AU cross country and track’s new coach aims to steer team toward new chapter
Sean Graham returns to AU, replacing coaching veteran Matt Centrowitz Sr.
Four months ago, Sean Graham received a phone call from Matt Centrowitz Sr. about the longtime American University coach’s plan to step down from his role at AU. Graham, an assistant coach with Kentucky at the time, didn’t think much of the call in the moment. Graham and the Kentucky track and field team were busy preparing for the Southeastern Conference and NCAA championship meets. It wasn’t until after Kentucky wrapped up its season that Graham took time to reflect on the coaching vacancy at AU.
“A little bit later in the summer when things were slowing down, I was talking to some coaching confidants and colleagues,” Graham said. “They were [saying] ‘you should really consider, that’d be a great fit for you.’ I should probably have seen that immediately, but when you’re in the moment and coaching, you don’t always see everything as clearly as you should.”
Centrowitz Sr. announced on May 19 that he would be stepping down as AU’s cross country and track and field coach after 18 years with the school. Centrowitz Sr. resurrected the AU track and field program in 1999 and has coached over 165 Patriot League individual and relay champions in his tenure.
Graham began advanced talks with AU about the coaching vacancy in late July. The University officially named him the new head coach on August 3.
“It was a dream job, really,” Graham said. “I get to come back to a university I have a connection with, I get to run a program the way I want to run a program and do it at a place that I have a piece of [with me].”
Graham is no stranger to AU
Graham’s new coaching position marks his third stint at AU. He first came to the school in 2009 as a graduate student in the Kogod School of Business after an injury ended his professional running career prematurely. Graham rejected his alma mater, William and Mary, in favor of AU. He chose D.C. for a change of scenery, he said.
Although Graham did not come to the school with the intention of coaching, Centrowitz Sr. brought up the idea the spring before Graham arrived at AU in 2009.
“I didn’t know Centrowitz all of that well at that point. The running community is pretty tight. I knew of him, he knew of me,” Graham said. “He gave me a lot of flexibility in terms of working with the athletes.”
Graham completed his graduate degree in 2011 and did not intend to continue coaching. He instead worked as a contractor for the Coast Guard and Homeland Security while volunteering for George Mason’s track and field program on the side. After a year away from AU, Graham received a call from Centrowitz Sr. offering Graham control over the men’s program. Graham led the men’s cross country team for one season before taking the assistant coaching job for the Kentucky track and field program.
“That’s something that I’m forever [grateful]. He took a big risk on me and on his own and gave me the opportunity to coach and that’s how I got to Kentucky,” Graham said. “To have the opportunity to come back to do the same with the full program is really cool. To take what I’ve learned from the last four years and apply it to my own program to continue that legacy and tradition of American cross country and track is really a hell of an opportunity.”
Graham meets his new team
For the athletes on the cross country and track and field team, the news of Centrowitz Sr.’s resignation came as a surprise. Many of the athletes had returned home for the summer when they received a team email from Centrowitz Sr. sharing the news. Centrowitz Sr. followed up on the emails with calls to athletes, checking on runners individually. Throughout the uncertain summer months, members of the cross country team prepared as they would for any other season and remained in contact with Centrowitz Sr. while the University worked to fill the coaching vacancy.
“We were progressing just as if he were here -- just a different coach, a different style and different setup,” junior Adriana Hooks said. “[Centrowitz] just wanted us to have the goal to be healthy and continue what we would do whether anyone was watching or not or whether we knew who the new coach was going to be.”
The athletes found out Graham would succeed Centrowitz Sr. the same day the news was made public in early August. Graham met the team shortly after he was announced as head coach and the team began preparations for the cross country season.
“He’s been a coach at AU before, so he’s familiar with the program,” junior Matthew Rainey said. “A lot of older guys that were here when I was coming in had experiences with him before. So he knows all the runs we do, he knows the dumb little names we have for everything, so he fits right into the culture.”
Graham is planning for the future
Graham and the team hit the ground running, with the team’s first meet less than three weeks after the team was able to hold official practices. For new coaches, there is an inherent difficulty coming into a new team completely fresh, but Graham said he had a small advantage over normal coaches due to his familiarity with the program.
“One of the hard things for them is the actual transition,” Graham said. “[Having] the mindset that somebody new is coming and one of the things I’ve been preaching since I got here that they’ve done a remarkable job with is just buying in.”
While continuing some of the practices of Centrowitz Sr., Graham has tweaked the amount of practice time per week and added emphasis to supplementary exercises like strides and hurdle work. Graham also implements a more hands-on coaching approach than Centrowitz, working directly with the team.
“Coach Centrowitz, he’s taking a lot of his personal experiences from a different time,” Rainey said. “That definitely has its value but it’s different to talk to someone who’s a little bit younger and grew up in the same time, who has been in the same environment that we’re in right now.”
The initial results, team victories in the first meet of the season and top-ten finishes from numerous athletes, have been positive and indicative of where Graham would like to take the program.
“I want to win the Patriot League consistently in cross country. I want to take us consistently to be contenders if not placers at the NCAAs,” Graham said. “That’s the level of work that we’re going to put in. There has been a lot of success in the past [and] I want to continue it. I think we’re in a great spot right now.”
This story was originally published in the Oct. 20 print edition of The Eagle.