More Than A Leader
This feature originally appeared in the 2022 Summer edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to CalAthleticsFund@berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-2427.
"What really sold me on Coach Mo," says Malik McMorris, "was the second time that we met in person."
McMorris, a California track & field and football alumnus with a ready smile and an easy cadence of speech, refers to an incident from seven years prior, at the 2015 CIF State Championships. Despite entering the discus competition favored to win the title, the Mater Dei High School senior produced what he felt was a subpar outing to finish as runner-up, after which he saw his soon-to-be college coach - Cal's Mohamad Saatara - approach him.
"I was embarrassed to greet him after finishing second," McMorris admits, "but what he had to say to me showed me so much about who he is and the type of relationship that we were going to have."
Much to McMorris' surprise, Saatara congratulated him on his performance. "Everything that he had to say to me was the exact opposite of what I was feeling at that moment," McMorris says. "During a time of disappointment, he built me up. I felt the excitement of him wanting me to be a part of the Cal throws family."
A mild late-afternoon breeze gently moves through Edwards Stadium as three of Cal's NCAA qualifiers take to the circle again and again as part of their afternoon practice session, launching ball-and-chain hammers to seemingly impossible distances. Even with the national championships looming, nobody seems particularly nervous or unconfident.
Clad in sunglasses, short sleeves and sweatpants, Saatara perches upon a well-worn stool behind the hammer cage before springing up from the stool to give a piece of advice to one young athlete who has just emerged from the cage. Their exchange is quick – only a few seconds – and Saatara returns to recline on a folding chair, one foot up on the adjacent seat as he squints at his phone.
A few seconds later, Cal star and Olympian Camryn Rogers wanders over and takes the opportunity to gently place Saatara's favorite blue ballcap on his head.
It's wildly askew. "That looks great," Rogers says, satisfied.
The ease with which Saatara's athletes interact with him is universal across the entire throws squad, who refer to themselves as "Mo's Kids" – from the highest-performing senior to the newly arrived freshman still finding his or her place on campus. The Cal throws environment is one that is in turns motivational, competitive and playful; it is a culture that Saatara has developed over decades of coaching, inspired by his own college coaches.
"I talk to them regularly for inspiration and knowledge," he says. "My junior college coach, Lloyd Higgins, was and is a father figure to me – he showed me what a huge difference a caring and dedicated coach can make in an athlete's life. My coach at Cal State LA, Don Babbitt, taught me about the critical aspects and science of developing high performance in athletes. I have been very fortunate to know many of the great masters of the throwing events – they have all influenced me in my career."
A former Division II runner-up in the hammer throw, Saatara originally targeted a career in the medical field but found that he was much more interested in bringing the best out of young athletes.
"He's a wealth of knowledge, honestly," says Josh Johnson, a former walk-on-turned conference shot put champion. "He knows a lot about… a lot."
Saatara first brought that knowledge to Cal in 2013 after building an impressive resume at Cal State LA, Northern Arizona and Michigan. Since then, many of his athletes have reached the Olympics and World Championships in addition to setting multiple NCAA and school records.
When asked to describe his coaching style, several of Saatara's protégés immediately respond with the words "intense" and "detail-oriented".
"The first time I met him," recalls sophomore Michael Gupta, "he immediately started going into the details of throwing and what we're going to do at Cal. He's focused on doing great work – focused on a mission, a goal, an objective."
That objective, says Saatara, is to make his athletes feel confident in their own abilities. To do so, he uses an individualized style of coaching that addresses each athlete's particular strengths and weaknesses. "I want them to be able to find their own styles within the biomechanical framework of each event," he explains. "I look at results and data from each of their competitions and training sessions, and develop their future training from there.
"Coaching is very organic and evolving," he concludes. "You have to constantly build your knowledge base and provide your athletes with the best and most accurate instructions."
On the track, Saatara is direct and passionate about his job. Off the track, another side of him emerges.
"He's a very funny dude, likes to joke around," remarks Johnson.
"That man lives his best life every day," McMorris adds.
One only has to observe one hotel breakfast prior to the 2022 Pac-12 Championships to understand, as thrower Sara Pettinger regales anyone within earshot about a time when Saatara very seriously informed her that she was "the only freshman who doesn't call (him) 'Coach Saatara.'"
Saatara chuckles gleefully over his eggs as everyone else at the table rolls their eyes. "Come on, Coach Mo," laughs another freshman.
More prevalent than even his mischievous side, however, is Saatara's kindness and genuine care for the people around him. "He's a super nice guy," says Gupta. "He's genuinely interested in our lives – he'll ask me about the classes I'm taking, even though he doesn't have much context about my major."
His concern for the academic well-being of his student-athletes can lead to some less-than-ideal conversations, recalls McMorris, who credits Saatara for inspiring him to turn his grades around enough that he received Cal's Joseph M. Kavanagh Award three years later as the university's most academically improved student-
"I'm thankful that he cared enough about me and my future to set me straight," McMorris says. "I wasn't attacking the classroom the same way that I was attacking my athletic endeavors – Coach Mo sat down and really opened my eyes to the seriousness of what I had gotten myself into."
The affection and trust that "Mo's Kids" have for Saatara is unmistakable, fostered by the love and support that he shows them in turn. "Each of them is an exceptional person and competitor in their own right," he says. "It's not just about amazing performances and records, although I have been extremely blessed and fortunate to have been involved with many of those."
It takes some of the most talented athletes to achieve those successes, certainly, but Saatara's presence at the helm of the throws program – and the environment that he carefully cultivates – perhaps has more to do with it than anything else.
"I really believe that teams have seen the way we love each other, motivate each other, laugh with each other, and they try to adopt that," says McMorris. "You never stop being a part of 'Mo's Kids.' He's the best in all of college – it was an honor to be coached by him."