Following the departure of Preston Grey last semester, a familiar face within the PacWest in Sean Smith was found, and he was announced as cross country’s newest head coach on Monday.
In March of 2010, a freshman track and field runner from the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill. competed in the NAIA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. That young man’s name was Sean Smith.
Smith had an unbelievable season his freshman year. He was named the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference (CCAC) Freshman of the Year, and in the national championship tournament, he finished second in the first preliminary of the 5000-meter run event. However, it was not St. Francis that was celebrating a national title. Instead, it was Azusa Pacific, as the women’s track and field team won their fourth NAIA national championship in eight years.
“That was my first experience of ever hearing about this [APU’s] program. And instantly I said ‘okay, there’s something special there,'” Smith said.
That same young man would go on to earn his master’s degree from Chico State and immediately went into coaching track. After three years as an assistant coach at Chico, he became the headman at an NJCAA DI program in Wyoming at Gillette College.
Not only did the first-year head coach witness magnificent personal success — winning the 2017 NJCAA Men’s Coach of Year award — but Smith also helped coach Ayrton Ledesma to a national title after finishing first in the 3000-meter run with a 9:17.07 finish.
Smith eventually made his way to California in 2018, coaching within the PacWest Conference for Notre Dame de Namur — a rival to APU. He made an immediate impact on a previously struggling cross country program, as NDNU finished third in the PacWest meet for the men which was the highest finish in program history. That accolade failed to last long. The Argonauts finished second in the PacWest championships in Smith’s second season.
Yet despite where he was coaching or which athletes he was training, that same level of admiration he acquired for Azusa Pacific 10 years ago remained.
“Whenever I would come down here as a coach, there was just something magical about stepping on that track,” Smith admitted. “Faster times seem to happen. And there’s just a certain atmosphere about it that is unlike any other university I have played or coached at.”
His love for the Cougar way will no longer be experienced from a distance. As of this week, he will be able to call APU home.
Athletic director Gary Pine announced on Monday that Smith would fill the vacancy of the cross country head coach, along with becoming one of four assistant coaches for track and field, focusing on distance.
That passion for APU’s legacy will need to continue for Smith during his tenure, as he will be following the likes of former head coach Preston Grey, who embodied APU track and field unlike anyone before him. A head and associate coach of 16 years, Grey was an important contributor to the women’s success in the 2010 NAIA Championships and helped the track program ease its way into NCAA status in 2012-13. For Smith, taking over Grey’s program is a privilege.
“Not only helping them grow faster on the track but just helping these student-athletes grow as people. That is what Preston embodied within the program,” Smith said when asked about Grey. “He was a fantastic mentor, and he did so much to honor this place. And to be able to follow him and fill his shoes, I feel honored to have that opportunity.”
Smith will be joining a staff full of viable coaches from all different spectrums, whether it be long-term head coach Jack Hoyt or three-year sprints/hurdles coach Andrea Blackett, who was just awarded the 2020 NCAA DII Women’s Indoor Track & Field West Region Assistant Coach of the Year award. APU’s coaches, however, are entering an unorthodox year in which quick turnarounds will become essential to finding success in 2021 due to COVID-19.
Luckily for the Cougars, Smith has experienced this sort of pressure as a new hire. When he started his tenure at Notre Dame, he was brought into the program in early-February. Smith faced circumstances where his athletes were incapable of knowing what the program would look like without a coach, meaning players faced time constraints and conflicting schedules.
The situation at NDNU also failed to give Smith proper time to recruit and adjust to the new environment. In these ways, the coaching situation that faces him now is no different than what he confronted two years ago.
“I had about three to four months to recruit for my first season at Notre Dame, compared to the 12 months that coaches normally get. So thankfully that rushed time frame is something I understand and was able to adapt to before,” he stated. “And with that, I’m coming to a university that is capable of providing me with all the facilities and resources to thrive in this kind of environment. So I’m expecting great things to happen.”
Although the cross country season will not begin until the fall semester, Smith is anxiously preparing for the track and field season that is set to begin in mid-March. In just two days on the job, he had people reach out to him about potential recruits, and he is already prepared to make aggressive pitches for a school that he believes “sells itself.”
He is also considering the pieces that this program currently holds, and he is confident that he can assemble these pieces to build a bridge that will push the Cougars to where they want to be once the season comes to a close.
You can tell through Smith’s words, along with the impassioned tone he uses, that he is ready to be a Cougar. And with that, he is prepared to continue building a storied legacy that he’s looked up to for over a decade.
“Currently, I am just so focused on helping these kids get to where they want to be. That’s where my tunnel vision is set. I’m already getting up at 4 a.m. every day with excitement about what I can bring to the table. And because of that, I don’t have time to reflect on the personal accolades I can have or the intimidation of the job. For me, it’s all about right now,” said Smith.