Q&A with Matt Centrowitz

American University

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.1, January 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1201/qacentrowitz.htm

In an era dominated by athletic budget shortfalls and program cuts, American University has seen its track program reborn. Shut down for more than a decade, the program was restored in 1999 under the direction of Head Coach Matt Centrowitz. Already serving as the schoolís part-time cross country coach, Centrowitz spearheaded a proposal that garnered the support of Americanís administration, and menís and womenís track were added to the schoolís offerings (field events are still not offered).

A member of the 1976 and 1980 U.S. Olympic teams and four-time 5,000-meter national champion, Centrowitz began his coaching career as an assistant track coach at St. Johnís (N.Y.) University. In the mid-1990s, he became middle-distance/distance coach for the Reebok Enclave, and part-time cross country coach at American.

Since heading up the American programs, he has been named Patriot League Coach of the Year three times, and has led his teams to strong finishes in the National Distance Medley Relay Championships and the Penn Relays. Centrowitzís athletes have captured nine Patriot League individual titles, 17 all-league honors, two all-region honors, and one all-East award. At the same time, his student-athletes have performed well academically, with 20 members of the cross country team and 23 members of the track team making the Patriot Leagueís academic honor roll.

In this interview, Centrowitz talks about the difficulties of creating a new program, the importance of hard work, and the benefits of constant change.

CM: How did you restart the track program at American?

Centrowitz: By the late í90s, Iíd been working part-time for six years as cross country coach at American University, and my full-time job was working with the Reebok Enclave. We didnít have any scholarships at American, and it was basically a glorified intramural program. There was no recruiting or anything like that.

A group of us presented an outline for a track program to Dr. Lee McElroy, who was the athletic director at the time, and he thought it could be a very inexpensive way to add diversity to the athletic department. He was a UCLA football and track athlete, and saw the potential value of track at American.

At first, we had to ask people to use their imaginations: ďOver here is going to be a locker room, and over here are going to be some runners, and here thereís going to be ÖĒ But people bought into it anyway, the most prominent being Samia Akbar and Sean OíBrien [both of whom were NCAA Outdoor Track All-Americans while in the program, and now serve as assistant coaches]. They were the best two athletes I could have gotten, and both of them are now going to grad school at American, so I feel very proud of their accomplishments.

How do you approach recruiting for your program?

I think recruiting can confuse kids more than help them, and that was certainly my experience when I was the number one high school miler in the country. It was very misleading and unprofessionalóespecially some of the promises that were made. So I make sure recruits get as accurate a picture as possible of what American is like.

Right now, my daughter [Broadneck (Md.) High School senior and middle-distance runner Lauren Centrowitz] is being recruited pretty heavilyóbut all her campus visits seem to be on the weekends. I donít have my prospective student-athletes visit on the weekends, because thereís nothing going on that revolves around schoolwork. I think you can mislead a kid into thinking thatís what college is going to be like. And like any journey that you start on the wrong foot, itís going to be hard to finish.

What do you tell recruits about your approach?

We actually talk about their goals, because I look at my job as helping them reach their goals. My job is to assess their strengths and help them eliminate their weaknesses. If they want to stay at home with the same kids they went to high school with, then this is not the place for them. But if they want to be challenged in class and learn something different as athletes, then it might work out.

Every kid who comes here has to do things he or she never did in high school. If they want to be good runners, theyíve got to work outside of their comfort zone. They have to go out and run in the snow, the wind, and do whatever it takes. They have to go out in splits theyíre not comfortable with, and whether theyíre faster or slower than their usual system, itís going to be different.

Change is difficult for everybody, but if they donít have a willingness to change, theyíre not going to make it. Most of the student-athletes I work with were not national-level runners in high school. So if theyíre not willing to change, how can they possibly expect to succeed in college?

How do you get them to change?

Thatís where coaching comes in. Everyone is a little different, so I donít have a set system. Whether it means training more or less, weíre going to do something different. Whatever people respond to, thatís what weíre going to do. Some people might respond really well to hill work and some might respond to long runs. Itís about getting results.

I purposely set up my program to be different and to keep evolving. If itís the same every year, then Iím going to get bored and stale and so are the student-athletes.

How do you describe your relationship with your athletes?

If student-athletes understand that youíre there to help them, if they can see and feel that, then theyíll work with you. I always try to be very clear and methodical, but being from New York, I have a tendency to talk fast, not complete sentences, and even get a little hot-headed. Sometimes those things can work against me. But New Yorkers are also very direct, open and honest, and Iím willing to take criticism as well as give it. If one or two kids arenít running well, we take a look at those one or two kids. But if the team is not performing the way it should, then we take a look at the team, including me, and what we need to do differently. If I want to share in the successes, I have to be willing to share the blame.

What do you think of the new format for Division I Regionals?

I think itís great. The emphasis is back on competition, and thatís really the bottom line for our sport, man against man and woman against woman. Itís a foot race, not a time trial.

How has the new format for Regionals changed the way you coach?

My emphasis has always been on competition, not on racing the stopwatch. You get to the starting line, and when the gun goes off, youíve got to beat ĎXí number of people. And if you do, then you climb the ladder to the next level, where youíve got to beat a better crop of people. Thatís what running is all about. You have to be able to compete, and thatís not the same as running a time trial.

How many scholarships do you give out?

While most of the schools we compete against have 30, we have six, so I keep my program very flexible. We have freshmen who get a full ride and freshmen who are only given book money. If AU is their first-choice school, Iím going to try very hard to get them here. Thereís a correlation between their success and their fundingóthere has to be, because I donít know of any job where you get paid before you do anything.

What do you tell your student-athletes about your experience in the Olympics?

We donít really talk about that. Weíre focused on reality, where we are today. I donít think of myself as Matt the Olympian, I see myself as a reflection of all the programs Iíve been involved with and all the great coaches Iíve learned from.

Whatís the most valuable lesson your coaches taught you?

That hard work solves 98 percent of the problems out there. If you canít pay your bills, you get another job. If you fail a test, you work a little harder. There are always going to be setbacks, but you can work through them. Thatís what I saw my coaches do.

Itís hard work, but if you love doing what you do, itís really not that hard. If youíre a true runner, you have no choice. You have an obligation to work that talent, and if youíre not true to yourself that way, you wonít be a runner.

What do you do with the student-athletes on your team who arenít distance runners?

I have assistant coaches to help me in those events, and as long as they donít look and sound like me, it works. Because the last thing we need to have here is two of me running around. Thereís more than one way to do anything, so we all make suggestions. Itís not important whether our student-athletes take those suggestions from me or from someone else, as long as theyíre moving forward.

What do you think of the results youíve gotten so far?

Iím pleased for the athletes, and Iím looking ahead to see what I can do better. I feel proud that weíve added track to the program, and that the university has backed us. Weíre headed in the right direction, and weíre moving forward at a good pace.

Every year we get a little better, and I plan on being here for the next 15 to 20 years. By then, Iíll have less hair, and hopefully fewer pounds, but I definitely want to be standing around here with a stopwatch. Iím in no rush to become number one, because Iíve already been on top as an athlete, and I know what itís like. So when I get there again, I want to make sure Iíll stay up there for a long time.