March 16, 2015

Note: This is the fifthin a series of five features profiling the assistant coaches of the University of Notre Dame track & field program.

Juggling coaching both men’s and women’s cross country squads is no easy feat at the Division I level.

The University of Notre Dame’s new associate head coach for cross country and track & field not only manages it, he conquers it.

In his first year in South Bend in 2014-15, Matt Sparks coached the women’s cross country team to a 29th-place finish in the NCAA Championships after losing a handful of key contributors from last year and saw Notre Dame’s first All-American since 2009. Molly Seidel finished 19th overall, a one-minute and 152-place improvement from last year’s race. Seidel went on to finish sixth in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA DI Indoor Track and Field Championships on Friday, once again earning All-America status.

The men’s squad was young, but junior Michael Clevenger represented the Irish team individually, finishing 92nd overall.

“The first two or three weeks were awkward because I walked through the same door they did,” Sparks said. “I was essentially a freshman like a few kids on the team were so that made things a little complicated at first, but once we started the season, things started to gel and we got to know each other a lot better in the more competitive part of the season.”

Sparks spent the last 12 years at Southern Illinois and left the program as its winningest cross country coach. Under his tutelage, the Salukis captured six Missouri Valley Conference crowns, including men’s titles in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2012 and 2013 and a women’s title in 2013 (the first for the Saluki women in 21 seasons).

“I was really proud of the men’s and women’s cross country team [when] they were Missouri Conference Champions in 2013,” Sparks said. “The first time that had happened in 30 years with a team where both squads were coached by the same person.”

Across both cross country and track, Sparks coached 51 MVC event champions, 140 all-MVC performers, 127 MVC scholar-athletes and 10 NCAA event finals qualifiers. The MVC named Sparks its cross country coach of the year in 2007, 2008, 2012 and 2013. He coached eight teams to NCAA Championship top-25 finishes, including the 2010 Saluki women’s team that claimed ninth place at the outdoor national championships.

“I needed someone to run the distance side for men and women, and I needed someone with experience, someone that I could trust, because with me becoming head coach and taking on new duties, I didn’t want to micromanage,” head coach Alan Turner said. “Matt certainly fit the bill for that and he’s already paying the dividends for that. Runners who weren’t good last year are running well now. I contribute that to Sparks.

“He’s been a valuable asset to the team.”

Turner and Sparks have known each for quite some time before coaching together at Notre Dame. Both are Indiana University alums, so they’ve crossed paths. They really got to know each other, however, at Southern Illinois, working five years together as assistant coaches.

When Turner left Southern Illinois for Notre Dame, Sparks joked saying if there was ever an opening at Notre Dame to let him know.

They kept in touch over the years, and when Turner needed a distance coach, he knew exactly who to call.

Notre Dame was the dream job for Sparks, not only for the quality of student-athletes he coaches or the legacy of the university’s athletic tradition, but because it is just a few hours from his hometown of Noblesville, Indiana. That and the opportunity to coach DI national champions.

“I can consistently compete on a national level with an entire team,” Sparks said.

The type of student-athlete Notre Dame attracts also drew Sparks to the program.

“The kids are unique. They are focused on everything that they do. It makes my job easy. I don’t have to remind them to take care of the details to be successful; they do that themselves,” he said. “It allows me to focus on the X’s and O’s of coaching. The biggest obstacle to telling them to run less, sleep more, put your books down and relax a bit and take care of your body.”

Sparks also works hard on the recruiting side of things. He starts by trying to get a recruit on campus as many times as possible starting in the summer of a prospect’s senior year.

“Once you get a kid on [Notre Dame’s] campus, it sells itself.”

Sparks then tries to get them back in the fall and spend as much time with the team as possible so they can get a feel of the culture.

“It’s all about the human connection,” he said. “The recruit and the coach have to mesh throughout the recruiting process because the team will often take on the personality of the coach.”

And being the new guy on the block, so to speak, Sparks has the task of learning the personalities of his new runners and trying to find the events each of them will excel best in.

“That’s one thing I’m striving to do is be a more efficient coach with both genders, and try to spread my time evenly with both directions and work both teams to the top of their conference or national ranks,” Sparks said. “Once we learn more about each other, that’s when the performances on the track will happen.”

Sparks aims to keep improving upon what the teams previously have done on the national level.

“We would love to challenge for conference titles,” he said. “We set big team goals and then everything else falls into place.”

Sparks is a 1997 Indiana graduate with a degree in science education. He also earned a master’s degree from Indiana in 1999 in applied sports sciences.

A standout student-athlete at Indiana, Sparks competed in cross country and ran the 3,000-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter events in track, as well as the marathon. He served as the Hoosier team captain in cross country as both a junior and senior in 1995 and 1996, as well as in track & field as a senior in 1997. Indiana selected him as its 1996 cross country MVP, and he helped the Hoosier distance medley relay squad finish as the 1994 Big Ten Conference runner-up.

Prior to his tenure at Southern Illinois, Sparks spent two years (2000-01 and 2001-02) as an assistant track and field coach at Ohio State and served three years (1997-98 to 1999-2000) on the Indiana University track and field staff, working as a volunteer assistant, graduate assistant and then an assistant coach while also handling duties as executive director of the Indiana Track Club, the largest track club in the state.

By Staci Gasser