Pole vaulting coach Steben raises bar in three-decade career

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“You’re not a fish; it’s not a fishing pole,” Occidental pole vault coach Andy Steben ‘69 says to Lisa Matsukata (senior) immediately after she completes an unsatisfactory vault attempt. Throughout the same two-hour practice, Steben makes other pole vaulting analogies as well as statements with underlying life lessons like, “What seems to be the problem isn’t the problem,” and “I don’t want to know what you tried; I want to know what you did.”

Steben’s 34-year coaching career all started with one phone call from former track and field coach Bill Harvey ‘67.

“I came over and coached a few kids at Oxy once in awhile, just on a one-on-one basis if they asked me to,” Steben said. “I was pretty much busy with my high school [coaching] career until Bill called me.”

Since then, Steben has coached every female pole vaulter who has attended the college. The exclusive list includes Occidental record holder and All-American Kera Bartlett ‘09 and All-American Marisa Omori ‘03.

Steben has also coached elite male competitors such as 1983 Division-III champion, eight-time All-American Doug Porter ‘85 and current Occidental pole vault record holder and three-time All-American Gunnar Miller ‘94.

As a student-athlete at Occidental, Steben vaulted in three National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships, three Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championships, placed fifth in the 1968 Olympic trials and became a three-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) champion.

Steben’s pole vaulting career started when he was in sixth grade. His father, Ralph E. Steben, was a well-known track and field coach in the Midwest who led the Bloom Township High School track and field team of Chicago Heights, Ill. to five consecutive state titles.

Ironically, the one event that Steben’s father was not familiar with was the pole vault.

So Steben said his father decided to teach him and his brother, Dan Steben ‘71, to vault in order to become a better pole vault coach. He also recognized that his two sons — who tried to be hurdlers, sprinters, long jumpers and high jumpers — were not particularly fast or strong. And, according to Steben, his father thought that teaching his sons to vault could potentially earn them college scholarships.

“We were guinea pigs,” Steben said. “So we would watch a lot of film loops with him and just discuss what we were seeing. My dad’s concept of putting us in that event, with an implement to get over an object, really paid off.”

In fact, Steben believes that he would not have been accepted to Occidental if it were not for his vaulting talents. It took Steben time to acclimate academically in his first trimester at the college, but he began to improve in the trimesters to follow.

“The first third of the year I struggled because I had always just kind of cruised through high school. But then I got it,” Steben said.

As a physical education major (roughly the equivalent of a kinesiology major today), Steben was required to take education classes. Initially, teaching was secondary to his other interests, but his experience student-teaching at Wilson Junior High School in El Centro, Calif., exceeded his expectations and launched his career as a history teacher.

“Oxy was really good about if they let you in, they didn’t want you to fail,” Steben said. “I think I’ve had a pretty productive life and done a good job with my teaching career and my coaching career. And none of that would have happened the way it did if I hadn’t come here and been accepted. They lifted me up in a way.”

Steben continues to educate his high school and college athletes in the pole vault and in life, helping them lift themselves above both literal and figurative bars.

Matsukata has internalized Steben’s advice in both areas. Her pole vault career is a product of Steben’s dedication to teaching.

“I pole vaulted once in middle school, but then I quit because I didn’t really enjoy it,” Matsukata said. “Andy was very open to starting me from nothing.”

Steben has also given career advice to Matsukata, who is considering the field of education, just like her coach and mentor.

“He keeps telling me that something that really makes you good at teaching is actually coaching, and vice versa,” Matsukata said.

Early in his tenure as Occidental’s head track and field coach, Rob Bartlett observed the full magnitude of Steben’s dedication to teaching as he watched him from the stands. Bartlett said that he saw UCLA and USC coaches among the many who came to listen to Steben’s assessments of their athletes’ performances.

“It’s funny; I sometimes despair a little bit because we’ll be at a SCIAC meet and Andy ends up coaching everybody,” Bartlett said. “He’ll coach the people we’re trying to beat because he’s such a good guy, and he loves the vault so much, and he doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body. Whoever replaces him will not be able to fill his shoes. It’s that simple.”