He was inducted into the University of Michigan Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2006. He has a degree in civil engineering. He is a three-time Olympian and current record-holder for Canada in three events.
And now, Michigan men’s cross country coach Kevin Sullivan is the Big Ten Cross Country Coach of the Year.
But Sullivan isn’t letting that get in the way of who he believes should actually be honored — his athletes.
“I don’t like taking credit for what happens when the gun goes off,” Sullivan said. “I try to deflect the attention off myself. My goal here, and my job, is to give my athletes the best tools I can give them. After that, it’s up to them to utilize those tools.
“Being named (Big Ten Cross Country Coach of the Year) is not just about the workouts you give the guys. It’s about instilling in my athletes the confidence to win. It’s so when they step up on the line, they are ready to perform. It’s about them.”
Sullivan is in his second year as the head coach of the men’s team. Last year, he led his team to the highest finish at the NCAA Championships in more than a decade. This year, he coached the Wolverines to their first Big Ten title since 1998.
In that meet, all five Michigan scorers finished in the top 25 and three earned all-conference honors. Fifth-year senior Mason Ferlic was named to the first team and junior Ben Flanagan and senior Tony Smoragiewiecz were on the second team.
To Sullivan, there is very little secret to his success. He chalks it all up to attitude. Sullivan feels that his athletes are “buying in” to the system that he’s brought to Michigan.
“There are a lot of different ways to go about building championship teams,” Sullivan said. “The way I did it might not be the way others do, but it’s proven effective with this team. I look at how they respond to me, and then I try to work at an individual level with each athlete.”
As a former Wolverine himself, Sullivan knows the arduous lifestyle of a student-athlete. He also knows what it takes to succeed. Between 1993 and 1998, Sullivan was a 16-time Big Ten champion and a 14-time NCAA All-American in both cross country and indoor/outdoor track and field.
In cross country alone, Sullivan was a four-time NCAA All-American, four-time NCAA regional champion, four-time Big Ten champion, and a four-time Big Ten Athlete of the Year.
Sullivan’s career in cross country has been extraordinary, but he came across the sport in a normal way — through his elementary school field day. He saw that he was decent at running, so he joined a local club. When he saw that he was improving quickly, he decided to see how far running could take him.
After a stint as a Wolverine, a career in competitive running, multiple coaching positions and his own start-up business, running has taken him back to Michigan, where he became the most decorated runner in school history.
“This is the program I’ve always wanted to be back in,” Sullivan, who also is an assistant coach for the men’s track and field team, said. “It’s a program I wanted to lead and give back to. It was very humbling and gratifying to be offered the position of head coach.”
Sullivan says that he trains with his athletes six out of seven days of the week, per NCAA regulations. But because he preaches to his runners to constantly improve their fitness, many team members are still doing something on their day off. Sullivan estimates that each athlete is running upward of a 100 miles per week.
But the Big Ten Coach of the Year, despite everything he’s accomplished, doesn’t see himself as influencing his athletes to push themselves to be more like him. Sullivan believes every one of his athletes has his own motivation and agenda.
“I don’t think me winning an award should influence my athletes one way or the other,” Sullivan said. “It’s nice to have and put on a résumé, but at the end of the day — once the award is handed out — it’s back to work as usual.”