SIU’s cross-country team practices about six times a week, including a seven to 15 mile run each time — and so does Coach Matt Sparks.
Sparks, who is in his 11th season with the Saluki distance track and field program, has led the men’s cross-country team to Missouri Valley Conference titles in 2004, 2007, 2008 and on Saturday in Normal. He has coached more than 60 MVC scholar athletes, and his team had a cumulative 3.61 grade point average in 2003, which was the second highest in the nation, according to Saluki Athletics.
Sparks won the MVC Cross-Country Coach of the Year for the third time Sunday and said he attributes his success to his athletes and their willingness to buy into his system.
“I tell them all the time that success breeds success,” he said. “This current class has believed in and followed that, as well as previous ones.”
Sparks was born in Noblesville, Ind., where his father coached basketball at the local high school. He said he learned lessons in Indiana that he could apply to cross-country, though the state is geared more toward basketball.
“I grew up seeing the day-in and day-out commitment that the people of Indiana expected out of its basketball programs,” he said. “In basketball, chemistry is very important, but I think any successful team has to have chemistry.”
Junior runner Alyssa Allison said besides being a phenomenal coach, Sparks does a great job of ensuring his players’ well-being.
“He is always willing to pick up the phone and just listen to you, even if you want to vent to him,” she said.
Allison said Sparks’ enthusiasm for the sport and his hands-on approach adds to his coaching ability.
“He still goes out there and runs with us, when a lot of coaches just watch practice. He’s always running back and forth, letting us know how and when we should pace ourselves,” Allison said. “He gets so excited just to practice, it kind of rubs off on us.”
In her first attached season with Saluki cross-country, Allison said Sparks’ ability to individualize each team member gives him great insight on every runner.
“Coach gives thorough evaluations of each one of us … It’s through that one-on-one coaching that has helped me build my confidence. He has showed me that I can be great at other things besides running,” she said. “He tries to instill in us that if we can be great at this, we can be great in anything.”
Sophomore runner Lacey Gibson said Sparks’ individualized coaching has helped elevate the team.