July 8, 2018
By John Heisler
The old-school, yellow school bus bounced purposefully along the Indiana roads, on its way to another must-see edition of Hoosier Hysteria.
Seated in one of the back rows of the bus for many years was young Matt Sparks.
That made sense because Matt’s dad, Jim, was the assistant boys basketball coach at Clinton Central High School (in Michigantown, Indiana), then head coach at Cambridge City (Indiana) High School and finally an assistant for 16 years at Noblesville (Indiana) High School.
While his father was forever trying to figure out how to defeat rivals such as Carmel High School and plenty of other basketball-mad high schools surrounding the general Indianapolis region, Matt—mostly unbeknownst to those around him--was compiling his own set of mental notes.
“I spent every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night at games at the gym,” says Sparks with a wistful grin. “I guess I got the coaching itch walking from elementary school to the high school to watch basketball practice when I was 9 years old. Then, in middle school and high school I’d go with my dad to scout our opponents.”
Now, all that preparation has come full circle.
After observing his dad toil in the “family business” and then competing and coaching with a handful of Hall of Fame coaches in the track and field and cross country arena, Matt Sparks officially began putting all those learned lessons to good use Friday when he was named the University of Notre Dame’s new head coach for the Irish men’s and women’s cross country and track and field program.
While Sparks came to realize his personal athletic future lie as a runner and not as a basketball player (as most Indiana-raised kids in those days assumed), his early exposure to what coaching was all about came during a decade when he did not miss a single one of his dad’s Noblesville High School games. He played three years of high school basketball before admitting he was a much better runner.
“The thing I would take from that (watching his father work) is how you prepare for those big
events,” says Sparks. “Having those basketball games week in and week out kind of built toward the championship season, much like cross country and track do.
“It was about just seeing the meticulous nature in which my dad and the entire coaching staff came together to come up with a game plan that was going to work for the team to be successful each Friday or Saturday. But more importantly for them was Indiana state tournament time.
“Then I went to college at Indiana University and ran for Sam Bell, a Hall of Fame coach
who took that same kind of philosophy of building throughout the year to be successful into running.
“I took that meticulous commitment that I learned from the basketball community and when I got serious about running I took that same commitment to my sport as an athlete myself at the collegiate level. We had a teammate at Indiana--Bob Kennedy who was a two-time Olympian and American record holder in the 1990s in the 5K. I saw the way he prepared, just like we did in basketball.”
Sparks vividly recalls playing powerful Anderson High School basketball teams in the Wigwam in Anderson—and also matching up against (eventual North Carolina standout) Eric Montross and (Indiana signee) Todd Leary at Lawrence North.
“That’s just me getting old and nostalgic, but I think back to those times and playing in front of 10,000 people in the Anderson gym in the regional basketball championship,” he says.
“I thought that was the highest level of stress and anxiety in sport you could ever imagine. Then I found ways to transition that to running. If I could play basketball in front of 10,000 people surely I could run a mile in front of 500 people at a meet. I took a lot from that environment--how you commit to something and build toward the next level and then the next and the day-in, day-out, throughout-the-summer commitment.”
Sparks saw that same commitment with his college track and field program, started to tie those things together and decided he wanted to be a high school teacher.
“All through college I was going to be a high school basketball coach,” he says.
It might have translated to another chapter of that Hoosier Hysteria. But, as his college track career wound down Sparks talked to Bell about finding a way to stay in Bloomington.
“He just happened to have an assistant coach position available,” Sparks says. “Coach Bell retired in the middle of those three years I spent there, so I got to see a couple of different ways of coaching cross country and track.
“Coach Bell was old school and very meticulous about the way he did things. It was work
hard, work hard all the time. Then came the transition in 1998 when Coach Bell retired to a distance coach in Robert Chapman. Chapman is now the associate director of sports science and medicine for USA Track and Field.
“So I went from the old school track and field world to implementing science in running. Balancing those things is what I've worked toward the last 20 years. You still have to be tough and get out there and run hard, like Coach Bell instilled in us with the planning and the commitment to the 8 a.m. till 8 p.m. work ethic. Robert Chapman had that 12-hour day work ethic with the science behind it—he emphasized the idea that you’ve got to do things smart as well. So I'm trying to weave those two philosophies together and I think I had two great mentors at Indiana in doing those things.”
Sparks worked with another Hall of Fame-caliber mentor during his dozen seasons as years as a Southern Illinois assistant coach in Carbondale. Four-time Olympian Connie Price-Smith, the 2016 head Olympic women's coach for the United States team, also was the head men's and women's track coach at Southern Illinois from 2001 until 2015 while Sparks was there.
“We started at the same time and worked together toward winning Missouri Valley Conference titles,” Sparks says. “I watched the way she put together her staff and trusted her staff to do their job while also making sure she had the right people in place to do those things. Being aware of everything that's happening within your program is something that I took away from working with her.”
Track and field had a major impact on Sparks’ personal life as well. His wife Emily (now a high school teacher) was the student manager for his track and field team at Indiana. Her uncle Terry Brahm was an Olympian (5,000 meters at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul) and the 1986 NCAA champion in that event.
As Sparks tells the story, their first date happened in South Bend of all places. At least Sparks termed it a date.
“I asked her if she wanted to go for a ride with me,” he says. “We drove from Bloomington to South Bend, and I ran the Sunburst 10K here, and then we drove home.
“She probably wouldn't call it a date, but I thought it was a date. That was my idea of a runner’s date in 1998.”
To commemorate the event, Sparks ran that event again this year—20 years later—with his 8-year-old daughter Eliza.
Ironically, the year before he came to Notre Dame to coach in 2015, he brought his Southern Illinois women’s cross country team to the Notre Dame Invitational and won the Gold Division race.
“The gold race is actually the less competitive of the two women’s races,” Sparks says. “And then I heard Joe Piane, the Notre Dame coach, from across the course yelling ‘Matt, Matt.’ I just assumed we did something wrong. I was surprised he even knew my name. But he said, ‘Good job,’ and congratulated us.
“Notre Dame to me was this mythical place and Joe was one of those mythical figures who had been at the top level of the cross country coaching world for a long time. Why would he know me? But it meant a lot to me that he could recognize something that really didn't matter a whole lot to him. He was the men's coach, coaching his runners in races a few hours later and yet he took notice of something that was important to us. It just showed me a lot about the character of what Notre Dame was about, that he would take inventory of everything that was going on around his event and notice something that was big to a small school like Southern Illinois.”
Sparks has come to appreciate coaches like Bell, Price-Smith and Piane who have built lengthy, successful resumes at a single destination.
“Now it's hard to find anyone who has been at a school for more than 10 to 15 years, let alone 40 years like Joe,” he says. “That's something I take a lot of pride in bragging about. You just don't see that loyalty today and that's something I would like to fall in line with if I could.”
When Sparks came to Notre Dame, he did not hesitate to seek out Piane, both of whom had particular interests in the distance aspect of track and field.
“He has been a good resource for me over the last four years,” Sparks says. “We go to
lunch every couple of weeks and talk about current state of the team but for me it’s just to listen to him talk and tell stories.
“The younger generation sometimes tunes out when they hear an older person telling stories, but you can learn a lot about what's important about a particular place when you hear these stories and how to act appropriately. That’s the way things were then, and this is the way
things probably should still be today. We need to remember what's important to this
institution. And hearing Joe talk about the things he was able to do and the connections with the
people he made along the way—it’s something I've taken a lot from. It's good to get to know the people that are involved with your program.”
Sparks won’t waste any time attempting to inject his Notre Dame team into national cross country and track and field conversations.
“I think we have an opportunity right away for national success in cross country,” he says. “The women have had some taste of that over the last three or four years, finishing eighth in the NCAA Championship one year and 11th the next year, and with Molly Seidel winning national championships. So the bar is already set high for them.
“Plus, our men's recruiting class is ranked number one in the country. We signed the Foot Locker national champion (Dylan Jacobs from Orland Park, Illinois) and the third-place finisher in that race (Daniel Kilrea from La Grange Park, Illinois)--and those two guys are both going to be freshmen here this coming fall.”
Four of the top 12 finishers in that race are headed to Notre Dame as freshmen in 2018, so the Irish men and women both appear to be well-equipped to create impacts in distance events in the next few years.
“So we feel like the women and now the men both can compete on that national level, hopefully even this year,” Sparks says. “And that same success that we expect to have in cross country will transition into the track and field end of it--just as Molly's national title in cross country led to her winning multiple national titles on the track.
“Beyond the standouts we already have in cross country and the distance area, we have some other individuals who just need to believe in themselves,” he says. “We can go out and recruit athletes in all event areas who can compete on a national level.”
Two decades as an assistant coach at the collegiate level have given Sparks ample time to create a vision for his new assignment:
“The key component I would like to instill in the team is that as coaches we all need to care about the athletes first as people. And then once an athlete understands that you care about them as a person, you can more effectively work with them as an athlete. Until they respect you as a person and get to know you as a person it's hard to ask someone on your team to maybe run up to 100 miles a week and try to break four minutes for the mile or throw the discus 200 feet.
“Before they can fully buy into what you're trying to convince them to do, they need to understand who you are and what you're about. And I think a big piece of that is getting to know the coach--seeing who that individual is as a person, getting to know your family, what your background is and what's important to you as a person.
“And then they can fully buy into your training concepts.”
Maybe it’s simply coincidence, but Sparks represents the third Notre Dame head coaching hire in 2018 to come from the existing Irish staff (joining Nate Norman in women’s soccer and Mike Johnson in volleyball).
Sparks doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence.
“Coaching at Notre Dame requires a certain personality and a certain fit,” says. “I think that’s something that the administration has recognized, (University vice president and James E. Rohr director of athletics) Jack (Swarbrick) particularly.
“So I take a lot of pride that people here got to know me as a person the last four years and appreciated the skillset I bring to the table every day.
“I was particularly honored to get the call because I felt like I did things the Notre Dame way over the last four years. It was especially humbling for someone like Jack to recognize that along the way.”
Sparks cut his teeth way back on the passion and competitiveness of Indiana high school basketball.
If he can translate those traits to the Irish cross country and track and field program, he’ll have a chance to mirror the sort of long-running success his mentors Bell, Smith and Piane achieved before him.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning "Strong of Heart" series.