning about NCAA’s?

Jeff: Well, in general, that’s one of those things where you want to be aware of what other people are doing, obviously, and you want to stay competitive, but I think you kind of have to make a general plan and stick with it.  Our plan was to get in and get our cuts done in December.  Now am  I surprised at how many people have swum so fast this year?  Yes, sure, I’m sure everybody is; it’s shaping the 500 to be probably the fastest top eight field that there ever has been at that event.

But there’s been fast swimming in a lot of events.  The 200 is the same.  You look at the 1650, it took under 14:40 to make the top eight, when last year I think Liam went 14:44, and he was 5th.  I think what really happens when you have guys that are really, really competitive, when they see those times, the competitiveness just takes over.  I think that was definitely part of what happened with Grant’s 500 at Pac-12’s. He just he really got himself up for that swim.

SwimSwam: Were you expecting a 4:10 from Grant?

Jeff: I was not expecting a 4:10.  Not at all.  That’s the way Grant is, he has an ability to really elevate his game, regardless of whatever the background circumstances might be.  And what’s he going to go at NCAA’s, I don’t know.

And, you know, the other guys know that they have to come in and get it done in the morning.  That prelim swim on Thursday morning is going to be really tough; there are going to be some very fast swimmers that might even be capable of winning the event that are going to end up in consoles.

SwimSwam: How does your experience at Indiana compare to what you’ve had in your first year at Stanford?

Jeff: Well at Indiana, I was an assistant coach, and the extent to which I was writing an entire program for swimmers was somewhat limited.  So here, I have had 12 guys in my group that I’m handling here, and that’s been a big step up.  Of course, that was part of the intent, that’s why I came out here to this.  It’s been a lot of fun, and we’ve had a tremendous amount of success.

SwimSwam: Were there any difference in managing a co-ed program at Indiana with a larger group of swimmers?

Jeff: Oh yeah, it’s definitely a lot different.  It’s challenging.  Coaching a single-sex program is more simplified.  With a co-ed team, for example, you’re leaving for a conference meet, and then you leave swimmers behind, you leave for an NCAA meet, and you leave swimmers behind again.  And I think that’s always been one of the issues with combined programs.  Generally, we had things pretty set, and I leaned more on the women’s side of things, but by the time I was done there, we have recruited a pretty big group of milers, so I always managed to go to the men’s conference meets, as well.

SwimSwam: Do you want to be a head college coach someday? Is that a goal for you?

Jeff: Well, of course <laughs>. I definitely would want to at some point.

SwimSwam: I asked the guys this question: are you anticipating somebody breaking the NCAA record in the 500 this year?

Jeff: I would say, yeah, it’s definitely in jeopardy.  I mean, you’ve got Clark Smith, Townley Haas, Felix Auboeck… I would anticipate there’s going to be a couple of guys under 4:10 in the morning, and it’s entirely possible that you might have to go 4:11 to make finals.  All it would take for that to happen is if the first circle-seeded heat goes off, and somebody goes 4:10-low, and second place is at 4:10.8, maybe third is 4:11.5.  If the first seeded heat goes like that, then the second heat knows that if they want to be sure that they’re in, they can’t get worse than second in their heat. Suddenly you’ve got guys putting themselves out a lot more in the morning to make sure that they’re in.  And, personally, I never really wanted to swim in lane 1 or lane 8, too.

SwimSwam: Last question: I know NCAA’s is the focus right now, but has long course been on these guys’ minds at all? You have a couple Trials finalists, who, coming off an Olympic year with people retiring or still ramping up, have a good chance next summer.

Jeff: Yeah.  We’ve already talked about the long course season.  I mean, True is going up to Colorado Springs straight out of NCAA’s.  Grant and Liam are going to take about a week off and then we’ll be back at it.  Because, you know, not only is there World Championships, there’s also University Games in Taiwan.  We have a few people that you would say are in contention for Worlds; Grant, True, and Abrahm Devine I think all are in the conversation.  And then I’ve got another set of guys that have a legitimate shot at making student games.  I want guys to train really hard in the spring, and when you have a good goal like that, it makes it easier.  And if the Junior Worlds team is also a priority over University Games, then that makes it even easier (not that is easy).

I talk about it with pretty much everybody that I train this year, because there’s really not anybody in my group that doesn’t at least have an outside chance of making University Games.  That’s the kind of thing that I like to keep them going; I think you have to remind swimmers about those sorts of things and keep them dialed in.  I even have guys like James Murphy, who didn’t make NCAA after getting pneumonia while he was home at Christmas; he could be a really good long course 200 freestyler, and we definitely want to work on it this spring.  And if you can weasel your way into a console of Nationals, you might end up on a World Games team.

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5 years ago

Great article! Thanks Morgan for the interview. Now can we have the interview with Ted and how he plans to return Stanford to former glory, about recruits top sprinters and breaststrokers, etc?

5 years ago

just wondering – why were there no “pre-interviews” for the women’s championship?

5 years ago

Great interview. Kostoff was a legend in the 80s. I was surprised to read the suggestion that some random athletic dept. administrator decides who gets interview/hired for asst. swim coach jobs. Wouldn’t the head coach have a pretty significant influence over the process?

5 years ago

Great interview Morgan!

About Morgan Priestley

Morgan Priestley

A Stanford University and Birmingham, Michigan native, Morgan Priestley started writing for SwimSwam in February 2013 on a whim, and is loving that his tendency to follow and over-analyze swim results can finally be put to good use. Morgan swam competitively for 15+ years, primarily excelling in the mid-distance freestyles. While …

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