Shortly after Cameron Ford ran his final race at Long Beach State in 2016, he got a call from his former high school coach. Mike Fillipow had spent more than a quarter century at Long Beach Poly, and was coming off his 12th season as head coach of the boys’ cross country program. Fillipow was continuing his efforts to bring one of his former runners back to campus, but this time as his coaching protege.
“I kept bugging him for quite a few years, but he kept saying ‘No, not now,’” Fillipow recalled of his efforts to bring Ford on as an assistant coach. “He wanted to finish his career at Long Beach State before he hopped on. But as soon as he was done with school, he came right over.”
After four seasons as an assistant coach from 2016-19, Ford took over as head coach prior to this season, looking to continue a storied tradition for boys’ cross country.
Fillipow took over the program in 2003 after spending one season as an assistant coach under George Wright, who led the Jackrabbits for 18 years from 1985-2002. The duo actually served as swim coaches together, beginning on Fillipow’s first day at Poly in 1989. More than a decade later, the assistant coaching position for cross country was created for Fillipow, and that helped foster the continued success of Poly’s cross country teams.
“When I took over, George was on quite the run,” Fillipow recalled. “Five CIF Championships in a row, six State appearances, three State Championships, all in a span of six years. And when I took over I thought ‘This is what we do, we go to State every year.’ Boy, was it eye-opening in that first year realizing it’s not guaranteed.”
But Fillipow forged his own path with the program and had tremendous success in his own right. During his 17 years as head coach, Fillipow’s Jackrabbits won 16 Moore League titles, including each of the last 13. They qualified for CIF in every season, and made six appearances at the CIF State meet.
“One of my goals was to grow the program,” Fillipow explained. “When I took over we had about 25-30 kids, now we have 75-80 boys, and that was something I felt very strongly about. With numbers, you’re going to have gems in there that are going to develop. And for the last decade, from 2010-19, using numbers and talent and reputation, we really got things rolling along. I’m super proud of the kids from all of the years, but especially over the last 10 years it’s been a pretty good run.”
Fittingly, both Ford and current assistant coach Eric Riehl were teammates on Fillipow’s first team to qualify for State in 2010. They were also there last season as assistant coaches when Poly made its latest–and final–State appearance under Fillipow. So once it was time to pass the torch to someone else, he didn’t need to look far.
“Early on I knew, if I could choose someone to replace me, he would be the one I’d choose for the program,” said Fillipow of Ford. “Just from when he came into the program his first year of assistant coaching–you can identify coaches, they’re natural. They have a good training philosophy, they’re good with the kids, they have structure and discipline with a little bit of joking in there, and Cameron was all of that.”
A Jackrabbit legacy with first-hand knowledge of the program and lifelong dedication to the school, the position is uniquely suited to Ford. He wasn’t sure of the long-term plan when he took the job, but he said it didn’t take long for him to feel right at home.
“I grew up knowing I was going to Poly already. The entire family, mom and dad both, everybody graduated from Poly,” Ford explained. “It’s a blessing, honestly. You run for the team, stay local knowing that my team could still support me while I was in college, come back because it’s still family, and it was just amazing. I didn’t know if I was going to be into this–it was sort of a ‘giving back’ sort of thing–but immediately, within months, I had the feeling that I belonged here.”
Ford is just the third head coach of the Poly boys’ cross country team since 1985, almost a decade before he was born. He was already knowledgeable of the program’s history, but is seeing it in new ways since taking over as head coach. Ford said that while going through his office, he discovered a note that had been left to Coach Wright from his predecessor back in the ‘80s.
During his time as an assistant, Ford says he was granted more and more control of the program as Fillipow saw his tenure drawing to a close. That has made for an easier transition, along with Fillipow’s continued presence around the program to help out as needed.
After his two predecessors combined for 35 years on the job, it’s only natural to wonder how long Ford might keep hold of the program. It’s still early yet, but Ford says he’s got no plans on leaving his alma mater any time soon.
“It’s definitely a long-term plan, for sure,” he said. “With all the family support and everything, my mother would probably disown me if I let go of this. That’s the closest person I’ve got in my life and she wants me to be happy–and I’m so happy doing this.”