Sept. 17, 2013
By Pete LaFleur (’90)
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
This popular saying – which references one of track and field’s signature events – has been adapted over the years to apply to various topics and situations, both within the sporting world and beyond it.
Fans of a Major League baseball team that struggles out of the gate will be quick to remind anyone willing to listen to their metaphoric reassurance: “It’s a marathon … .” Same goes for financial experts when discussing common reasons that startup companies fail. Others have affixed the cliche to drawn-out political races or have used the six-word sequence for inspiration while dealing with a loved one’s serious illness.
For longtime Notre Dame women’s cross country head coach Tim Connelly, this popular catchphrase is a simple, but fitting, depiction of his general coaching philosophies, along with his reserved, seemingly understated personality.
Never mind that NCAA track meets don’t actually contest the marathon – that misses the point. Sports cliches too often are forced, but in this case it fits like a glove. For a veteran coach who meticulously plans out individualized training routines for each of his runners, it fits. For a coach who staggers the fall cross country competition in deference to a deeper focus on the impending track and field seasons, it fits. And for a coach who takes into account an elite runner’s promise for a postgraduate career, while handling her time as Notre Dame with special care, it fits.
For Tim Connelly – who ironically has run only one marathon in his life and found such little enjoyment in the experience that he never bothered repeating it – the maxim still holds true: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Connelly is embarking on his 26th season as head coach of the Notre Dame women’s cross country program, while also serving since 1988 as an assistant with Joe Piane’s Irish track and field program – initially with the men’s sprinters and then middle-distance runners, before directing the women’s distance and middle-distance runners since 1994 (when Notre Dame added a varsity women’s track team). The 1983 ND graduate actually has spent a total of 33 seasons as a member of the Irish cross country/track and field programs, including four during his own student-athlete career and then three more as a graduate assistant/volunteer during the mid-1990s.
To the casual observer – or even for those who follow college sports fairly closely – it’s likely unclear what exactly a distance running coach does. There are typically no visible “in-game” adjustments or interactions displayed by a distance coach. Spectators rarely get to see such a coach’s personality or tangible impact manifested within the confines of the actual competition.
“Unfortunately, we’re not able to call a timeout when the race gets off to a bad start – I’ve often wished that we could,” jokes Connelly.
That’s why the detailed preparation phases – the goal-setting, workout planning and team-building – take on even greater importance for any serious collegiate distance running team. It’s such a core concept of preparation that sets the foundation for any program aspiring to greatness.
“If You Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail”
In the days leading up to a typical Notre Dame cross country event, Connelly tailors a race plan for each runner, with pre-event pep talks including reminders about broader team goals. “Those talks revolve around having the confidence and faith in yourself and your training, in order to allow yourself to go out and compete at your very best,” says Connelly, whose distance runners helped the Notre Dame women win 2013 BIG EAST team titles at both the indoor and outdoor conference track and field championships.
The group talk always occurs prior to the team warming up. Connelly then stays nearby during the warmup phase, while maintaining a discernible distance – both literally and figuratively.
“During warmup, I stay out of their way and let the runners focus on what they need to do to race well,” adds Connelly. “I’m definitely not in their faces prior to any race. If I have done my job, they are ready to go.”
In terms of longer-range preparation, Connelly similarly maps out individualized plans for each runner while always keeping a keen eye on long-term goals and health safety. During the summer months, the Irish coach plots out the entire cross country season, allowing each runner to know her expected running volume.
“I have improved the most as a coach by being more willing to make adjustments, basically becoming more of a pragmatist,” admits Connelly. “I focus on making the experience better for each individual, rather than trying to make everyone fit into one system.
“Ultimately, my job as a coach is to get each individual to reach her full potential.”
Former team member and multiple All-American Stephanie Madia notes that Connelly crafts “workouts that allow his athletes to push themselves, but he always is careful not to burn out the women that run for him.” Her longtime close friend and former teammate, 10-time collegiate All-American Molly Huddle, concurs.
“Coach Connelly’s philosophy allowed intense workouts but above all kept us healthy and he would err on the side of conservative training,” says Huddle. “Injury rates are high on all women’s cross country teams, so he knew he had to focus on our health and athleticism to avoid the overuse problems and keep us running a long time.
“We saw four-year improvements in girls who came into the program not so serious about running and ended as multi-time All-Americans. That all was part of the gradual improvement process.”
“Slow and Steady Wins the Race”
Connelly notes that most observers don’t appreciate the unique relationship that the fall cross country season has in relation to the indoor and outdoor track seasons (held in winter and spring). Outdoor track and field is the final NCAA championship contested each year, stretching into mid-June, when most college campuses have slowed to a crawl.
“Of course we want to be really good in cross country, but we can’t put all of eggs into that basket,” says Connelly. “It’s very important that we also are preparing our runners for the upcoming track seasons. We can’t go all out in the fall, when we still will have running to do until June.
“It is very difficult for a college runner to compete consistently from September until June,” adds Connelly, noting that Notre Dame intentionally staggers its cross country competition. “If you’re not careful, the competitive grind can be very hard on the runners, physically and mentally. We also don’t want racing to become monotonous. We want the competitions to be consistently fun ones that include specific goals.”
Notre Dame’s staggered and limited cross country competition schedule also allows for proper training time. “If you have a weekly cycle of racing and then recovering from each race, the runners are not getting their proper training – and that’s something you have to do in the fall in order to do well in spring, it’s just a physiological truth,” says Connelly.
Notre Dame’s strategic approach to distance competition over the nine-month academic year takes on even greater value for those looking to maintain the potential for a promising career beyond the college ranks. Exhibit A clearly is Huddle, who quickly credits Connelly’s careful handling of her as a key factor to her postgraduate running success.
“Coach Connelly’s job often was to hold me back, because as an overzealous athlete I was injury-prone,” explains Huddle. “He emphasized getting us into the weight room and took a gradual long-term approach to our fitness progression, which is why I think I was able to continue training at a high level beyond college.”
For Connelly, it was a no-brainer that he had been entrusted with a special talent.
“As soon as Molly arrived on campus in the fall of 2002, her tremendous ability was readily evident, so I was really careful with her,” recalls the protective coach. “We could have done a whole lot more with Molly during her career, but we wanted to make sure she wasn’t spent by the time she graduated.”
One example of Connelly’s careful handling of Huddle – and of her immense talent running at multiple distances – was the fact that she focused mostly on the mile, 3K and 5K events while running 10K races only at the BIG EAST Championship meets, helping gain team points. Despite minimal competition experience running at the distance, Huddle won the 2006 BIG EAST 10,000-meter race in the record-setting time of 32:37.87, fastest in the nation during the 2006 college season.
Huddle went on to win the 2006 BIG EAST outdoor 5K and repeated as the BIG EAST Most Outstanding Track Performer. She became the second BIG EAST female runner (first since ’93) ever to win both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the same meet, a double-title feat turned in by only three previous BIG EAST men’s competitors (including Notre Dame’s Jason Rexing in 1996 and Ryan Shay in 2000).
“We knew Molly had a great future and wanted to make sure she developed good lower-end leg speed,” says Connelly. “Molly loved to compete and beat people. She had very high expectations for herself and never was really satisfied. She’s still that way today, that’s a trait inherent in most great athletes.”
Piane – whose four decades at Notre Dame certainly qualify him as an expert commentator when it comes to handling elite athletes – provides his own metaphor when describing such a careful approach.
“As a coach, you have to think of your athletes like they have a tachometer and you want to get them near the red line but not over it,” says the venerable Irish head coach. “The key is to push them to that imaginary red line and not exceed it, and even pull them back when needed. Tim did an exceptional job with Molly Huddle, keeping her away from that `red line,’ and we continue to see the fruits of that careful approach with Molly’s recent international success.”
Three years before her historic double at the BIG EAST meet, as an inexperienced freshman, Huddle had been focusing on the mile/1,500 and 3K distances before embarking on her first collegiate 5K, at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif. It marked the beginning of Huddle’s collegiate dominance at the 5K distance, as the rookie sensation set the American Junior record (15:36), shattering Lauren Fleshman’s mark by nearly 15 seconds and clearing JoAnna Deeter’s school record by almost half a minute.
Oh, and that post-graduate running career for Huddle, how has that turned out? … At a 2010 meet in Belgium, she set the still-standing American record for the 5,000-meters (14:44). Two years later, Huddle reached the 5K final (placing 11th) at the Olympic Games in London. Most recently, she placed sixth in the 5K at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, trailing only runners from the nations of Ethiopia and Kenya (which have dominated the event in recent years). It marked the highest American finish ever in a World Championship women’s 5K.
Connelly’s close colleagues within the college track and field subculture include Providence College head coach Ray Treacy. When Huddle was looking for a coach to guide her postgraduate running career, her trusted college mentor steered her in the right direction.
“Coach Connelly set me up with Coach Treacy, knowing he and his professional women’s crew would be the best fit for my personality and running style. I’m very grateful that Coach Connelly had that vision,” says Huddle.
“Throughout my time at Notre Dame, Coach Connelly was good about facilitating my postseason plans and getting me invaluable experience at the USA Championships. He had the foresight to get me to the Olympic Trials way back in 2004, knowing that I’d be there with bigger intentions some day.”
As with any collegiate sport, recruiting is a key duty for distance running coaches. It comes as no surprise that this phase of the job description is not high on Connelly’s list.
“Recruiting is the thing I like the least” says Connelly, in typical matter-of-fact fashion. “I’m not a natural salesman, I’m more of a teacher.”
Despite recruiting being far down Connelly’s lists of “favorite things,” it nonetheless is an area where the veteran coach has developed a unique and proven formula.
One of the first phases in any recruiting plan is identifying a pool of potential student-athletes who would fit well into the program. Again, for Connelly, this phase of early identification is far more important than relying on hard-sell tactics.
“My basic recruiting approach involves finding kids that really want to be here, as opposed to those we have to convince that they want to be here,” says the longtime Notre Dame coach.
“We obviously are looking at kids that are talented and really good competitors. But I try to find kids where Notre Dame is the right fit for them. Once we get them here to campus, it’s easy for them to see the merits of Notre Dame. The school is incredible in terms of academic excellence, a great campus and a tremendous commitment to the student-athletes from the athletic department.”
With the entire women’s track and field/cross country program having access to the NCAA maximum of 18 scholarships, Connelly is allotted an adequate percentage of those scholarships on an annual basis. Nonetheless, there still is little margin for error in the targeting process that identifies strong candidates to become future Notre Dame distance runners.
Connelly’s approach to identifying certain types of runners has evolved over time.
“I primarily bring in kids who have been top high school milers while also being good in cross country, but not amazing,” says the former collegiate distance runner. “We are looking for kids who have some inherent leg speed to run the 800, 1,500 meters and mile. In most cases, after a couple years in our program, they should develop into pretty decent cross country runners.
“On the flip side, if you were to recruit kids who were specializing in the two-mile during high school, when they get to college they likely would move up to be good 5K or 10K runners but that may not translate into being great cross country runners.”
Over the years, Connelly also has placed an emphasis on recruiting multi-sport high school athletes. He knows a little something extra about multi-sport youngsters, as both of his children have starred in multiple sports during their time at South Bend’s Saint Joseph High School.
“To be a really successful distance runner on the college level, you have to have very good inherent athletic ability,” explains Connelly. “You can’t just have a really good aerobic engine. In order to remain healthy, you have to develop strength, coordination and flexibility.
“When looking at high school prospects, I prefer kids that are really good all-around athletes and did not necessarily spend their whole life doing nothing but running.”
Recent Notre Dame All-America distance runner Rebecca Tracy – who is back on campus as a graduate student and volunteer assistant with the Irish – was just such a versatile youth athlete, having played competitive soccer for many years. Current senior Alexa Aragon has one of the more unique multi-sport backgrounds, as a former youth gymnast who now stars for the Irish in the 800 and 1,500 meters, plus the steeplechase and cross country events.
Aragon’s younger sister Danielle also is a member of the Irish distance squad, while their father Chuck Aragon was a college teammate of Connelly’s and became the first Notre Dame runner ever to post a sub-4:00 mile.
“Alexa is sort of a poster child for our recruiting philosophies because she has so much competitive range,” notes Connelly, in praising the 2013 BIG EAST steeplechase champion. “She is such a tremendous competitor and we know whatever race we put her in, she is going to run her heart out.”
Huddle, it comes as no surprise, met two of Connelly’s “recruiting dream” criteria: she had been a standout miler in high school, clocking a 4:50 as a prep junior, while also lettering in both soccer and basketball at (fittingly) Notre Dame High School, in Elmira, N.Y.
Taking the Road Less Travelled
Most Notre Dame varsity coaching staffs jump all over the chance to bring in recruits for official visits during home football weekends. The excitement and pageantry are viewed as a big selling point and recruits often are on the sidelines prior to the start of the football games, gaining an “up-close and personal” vantage point of one of the campus’s signature happenings: a football Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. These visiting recruits are swallowed up in the festivity, as one of nearly 100,000 people converging on the southwest corner of campus for this annual fall rite of passage.
Notre Dame coaches usually swear by the effectiveness of such football weekend recruiting visits.
Connelly has a different approach.
“I try to avoid football weekends for our recruiting visits,” says the leader of the Notre Dame distance running programs. “It can be so expensive to bring recruits in during those times and it can totally skew their vision of Notre Dame. There are 90,000 people here on campus, when on an average day there are 10,000.
“I prefer to have recruits here for campus visits during the non-home football weekends. It allows them to see the real Notre Dame that they will be experiencing on just about every day of their own college careers.”
Looking back on their own experience within the program, Connelly’s former runners appreciate his unique approach to the timing of recruiting visits.
“Football weekends are fun, but if you have never seen the school before it is overwhelming and I think it makes it harder for the current athletes to get to know and meet the recruits, because everyone is running all over the place,” notes Tracy.
Adds Madia: “Coach Connelly wants his future runners to be prepared by developing an early understanding about the school’s rigorous academic and athletic demands. Notre Dame is a magical place even without the football crowd, and I certainly fell in love after my recruiting visit, even though it was not during a football weekend.”
Madia – a fellow Pittsburgh native who admits she had enhanced compatibility with her college coach, because of his “typical Steel-City characteristics of being an extremely humble, hardworking and faithful man” – initially had no interest in attending Notre Dame, when Connelly made his introductory recruiting call.
“Coach Connelly was patient throughout the recruiting process and continued to show that he not only thought I was a great athlete, but that he cared about me as a person and student,” adds Madia. “He also really lets the University speak for itself. He doesn’t pressure athletes, but he allows them to come and experience the campus for all that it is. That approach certainly worked for impacting my ultimate decision.”
Throughout Notre Dame’s storied athletics history, an elite group of high achievers have combined All-America and Academic All-America honors during their careers. That esteemed group of 63 all-time Notre Dame student-athletes includes five who have competed for Connelly: Alison Klemmer, Lauren King, Madia, Sunni Olding and Tracy.
See You in Five Years …
Huddle’s own recruiting story has an interesting twist, as she first met Connelly while visiting campus for a 1997 football game. Accompanied by her father Robert, who was a middle-distance runner for the Irish in the late 1960s, Huddle was an unknown 8th-grader at the time – but her father promised Connelly that Molly wanted to run at Notre Dame five years down the line.
“Coach Connelly easily could have rolled his eyes and ignored this dad claiming his 12-year-old daughter was ND material because she was ‘almost’ the best runner of a small town,” laughs Huddle, recalling that moment from 16 years ago. “But instead, he was nice enough to humor us and ask me about school, playing other sports, and things like that.
“Five years later, when I was looking at schools, I remembered how nice and hospitable Coach Connelly had been to us.”
Honesty is the Best Policy
Once recruits become active student-athletes within Connelly’s distance running teams, they quickly assimilate into a varsity culture that finds its foundation in honesty, structured training tailored to each individual, hard work, and self-accountability.
Even during the course of a short interview with Connelly, references to honesty and direct talk crop up multiple times. Many comments often are prefaced with phrases such as “To be perfectly honest with you” or “In all honesty” …
The man simply can’t help himself. Honesty is a core part of who he is and how his varsity teams operate.
“I’ve always found it best to just be totally honest with kids,” says the straight shooter. “I tell them I’m not going to sugarcoat things. If the group isn’t working at the level that I expect, they hear about it.
“We’ve developed a very structured program and there are no surprises. Kids come in and know what we are going to do each and every day, and that helps in creating unified expectations.”
Gimme Three Steps
Connelly’s keys for collegiate distance running success, from an individual standpoint, center on three core factors: (1) innate athletic ability; (2) a strong desire to work and train hard; and (3) possibly the most key factor, a love for competition.
“When you look at our distance runners who have been successful over the years, they almost always have all three of those qualities,” says Connelly. “Sometimes you have kids who had great talent but didn’t like to work or didn’t have that competitive drive. And those kids usually did not have the same level of success, that’s a pretty common result.”
Anyone who observes the Notre Dame women’s cross country team for a matter of time will come to realize that the program’s head coach most often is in sync with the team members. Their common bond is adherence to Connelly’s three core areas: talent/performance, work ethic and competitive fire.
“Kids that respond well to me are ones who are already pretty disciplined and self-motivated, they don’t need a lot of that constant in-your-face to be successful,” says Connelly. “They have to possess a lot of self-responsibility.
“As a member of our program, your success or failure depends on you. Someone who is constantly looking for excuses, scapegoats and things like that would not mesh well into our group.”
True to his personality, Connelly typically adopts a trust-based, stand-back approach when it comes to intruding on the lives of his student-athlete.
“The girls on the team know that I have certain expectations about how they live their lives, in terms of taking care of their bodies and overall health, but they also know that I do not to micromanage their lives,” adds Connelly. “I am not checking in on them 24 hours a day, I am treating them as young adults … until any of them prove to me that I can’t.
“Some kids grow up and mature faster than others. The high achievers generally are those who are self-motivated and `get it’ right way.”
Piane notes that Connelly’s “coaching style fits well for coaching women. I don’t think that women respond really well to a coach that is yeller and a screamer. Inevitably, Tim also has assembled a team of individuals who are a good match to him and his program.
“We all recruit kids that we can relate to,” continues Piane. We spend an incredible amount of time with these kids and thy to make addition to the team that will mesh and blend in well with the social network within the group, while being individuals that the coach can blend with.”
Driven by the central goal of “creating an environment where kids come in every day wanting to get better,” Connelly places a large priority on team-based concepts.
“While we make sure that each runner has individual goals, we really don’t talk about them in the team setting,” explains Connelly. “Instead, within the team setting we put all of our focus on the team. We discuss key factors needed for the team to compete on a national level or talk about sacrificing one’s self to win a team championship.”
Many cross country programs around the country may meet formally as a team only three of four days a week, not so with the Irish women’s squad. “The NCAA allows us to meet six days a week and we meet six days a week,” says Connelly.
“Teams that meet fewer times per week usually are training hard on each of those days, so that can take away certain fun team aspects of the process. We have a team environment that is very structured, as opposed to being an individual free-for-all.”
With many members of the team having midweek labs as part of their weekly class schedule, Connelly slots Wednesday as the mandatory NCAA off-day. Runners of course are free to train on their own, but the midweek break also provides a perfect opportunity for recovery (such as low-impact pool training).
“Basic physiology will tell you that it’s a huge benefit to follow up hard training days with quality recovery days,” notes Connelly.
Consistently over the years, Connelly’s runners have developed a strong team dynamic: “It isn’t necessarily that they are all each others best friends, although that tends to be the case, but the most important thing is that the older kids set an example for the younger kids, so that norms develop in terms of how hard we work and how hard we compete.”
The women’s cross country even has developed a recent tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving together during Fall Break, which typically falls during mid-October. The tradition started several years ago, when a couple Canadians were on the team (Canada celebrates its Thanksgiving closer to the ND fall break).
“It might seem like a little thing, but it’s an important part of the team continuity when traditions are handed down like that from year to year,” says Connelly.
Fantastic Four-Year Run
The careers of classmates Huddle and Madia corresponded with an impressive run by Connelly’s cross country program, as the Irish finished in the top-10 at the NCAA Championship each of those seasons (2002-05). Most notably, the 2002 team registered a program-best, third-place finish while the 2004 squad placed fourth.
A pair of future three-time cross country All-Americans – Huddle (5th) and Lauren King (14th) – led the Irish with their top-15 finishes at the 2002 NCAA meet, while senior Jennifer Handley, Lori King (no relation to Lauren) and Madia rounded out the historic five-runner contingent.
“That entire 2002 season felt effortless and I was too naive to realize we were all performing better than anyone thought we would or could,” says Huddle.
According to the team members, Connelly’s approach and temperament played a key role in the record-setting 2002 season.
“Coach Connelly was careful to keep us grounded throughout the 2002 season and he made sure we were not distracted by rankings,” says Madia. “He had fostered a very close-knit team environment and knew that we all were passionate and competitive.
“Many times, he sat back and let us dictate the high standards we wanted to achieve. He helped us feel like we could attain anything that we put our minds to.”
Connelly credits Handley with playing a subtle but important role in the successful 2002 season. “As our lone senior in that 2002 group, Jen proved to be a valuable guiding force for the younger kids,” says the three-time NCAA Great Lakes Region Coach of the Year. “Jen was pretty grounded and would not get real worked up about things, so she was a good influence on young kids that could easily have been in awe of their surroundings.”
Notre Dame’s chance to contend for the NCAA title in 2003 was derailed when sickness struck several team members leading up to the championship race. Plenty of obstacles similarly cropped up in 2004, but they failed to trip up a suddenly veteran Irish quintet.
Two and a half weeks in advance of the 2004 NCAA Championship meet, the Notre Dame team was beset with devastating news: Huddle had suffered a broken foot, with no advance warning, during a seemingly innocent workout. The All-American did not run a step for two weeks, ultimately testing the foot during a 10-minute jog a couple days before the NCAA final race.
“Molly told us her foot was fine and she was determined to run in the NCAAs,” says Connelly. “Of course, fully healthy she could have pushed for a top-5 individual finish, but it still was amazing that she finished in the top-30. It’s the gutsiest performance I’ve ever seen.”
Madia (15th) and Olding (23rd) led the Irish at the 2004 NCAAs, followed by Kerry Meagher, Huddle and Lauren King (who also had been dealing with her own injury issues).
“That was a group that worked very well together. They pushed each other and each runner was a great inspiration to her teammates,” says Connelly.
“In Coach Connelly’s talk before the 2004 NCAAs, he kept things simple,” recalls Madia. “He told us to believe in ourselves and leave it all out there – he was right in assuming that would be enough.”
Adds Huddle: “It always felt good to see Coach Connelly quietly proud of us.”
Meagher’s 24th-place finish helped compensate for the hobbled Huddle and King. A tireless worker and driven competitor, Meagher had hailed from an athletically-oriented family and was yet another of Connelly’s runners over the years who made an impressive surge late in her career.
Madia and Huddle concluded their collegiate cross country careers as members of Notre Dame’s seventh-place team at the 2005 NCAAs. Madia’s third-place finish and time (19:48.4) both were program bests, capping a stellar career that invariably was overshadowed by that of her classmate Huddle.
“I owed so much to Coach Connelly, because he set the bar so high for me,” says Madia. “He helped me believe that I could run with anyone in the country and pushed me every day to make sure I had the training to support it.”
Connelly praises Madia for the three-year captain’s “tremendous leadership and understanding of what we wanted to do as a program from day one of her freshman year – she immediately got it.”
Huddle completed her cross country career at Notre Dame with a third All-America NCAA finish, matching the standard set by her former teammate Lauren King – yet another runner whose excellence often may get overlooked. “Lauren was one of the best competitors I ever coached and was so intense that I think sometimes the other girls on the team were a lit bit afraid of her,” says Connelly.
A Teacher, Yet Always a Student
Despite having a quarter-century of coaching under his belt, Connelly still actively seeks advice from fellow coaches and is an avid reader of sports biographies and leadership books. Over the years, books authored by legendary basketball coaches John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Knight have made a lasting impact on Connelly’s own leadership and team-building philosophies.
“I love reading the words of great coaches and athletes from all spots, not necessarily about about training but also organization, program structure and team dynamics,” says Connelly.
“A common message is to have a plan and not be afraid to follow it, don’t constantly be shifting if things don’t go the right way early in the process.”
Connelly’s postgraduate studies at Syracuse allowed him to better appreciate the physiological aspects inherent in athletics, but he acknowledges that such knowledge is only part of the coaching puzzle.
“You can have a strong science background, but a lot of coaching distance runners ultimately becomes experimentation and understanding what works for individual runners,” says Connelly. “You can’t create a one-size-fits-all setup. The foundational structure of your program needs to remain fairly consistent, but on an individual level it’s silly to think that each individual will respond the same way.
“Particularly in cross country, we are taking some kids with a background in the 800 and 1,500 meters, and some others who are 10,000-meter kids – but now they all are running the same distance. You can’t approach their training the same way, in terms of mileage and volume.”
Connelly says he always is eager to “pick the brain” of fellow distance coaches, looking to glean new ideas and keys to success. His closest colleagues for trading ideas over the years have included the likes of former Georgetown head coach Ron Helmer (who now directs the cross country and track and field teams at Indiana University), along with Michigan women’s cross country coach Mike McGuire and Providence’s head coach Treacy.
“I always tell people that `running is running’ but it’s also a sport where parts of your coaching approach always are evolving,” says Connelly.
Coach as Father, Father as Coach
During his two years at Syracuse, Connelly gained valuable coaching experience while also earning a master’s degree in exercise science. But his most valuable life achievement in central New York came in another realm, as he met his future wife, Donna Southerly, who was an athletic trainer at Syracuse during that time.
One year after Connelly’s return to Notre Dame, the couple was married in the summer of 1989 (Donna had been working in Pittsburgh during the previous year). “I promised her we would only be here four or five years,” quips Connelly.
As the parent of two talented multi-sport athletes, Connelly has gained valuable added perspective, with his experience as a coach impacting his parenting skills, just as his role of parent has helped to make him a better collegiate coach.
Connelly’s oldest child, Ali, is a junior midfielder for the nationally-ranked West Virginia University women’s soccer team, while his son Brendan is a junior at South Bend Saint Joseph High School, where he plays for the varsity basketball team and as the starting safety for the Indians football squad.
“I always tried to have my kids play a wide variety of sports because it was important for them to get those different experiences,” says Connelly.
“We’ve never had any major academic or discipline issues with Ali or Brendan, they both are really good, grounded kids. They are different in many ways but they both are ultra-competitive and very competitive with each other, which really surprised me because they are four years apart.”
Ali Connelly – whose 2013 season recently was cut short by an ACL knee injury – has held a lifelong goal of being an elementary-school teacher, making her college choice all the more ideal as WVU is known for its excellent elementary education program.
“Ali could have gone to a lower-level DI program and received more playing time, but she wanted to go somewhere where they would make her a better player and where she would have to work really hard to get to play,” says the proud papa.
“Ali has kept this lifelong goal of becoming a teacher, but I also think someday she might be a really good coach. Last summer she worked at six or seven soccer camps around the country and she is really good working with kids, teaching them skills. My being a coach may have played some influence in that, but I think it’s more of a reflection of the great teachers she had throughout grade school.”
Growing up as the daughter of a Notre Dame coach, Ali Connelly was a regular at a wide variety of sporting events throughout her youth, fueling her “love for college athletics.”
“My dad’s love for sports naturally spread to me,” says Ali, who helped lead the St. Joseph’s women’s soccer team to a state title, while also competing in basketball and track and field.
“My dad always puts the needs of his family before his own and wants what is best for my brother and me. Even though he’s hundreds of miles away, I know he is always supporting my hopes and dreams.”
Ali Connelly gained a bonus level of support and insight from her father during recent years.
“Having a parent who is a coach has been extremely helpful, especially during the college recruiting period, he knew all the ins and outs and the NCAA rules,” notes the appreciative daughter. “It was helpful to know what kind of information coaches were looking for and the kinds of athletes they were interested in recruiting.
“I know I can always call him with questions about exercises or injuries and he’ll be able to give me good advice. Having that kind of support at home is a resource most athletes don’t have available to them.”
Throughout his coaching career, Connelly says he always has “tried to treat my athletes the way I want my kids to be treated. They doesn’t necessarily mean being nice to them all the time, but being honest with them is the most important thing. Make sure they know exactly what the expectations are and where they stand relative to those expectations.”
In most cases, newcomers to Connelly’s teams arrive as a fairly finished product. “I can see kids that were raised really well by their parents, some that were coddled, you see the whole gamut,” notes Connelly.
“I always tried to make sure that my own kids did not turn into pampered little brats, but instead were kids who had learned how to train hard and compete hard. The reality is that life is a competition and if you don’t know how to compete – whether it’s in business, athletics, academics, whatever – then you are going to get left behind.
“It’s important to me that a lot of the stuff I try to teach my athletes I’m trying to teach to my own kids as well.”
Longtime Coaching Partnership
After completing his college career in the spring of 1983, Connelly accepted an offer from Piane to remain with the program as a graduate assistant coach while working towards an MBA degree. Three years later, during the annual IC4A meet, Piane was visiting with the Syracuse coach at the time, Andy Jugan.
“Andy asked me if I knew of anyone who would want to be a graduate assistant working with distance and I quickly replied, `Yes the guy sitting to my right’ and of course I was pointing to Tim Connelly,” recalls Piane.
“While Tim was in Syracuse, we started up a women’s cross country program here at Notre Dame and I knew Tim wanted to come back some day, so he returned in the fall of 1988 and we’ve been together ever since.”
Piane remembers Tim Connelly the collegiate athlete as being “a very dedicated runner and positive influence on the team, but not all coaches – including myself – were good athletes in our own day.”
“In choosing Tim to lead the women’s program, I knew that his dedication and love for the sport were unquestioned,” adds Piane. “He got along with the athletes when he was a volunteer coach for us and I’d heard good things about what he had done at Syracuse, so it was only natural to bring back a qualified Notre Dame graduate. And he has developed a program structure that he uses quite successfully with our women’s distance and middle-distance runners.”
Connelly’s duties expanded in 1992, when Notre Dame added women’s track and field as a varsity sport. The Irish cross country mentor – who also began having limited scholarship funds at his disposal – now began coaching many of his fall athletes during both the winter and spring seasons, in various distance and middle-distance events.
The turn of the century signaled another landmark transition period for the Notre Dame cross country/track and field programs, in addition to many other varsity sports, following the arrival of the university’s new athletics director Kevin White. A seasoned administrator in college athletics, including several years as a cross country/track coach, White embarked on a process that ultimately made all 26 Notre Dame varsity programs fully-funded for the NCAA’s maximum-allotted scholarships (18 total for women’s cross country/track and field).
“Things really started to take off you our program after the arrival of Kevin White and gaining the full scholarships,” notes Connelly, whose distance runners annually receive a commensurate percentage of the program’s 18 scholarships, along with the sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers and throwers.
Connelly says he always has felt “deep appreciation” for Piane’s willingness to always let the Notre Dame women’s distance coach direct his program in his own way. “Joe has let me coach my athletes from day one and never has tried to interfere,” says Connelly, who lists “competitive spirit” as the most common trait between him and Piane.
In fact, Connelly’s differing personality and organizational structure have proven to be the perfect foil to Piane’s equally successful personae and coaching approach.
“Joe is very outgoing and verbal, he is very good at the schmoozing while of course is important, but I’d just as soon go in my office and do what I want to do,” says the more reserved Connelly.
“I’m more of a detail, task-oriented person and Joe’s more big-picture, but our specific approaches have worked great for each of us.
Piane – who notes that he “didn’t hire any of my assistants for me to do the coaching, I hired them because they all are quality coaches and can handle the responsibility” – is joining Connelly and the other members of his staff in embarking on a new chapter, as most of the Notre Dame varsity team begins their first year of membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
During 16 years as a member of the BIG EAST Conference, Piane and Connelly’s cross country teams waged annual battles with national powers Georgetown, Providence and Villanova for conference supremacy. During one four-year span, Connelly’s women’s team won three BIG EAST titles (2002, ’03 and ’05) while the program’s various top-5 league finishes over the years include Lauren King winning the 2002 BIG EAST individual title.
Unlike most BIG EAST track and field programs – which often focused their scholarship allocations to specific event groups, such as the distance-running powers noted above – Notre Dame’s preference for a more spread-out scholarship allotment led to more consistent success at the league track and field meets. Connelly’s distance and middle-distance runners helped Notre Dame win the 2002, ’06 and ’13 BIG EAST Indoor Track and Field titles, in addition to finishing runner-up five times (the Irish women also were the 2007 and `13BIG EAST Outdoor champion while adding four second-place finishes). Connelly’s runners combined to win 15 total BIG EAST event titles.
“In moving to the ACC, we’ve traded one great cross country conference for another,” observes Connelly. “As far as track and field goes, we steadily have become a program that covers all the bases in terms of being competitive in all events, but the ACC competition will pose a big challenge, as there are more broad-based programs than there were in the BIG EAST.”
Steel-City, Irish-Catholic Roots
Connelly essentially was raised in a Notre Dame “subway alumni” family, living primarily in Pittsburgh South Hills suburbs, namely Mt. Lebanon. His maternal grandparents, Dan and Brigid Carr, were immigrants from Donegal, Ireland. Dan Carr was an electrician who fixed streetcars for 40 years while Brigid did her part as a versatile seamstress.
“My grandparents had no idea where Notre Dame was, they just thought it was the greatest thing going,” laughs Connelly. “We always paid attention to Notre Dame football and were big fans, even though we’d never even been to the campus. A lot of people in Pittsburgh are like that, even now.”
The second of Joe and Marie Connelly’s six children, young Tim was destined to become one of the many from Irish-Catholic backgrounds, hailing from cities such as Pittsburgh, who ultimately end up attending Notre Dame. His high school, a Christian Brothers all-boys school formerly known as South Hills Catholic, later merged to become co-ed St. LaSalle and historically has been a Notre Dame feeder school. Connelly was one of seven in his high school graduating class, of roughly 200, who went on to attend Notre Dame.
Connelly’s mother Marie still lives in the Mt. Lebanon area (Joe Connelly passed away two years ago) and his four younger siblings – including 1994 Notre Dame graduate Michael Connelly – remain residents of the area. Nearly 35 years removed from his high school graduation, the eldest Connelly son remains a big fan of his hometown.
“I love Pittsburgh and we’ve always made sure my kids have gone back there every summer to spend time with their grandparents and cousins,” says the Steel City native.
“A lot of our neighbors were teachers, firemen and policemen, and the high school was right on the border of the city. We’ve always been huge Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins fans, and now even are resurgent Pirates fans.”
A self-described “average basketball player,” Connelly began running competitively somewhat by chance. “Our high school track coach saw me during basketball conditioning and said I might be good at distance running,” recalls Connelly.
“In my mind I was a basketball player, but the reality was that my senior year I was was 5-6 and 120 pounds. And I was an OK runner, not great.”
The “OK runner” ultimately competed at Notre Dame as a walk-on member of the cross country and track and field teams. Notre Dame had been Connelly’s “dream school” and he arrived at the South Bend campus in the fall of 1979, sight unseen but eager to soak in the experience.
Although the majority of Connelly’s recent athletic focus has revolved around distance running, it’s not his first love as far as sports go.
“My goal growing up always was to be a high school basketball coach,” explains Connelly. “Even my first couple years of coaching track at the college level, my plan was that I would probably end up getting a job teaching and coaching basketball, even though I was a business major.
“Some kids grow up wanting to be a doctor or a lawyer. I grew up wanting to be a basketball coach. I thought it would be something I’d be pretty good at.”
Although he never realized that dream of becoming a high school basketball coach, Connelly was able to coach his own children’s grade-school basketball teams, at South Bend’s Christ the King School. “I gained a lot of enjoyment from teaching those kids basic fundamentals and how to compete and play hard, playing hard-nosed defense and pressing,” says the former youth basketball guru.
“During my own childhood, basketball was one of those things you could do all the time. I would train a lot on my own, shooting or working on ballhandling. I still go out in the driveway and shoot baskets sometimes.”
A Lasting Legacy
It’s been more than 34 years since Connelly first set foot on the Notre Dame campus, with no hint whatsoever that South Bend would end up being his home for much longer than a four-year undergraduate stay. Plenty has changed on the Notre Dame campus during those three-plus decades, but there’s also plenty that thankfully has remained the same.
“I think the nature of people at Notre Dame has not changed over the years, and that’s good thing,” explains Connelly. “One thing I’ve always liked about Notre Dame student is that they are academically elite while still generally remaining good, normal kids. Most are not really impressed with themselves, they’re just well-grounded kids.
“That’s what make this place really different from other elite academic schools and that’s the type of student-athletes we hope to add to our program: normal, grounded kids.”
Any coach who truly cares for his student-athletes can’t help but feel good inside when seeing the lasting impact that being a part of his program has left on those individuals. Madia, Huddle and Tracy are just three of the many alums who are eager to convey their appreciation.
“The great successes that we’ve had over the years are a testament to the confidence that coach Connelly had in is, a confidence that we often were lacking in ourselves,” observes Tracy.
“Coach Connelly lives by some simple but foundational philosophies, such as `work hard,’ That message gets manifested in the way the team adds in all the extras to get better at the end of practice, like our `Terrible Tuesday’ ab routine.”
Tracy has been afforded the unique thrill of quickly giving pack to the Notre Dame cross country and track and field programs, in her role as a volunteer assistant. “Sticking around to continue to push the girls and help out is the least I can do for everything that being part of this family has given me,” says the current Notre Dame graduate student.
Huddle’s postgraduate life has been a hectic but personally rewarding one, albeit primarily as an individual competitor who occasionally gets to race for her country.
“Eleven years ago, when I came to Notre Dame I already had a ready made crew of friends who worked hard and had fun together,” says Huddle. “I made lifelong friends with girls that I spent a few hours a day, every day, training with. It was special to have that extra support and motivation that team goals pull out of you.”
Madia, for her part, is quick to point out that Tim Connelly, as a running coach, was “much more than simply a workout planner.”
“For me, coach Connelly was almost like a second father figure, since we both come from Pittsburgh and he shares many similar qualities with my dad,” adds Madia, who in 2006 fittingly received one of the prestigious Byron Kanaley Awards, presented to Notre Dame student who are most exemplary as students and leaders.
“Coach Connelly was tough on me when he thought I could be better, he believed in me when I doubted myself, and most of all he taught me to keep on putting myself out there, because one day all of the hard work would pay off.”
Madia and Huddle show one unique similarity, as each is married to a former distance All-American from the Notre Dame men’s program (Madia to Todd Mobley and Huddle to Kurt Benninger).
In fact, they are not the only former Notre Dame women’s distance greats who have married a fellow member of the track and field program, as Deeter is married to former ND pole vaulter Jesse Masloski. For Huddle, the fact that she and Madia both married fellow distance-running All-Americans is more than a coincidence.
“When we were there, the men’s and women’s track teams had a mutual respect for the culture of hard work and solid performances that each side was producing – and plenty of the credit for that of course goes to Coach Connelly and Coach Piane,” says Huddle.
“Stephanie and I still are best friends today and our cross country squads were full of like-minded, hard-working women. We all still remain very close. Those of us most intense about our sport were brought even closer together.”
Madia and Mobley had a thrill of a lifetime last summer, when they capitalized on the chance to attend the London Olympics and see Huddle run in the 5,000 meters.
“I am continually amazed at how much I had in common with each of my teammates at Notre Dame,” says Madia. “They served as wonderful role models for me and helped me set a standard for what it means to compete at the highest level in athletics and academics, while maintaining a humility and integrity that is unmatched.
“I think Notre Dame attracts people that place humility and integrity at the heart of what they do. Coach Connelly supports this mission in the way he coaches and contributes to the cross country/distance runners family.
“The Notre Dame experience is the foundation around which I have built my adult life. Todd and I cling to the faith that was confirmed and built during our time on campus. And each trip back serves as a renewal and reminder of the priorities we set when we were quite a bit younger and a bit more carefree.”
The search for “things people don’t know about Tim Connelly” was largely a futile exercise. Despite growing up among several boisterous brothers, their older brother Tim lived on the other extreme of vocalization.
“I guess I was the one who always kept my eyes and ears open paying attention to what was going on, but didn’t necessarily say a lot,” says the still quiet, longtime Notre Dame coach.
One nugget that was unearthed is Connelly’s appreciation for country music, from the era/style of Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride and Garth Brooks.
I listen to country music, probably because I’m old and don’t like much of the modern pop stuff on the radio,” explains Connelly, who of course brings even this topic back to sports. “But when I’m in the car or in the office, I’m probably most often listening more to sports talk radio.”
When your humble correspondent embarked on this writing assignment, it was with some degree of trepidation (or was it urgency?) wondering how much content would emerge. I mean, what are you supposed to think when the interview with the main subject includes this zinger?: “I’m pretty boring, just ask my wife” (yes, the only way that quote was getting included was in a convenient epilogue). The writing task had all the makings and appearances of a classic “sprint,” maybe not a 100-meter dash but at least a 200. But it turned into a full-blown marathon (for both the writer and you hardy readers). … Who woulda thunk it?