ND Cross Country
Sean Carlson promoted to head coaching position
An unlikely ascent is an understatement. Ask Sean Carlson to describe his transition into a powerhouse men’s program, and he’d probably choose the word “wild.”
In his nine years of coaching, Carlson has gone from volunteer to assistant coach and finally, as of this past July, head coach of the Notre Dame men’s cross country squad. Throughout it all, Carlson has built an impressive resume of victories and distinguished himself as a leader in men’s middle distance racing, all while keeping a holistic focus at the center of his approach.
“I think this is a pretty special place to be named a head coach — a place like Notre Dame, it’s a pretty cool experience,” Carlson said. “To be able to lead a men’s cross country team is a pretty cool turnaround.”
Furthermore, the promotion to men’s head coach doesn’t change much in Carlson’s eyes, in part because of his unique approach to both individual and team opponents.
“I’ve been coaching men’s distance for a while now. This title change is more of a reflection of the work that I’ve already been doing,” he said. “I think the big part of my coaching style — you talk about individual and team — is just making sure that those guys know that you love them and making sure that they love this University and this team. I think that shows in their results.”
More specifically, Carlson said that his athletes’ individual successes — such as junior Yared Nuguse’s 1,500-meter national championship run and sophomore Danny Kilrea’s Pan Am championship — is reflective of more than just those performances.
“I think a lot of coaches maybe have a better coaching style for individuals or a better coaching style in a team setting. Maybe they have a strength or weakness with one or the other. I keep them very similar,” Carlson said. “It’s still about the team because they’re representing something bigger than themselves. I think that’s kind of the cool thing about our guys is that they’ve really bought into that team concept, and I think it’s a lot easier to give up when you’re only doing something for yourself. When you’re doing something for something bigger than you and for people that you love and care about, you’re going to give an effort that maybe you didn’t know you had inside you.”
Carlson joined the program near the end of the 2011 season and has consistently contributed to its growth, experiencing a major breakout year this past season. The Irish broke into the rankings for the first time since 2012, even going so far as to earn a top-10 ranking following their four-point conference win over Syracuse. Despite the considerable success he’s enjoyed in contributing to the revival of the program, Carlson insists that the team’s development is about so much more than their physical state.
“This fall, our standards for our program have just risen. I guess it’s not just an expectation of maybe this season, but an expectation for us going into the future in general,” he said.
That marquee year for the program ended in a 14th place finish at the national championship. This strong finish, combined with the impressive roster of runners the team is building, leaves Carlson very optimistic.
“I’d like to think we could do better than we did last year,” he said. “I don’t know that I necessarily want to put a place on it, but our goal is always to improve upon where we were and to keep growing.”
A major contributor to the recent success of the Irish has been impressive recruiting, something Carlson attributes to the good relationship he has with head cross country coach Matt Sparks.
“We’re close personal friends which makes it a lot easier. And obviously we’re close work friends,” Carlson said. “He’s the one that has promoted me into this position, and I think that speaks to our relationship that he has that confidence in himself and me to elevate me to this position. He’s just a great mentor, great friend, great boss and I’m just very fortunate.”
That dynamic has proved crucial as the Irish have managed to land some of the biggest commitments of recent years. The incoming freshmen class includes Jake Renfree, a second-place finisher at Footlocker national, Carter Cheeseman, who finished 31st at the World U-20 meet, and Nick Mota, a premier runner out of Canada.
“I think all three of those guys are really kind of the future of our program,” Carlson said of the young corps. “Take some points and guidance from our upperclassmen and progress. We’ll see if some of them can make the top-seven.”
Those veteran leaders have proven themselves over time and have prompted Carlson to name captains for the first time in his Notre Dame career.
“Anthony Williams and Kevin Silvano are captains on our team, and they’ve really kind of stepped up in their leadership roles over the past season and just made it a really easy decision. I’m really excited about them being more vocal leaders within the team and kind of help us,” Carlson said. “Obviously Danny’s returning as an All-American in cross country, Yared’s returning as a national champ in the 1,500[-meter run]. You’ve got Dylan Jacobs with the high school national champ.”
Carlson’s forward-thinking focus is not unusual for the 2010 graduate of North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. In fact, even when describing the success of this past season as “fun,” Carlson maintains that his team can “keep this rolling.”
But with Carlson at the helm, expectations of progress will extend well beyond race times and places.
“Growing isn’t always necessarily a result. It’s how we do things,” he said. “The goal is to be better than last year and not just from a results standpoint, but everything — our team culture, our bond, our grades and all of those things. I think if you kind of focus on that process and continue to try to be better, results take care of themselves. The national meet will take care of itself if we just focus on being better than we were last year and how we conduct ourselves.”
While results aren’t the only goal Carlson has in mind when developing his team, don’t be mistake — he has every intention of winning.
“Our focus for the meet is our conference and national meet. Obviously, those are the two most important meets of our year,” he said. “This first meet coming up we’re going to try to run some different guys to get some more experience. Maybe some of those more experienced guys that are focusing on the conference and national meets, we might hold a few of them back and let them continue to train. I think this first meet is going to be really important for the future of our program to get some of those younger guys that are still at their developmental process and experience.”