Sean Carlson's Vision Has Fueled Tennessee's Growth

* Tennessee's Sean Carlson has made a huge impact on the Volunteers just under two years since first being hired by the program to take over the cross country and distance programs

Photo Credit:  Tennessee Athletics

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by Cory Mull - MileSplit

Sean Carlson remembers everything. 

When the former Notre Dame men's cross country coach was hired by the University of Tennessee in June of 2022 to become the program's head coach and Director of the cross country and distance teams -- alongside Duane Ross, who was hired as the Volunteers' head coach and Director of track and field -- he knew there would be talk. 

Carlson was only 35 at the time and had spent 10 years transforming the Notre Dame men into a powerhouse, one that saw his athletes secure four American collegiate records and three NCAA championships across the indoor and outdoor track and field seasons. His men's cross country team also finished as high as second at nationals in March of 2021. 

Carlson himself had emerged as a prized coach over that stretch, winning recruits, scoring NCAA qualifiers and titles, earning promotions and ultimately earning respect among his contemporaries. 

But the naysayers? 

"The first thing I heard when I came here was, 'He doesn't care about women's distance, he's not a women's coach,'" Carlson, 36, told FloTrack recently. 

"You better believe, the last 14 months that's been written above my desk." 

A little over a year later, the Volunteer women not only proved that notion wrong but obliterated it, securing a third-place finish at SECS, a win at the South region and a sixth-place finish at nationals, which was the second-best effort in program history, only trailing the team's fourth-place nod in 1983 -- though the Tennessee women had not been to nationals since 2006, either.

The men's team, meanwhile, were third at SECs, first at region and 26th at NCAAs. It was also their second straight trip to nationals. 

"Tennessee hadn't been to a national meet in 23 years," Carlson said of the men's performance in 2022. "In year one, we were there with the men. In year two, we were there on both sides."

It didn't take long for Tennessee to issue confidence in Carlson after his first six months. After leading the men to the NCAA Championships last year and their best finish since 1995, Tennessee locked Carlson into an extension through 2027-2028.

"It's impossible not to be impressed with the progress our programs have made in less than a year under his leadership," Tennessee Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Danny White said in 2022. 

A year later, Carlson's distance contingent remains as strong as ever, from NCAA 3K title-contender Yaseen Abdalla, to Gabriel Sanchez and Ashley Jones, Tennessee's top women's finisher at NCAAs who recently signed an NIL deal with On. 

This weekend, Abdalla ran the fifth-fastest 3K in the NCAA, while junior Rachel Sutliff recorded a 3K best of 9:19.10, which stands as the 54th-best women's effort collegiately.

"I've been thinking about it every day," Carlson said of his women's success this past fall. "Not a single group of those girls had been to the national meet, so it put a smile on my face to know that we achieved it." 

The secret behind all of this success, however, might sound really simple. 

In an era where Directors of track and field programs may focus on the business side of the sport and leave the instruction to their associate head coaches or assistants, Carlson has gone the opposite way. He's hired a full staff, delegated the necessary responsibilities and focused on coaching, training and leadership. 

His staff, meanwhile, brings an unmatched work ethic. Long hours. Tedious work. But that, Carlson said, is what is making Tennessee a place where success isn't just an idea but a reality. It's helping Tennessee win top recruits and score impact graduate transfers -- which is changing the way his program is performing. 

 "There are so many facets to dealing with a track and field roster of 120 athletes," Carlson said. "Whatever the number, you have the administrative side, the planning of meets, the logistics. You could reasonably become a Director and never coach anymore and feel like you're not. But we've set up our staff so that it never allows me to lose focus on that." 

If it feels like Tennessee's distance success is thriving, that's one reason why. 

But another variable may be Carlson's long-term strategy. The 36-year-old is obviously younger than a lot of NCAA coaches and a millennial who has gone through the Digital Age with an eye on changing the way this sport operates. Over the last five to six years, he's recruited better than (or on par with) almost any distance coach in the NCAA, and he's done so by focusing on American-based recruits. 

His hiring decisions are also grounded by intuition and foundational knowledge. Carlson is a graduate of the famed North Central College program, a Division III distance powerhouse in Illinois, and grew up there, too, graduating from Buffalo Grove High School. The Midwest is in his blood. 

His staff are all in their early 20s. There's Judy Pendergast, 23, a 2022 graduate of Harvard and an Illinois native who ran for a storied high school program, Naperville North; Nic Jacobsen, 24, a Florida native and NYU graduate who was hired by Carlson at Notre Dame and followed him to Tennessee; and up until recently, Danny Kilrea, 23, who was an All-American under Carlson with the Fighting Irish and a former all-time great in Illinois who finished third at Foot Locker Nationals in 2017.

"I have strong ties to Illinois and I've followed it deeply throughout my career," Carlson said. He added, jokingly: "I try to hire people smarter than me." 

As a first-year staff member over the fall for the Volunteers, Kilrea was a vital part of Tennessee's charge up through the NCAA ranks. But when his full-time job came calling in December, things changed, Carlson said, and he had to step away from the team. 

"That will be a challenge," Carlson said of replacing Kilrea into the indoor season. "Not fun." 

That being said, the adjustment simply posed another equation to solve. Then there's Pendergast. She was hired in the summer of 2023 on the recommendation of Harvard associate women's head coach Alex Gibby, meshed with Carlson, and hit the ground running. 

"The hours we put into this, I want to find people who really love this and love coaching. I think that's the only sustainable way to put the amount of hours we do on a daily basis. It's never ending, but we love it." 

"There were a couple of priority things we looked for and really wanted out of the position," Carlson said of his interviews with candidates. "First of all, we needed someone who was willing to work a lot of hours and a lot of odd hours. But then also, we needed them to understand the sport at a pretty high level. If I asked them to name the top 10 athlete at XC nationals and they couldn't, that told me they aren't as tied into our sport as they needed to be." 

It's natural to say that any hiring of Carlson passed his tests. Jacobsen did at Notre Dame. Then Pendergast and Kilrea nailed it at Tennessee. 

But those hiring decisions have also proven to be key for another reason. Tennessee's assistants are in a unique position in that they are of the same generation of their student-athletes, all understanding the Gen Z-ness of their roster. 

"I do have a grasp on what it's like to be an athlete right now and compete at a higher level," Pendergast said, laughing slightly. "Being a younger coach, it's helpful to describe a certain scenario and to know I've been there."

"But then again, I am younger and I have a lot to learn," she added. 

With Carlson's focus on coaching taking center stage, Jacobsen and Pendergast have been given duties like recruiting and travel planning and administrative work, all on top of the basic tenets of coaching -- for instance, both were on the road at Foot Locker Nationals in December. Ross, meanwhile, has a full staff of six for his track and field roster, giving Tennessee a full contingent of 11 before Kilrea's departure. 

Last year, Carlson said, recruits were on campus nearly every week. 

"Nic is my right hand man (when it comes to recruiting)," Carlson said. "He's in charge of it all. The last level, when we identify a recruit and they match our standards, that's when I step in." 

All of these processes are critical functions for any program. 

Tennessee, however, is making it look easy. The Volunteer women were seventh at NCAAs last indoor season, while the men were 11th and saw Dylan Jacobs take home a 5K crown. 

For the past two years, Carlson has been named the South Region's men's cross country coach of the year. In November, the Volunteers announced 14 new distance recruits, including Foot Locker Nationals All-American Jake Liebert and NXN finishers Will Conway and Ethan Edgeworth. Foot Locker Nationals finisher Zoie Lamanna and RunningLane XC Championship All-American Tula Fawbush are also members of the Class of 2024.

While Tennessee has been afforded resources to hire staff and recruit alongside the top programs in the country, success also funnels down to communication and leadership. 

"I think it's about creating an environment where the athletes can maximize their potential," Pendergast said, "And making sure it's done in a way that prioritizes their well being. That's what Sean aligns with, where happiness and the health of an athlete comes first." 

Plus, there's a a fair amount of trust on Rocky Top. 

It just may be the foundational piece of the Tennessee staff. 

"Maybe I'm biased, but we work as hard as anybody out there," Carlson said. "The hours we put into this, I want to find people who really love this and love coaching. I think that's the only sustainable way to put the amount of hours we do on a daily basis. It's never ending, but we love it." 

Photo Credit: Tennessee Athletics

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