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ND Cross Country

Sparks joins Turner as assistant coach

| Tuesday, September 2, 2014

“It’s been a busy two weeks.”

That just about sums up Matt Sparks’s experience as the new associate head coach of cross country and track and field at Notre Dame so far. And that’s before the Irish have even stepped on the race course.

Sparks was hired by new head coach Alan Turner in mid-August to coach the men’s and women’s cross country programs in the fall and work with the distance runners year-round. Since then, Sparks has had to adjust to his new position on the fly, as preseason workouts began soon after he joined the team.

“Learning the team and what helps the team be successful are really what these two weeks have been about,” Sparks said. “And it will continue that way for a while. … We’re getting more comfortable with each other as the days go by, but there’s still a lot of learning to be done. We know each other’s names.”

His quick move to Notre Dame was aided by his long friendship with Turner, who took over in July after the retirement of longtime coach Joe Piane. Sparks and Turner both competed in track and field for Indiana, with Turner earning All-American accolades in the long jump until 1992 and Sparks serving as cross country team captain from 1995-1996 before graduating in 1997.

While the two rarely crossed paths at Indiana, Sparks said, they became good friends when Turner came to Southern Illinois in 2006. Sparks had already spent two seasons with the Salukis as the coach of the women’s cross country team and distance runners but had recently been promoted to head coach of both the men’s and women’s team. Turner, meanwhile, served as the sprint, hurdles and relays coach.

Together, the two combined to coach 68 Missouri Valley Conference champions, as well as 205 all-conference performers. While there, Sparks said the two assistant coaches also made plans for the future.

“It was one of those things [where] we had always talked about if we could get together and work together again, we both [would like that],” Sparks said. “There was a mutual respect there, and that’s where things got started.”

Sparks leaves Southern Illinois after 12 seasons there, coaching four All-American athletes. He was named MVC coach of the year in cross country four times but said he jumped at the offer to come to Notre Dame.

“I was content and happy at Southern Illinois, but there are a few places in the country that when they come ask, ‘Do you want to work for us,’ you don’t say no,” Sparks said. “Notre Dame is one of those places.”

Although Sparks has coached eight teams that placed in the top 25 at the NCAA championship, he said the expectations are even higher at Notre Dame.

“We can be nationally competitive on both sides,” Sparks said. “We have to train to be on par with the nationally competitive teams. So the intensity of some of the workouts is going to go up from what I’m accustomed to, and the volume that the athletes are running is going to be more. But the nice thing is that the kids on the team prepared that way all summer, so it’s not a shock to them to be asked to do more than they’ve ever done.”

Sparks takes over a team that has advanced to the NCAA championship on both the men’s and women’s side for three straight seasons. The women return five of seven varsity runners last season, while the men bring back three. Both teams placed in the bottom third of the 31 teams at the NCAA championship after earning at-large berths into the meet. The Irish have no intention of backing off from last year’s standard, Sparks said.

“The goal is always going to be to make it to the national [championship],” he said. “That’s the first and foremost thing. After we get to know each other better and get into the heat of competition in October, we can set specifics on what spot we want to be.”

Sparks and the Irish begin their season Friday at the Crusader Invitational in Valparaiso, Ind.

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

Contact Greg