Someday, one hopes someday soon, college athletics will return to pre-pandemic levels.
When that day comes, Franks Munene wants to help athletes be ready for whatever opportunities arise.
Munene is a native of Kenya who came to the U.S. as a distance runner in the mid-1970s. After an outstanding career at UTEP, he made his home in El Paso and has coached hundreds of young athletes.
Megan Hetzel, an El Pasoan who trained with Munene as a teen, went on to a collegiate running career at Lehigh.
“(Munene is) the man who started it all,” Hetzel wrote for Runner’s World magazine in 2014. “Sparked a lifelong passion. Made me the runner I am today.”
In recent years, Munene has established a program, based in El Paso but intended to extend to New Mexico and nationwide, to help athletes reach their potential. In particular, he’s seeking to help athletes who were unable to get college scholarships out of high school.
As a running coach, he’s focused mostly, but not exclusively, on track-and-field athletes.
Whether the obstacle to earning that scholarship was injury, academic deficiencies or simply times, heights or distances that weren’t quite good enough, Munene believes his program can provide answers.
“Those were the issues initially I was looking at, because in my program I see them all the time,” he said in a phone interview.
Over the past four decades, Munene said, he’s formed relationships with college track-and-field coaches at all levels and knows what they’re looking for.
“Meanwhile, when the athletes are training, I’m looking at what is their area of interest (athletically),” he said. “Then of course I look at their area of interest as a student. Then of course I look at kind of match-making, looking at which university would be most compatible for them.
“Then I pick up the phone and call the coach. I say, ‘OK, this is (the athlete) I have here … he’s interested in coming into your program.’ This is the best news a university coach can dream of hearing.”
Munene said the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down college track and field in spring 2020, has tightened budgets and reduced scholarship opportunities. That’s all the more reason, he said, why a program like his is needed.
“The kids who were looking to be seen by university coaches, either at the district level or the regional level or … when they went to state, most of that was just thrown out,” he said. “So that was a big blow.
“Also, universities have lost a lot of funding. Nationwide, several universities have dropped their entire athletic department, all of their sports. Others have cut back.”
That means, he said, that it’s even more incumbent on young track athletes to improve their marks and, if needed, their academics.
If athletes need academic credits, he said, he would encourage enrollment at El Paso Community College, a two-year school.
“They can either attend classes or they can take classes online, if they want,” he said. But, he said, if the athletes’ academics are in order, “They don’t have to.”
Munene said that, when coronavirus concerns and regulations permit, he’ll stage competitions of his own and invite college coaches to attend. He said athletes in his program likely would be able to compete unattached in college meets, provided those meets are invitationals and not competitive team events.
Munene said he has six- 12- and 18-month programs, depending on what an athlete needs and/or desires. He said he’s charging $125 a month, which he said is far less than fees charged by collegiate scouting services that don’t offer any coaching.
Most enrollees in his program, he said, likely would live in or near El Paso. For those who come from elsewhere, he said he’s talked to property-management companies in the El Paso area.
“We have an arrangement where we can have a home with three or four bedrooms and a kitchen for either guys or girls where they can split their rent,” he said.”
In some cases, he said, “(Parents) want their kid to just come here, and they can afford to do that.”
His program is not limited to track and field, he said, because his coaching can benefit athletes in other sports.
“I use (track and field) as a conditioning base,” he said. “… Because the bottom line is that in any sport the only way you’re going to be successful is to be in a heck of a good shape.”