Wariner's, coach's stories don't match

Special to The Times

EUGENE, Ore. -- It was a shock when Clyde Hart announced five months ago he would no longer be coaching Jeremy Wariner because they couldn't agree on contract terms.

Since 2004, Hart had coached Wariner to an Olympic gold medal, two world titles and an NCAA title for Baylor in the 400 meters. He also coached Michael Johnson -- now Wariner's agent -- to world records at 200 and 400 meters that still stand, as well as an unprecedented Olympic gold double in those events.

And Hart and Wariner were splitting just as Wariner tried to match Johnson's feat of consecutive Olympic medals in the quarter-mile?

Hart says it was an issue of compensation.

Penny-wise and pound-foolish?

When Wariner, 24, was asked in a Saturday news conference whether it might not have been shortsighted to save a few dollars in the Olympic year, the runner gave a dismissive head wag even before his questioner had finished.

"I didn't do it to save a few dollars, to start off with," Warner said. "I did it because I felt like it was the time for a change."

Hart had another view in a telephone interview Monday.

The coach said when Wariner gave him the contract, the runner told Hart that "he wanted me to be his coach." But Hart said the contract terms would have reduced his pay by 50% on both the base and performance-bonus levels.

Wariner's annual income reportedly has topped seven figures the last few years.

"He [Wariner] informed me that it was a business decision, that he needed to take home more money after he paid his taxes, his agent and me," Hart said. "He has to pay his taxes, and he has a long-term deal with his agent, but our deal had always been done on an annual basis."

Hart, 74, who retired as Baylor's head coach in 2005, said Wariner gave him a month to make a choice. The coach said he spoke twice with Wariner's lawyer before turning down the new deal in less than a week.

That Wariner says the primary issue was change seems more than a little disingenuous, given how he described the training regime with his new coach, Michael Ford, who had been an assistant to Hart at Baylor.

"Coach Ford has the same philosophy as coach Hart," Wariner said. "My workouts are exactly the same. Nothing has changed. The only thing changed is my coach."

Another journalist asked why Wariner thought it was a good time to change coaches.

"Coach Hart is getting to the point where he is thinking about retiring," Wariner said. "I just felt like it was time for me to change now instead of waiting a few more years and not knowing what I need then. I need someone to do the same thing [Hart] does, that believes in the same system."

Hart clearly was surprised when told what Wariner had said in the news conference about the reasons for the end of their professional relationship.

"That's his right, to change his mind," Hart said. "But if you didn't want somebody to be your coach, you wouldn't offer them a contract. I have copies of the contract, in case anyone doesn't believe it's true."

Johnson said neither Wariner nor Hart involved him in their discussions to avoid an uncomfortable situation.

"I am close to both of them, and they were both respectful enough and smart enough to know it would make sense to leave me out of that, and I was very thankful for it," Johnson said.

For Wariner, the ultimate question is whether the coaching change will affect his four-year domination of the event.

He has run faster early in the season (43.98) than ever before, and he cruised through the first two rounds of the 400 at the Olympic trials, strolling home first in his Monday semifinal in 44.66 seconds. Wariner needs just to finish in the top three in Thursday's final to make the team.

"Jeremy obviously hasn't missed a beat," Johnson said.

Not exactly. U.S. rival La-Shawn Merritt ran down Wariner, who prides himself on owning the race's final 200 meters, at the June 1 Golden League meet in Berlin. It was only Wariner's fifth loss in 43 pro races at 400 meters.

"The invincibility of Jeremy Wariner is gone," a European TV commentator said during the race broadcast.


But so was his decision to leave Clyde Hart.

No matter what happens in the final four days of the trials, which resume Thursday after two rest days, it is unlikely any race will be more exciting than Monday's men's 800-meter final.

The results delighted another sellout crowd of 16,350 at Hayward Field, with two Oregon Track Club members, Nick Symmonds and Christian Smith, and a rising junior at the University of Oregon, Andrew Wheating, sweeping the Olympic places in a scintillating finish.

Symmonds and Wheating came from far back in the final 150 meters to go 1-2. Smith dived across the line to get third by six hundredths of a second.

"I knew I had to go for it, or I would regret it forever," Smith said.

In the men's 5,000, reigning world champion Bernard Lagat, an Olympic silver medalist for Kenya in 2004, pulled away in the final 150 meters for an easy win.


Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.


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* Schedule: No competition scheduled for today and Wednesday.

* Quote: "I'm going to sleep and stay away from everybody and not speak about my race," Athens 400-meter gold medalist Jeremy Wariner said after winning his semifinal heat in 44.66 seconds and advancing to Thursday's final.

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