Pete Watson enters his second season at the helm of the University of North Carolina cross country program. The London, Ontario native competed for Canada and ran collegiately for West Virginia University before training professionally in Kenya. Following his retirement from the sport, Watson was hired at Auburn University as the head cross country coach and assistant track coach. In his first season he coached Angela Homan in the 10000m to contribute towards Auburn’s women’s track NCAA Championship in 2006. In his fourth season he guided the Tigers men’s cross country team to a 5th place performance at the NCAA Cross Country Championships – their highest finish in cross country in nearly a quarter century. Following that success, he was hired to revive a moribund North Carolina distance program and in his first year recruited the number one rated recruiting class in the United States, as rated by Flotrack. Tnfnorth caught up with the second year UNC coach.
Watson: I went to South Secondary in London, Ontario. My best OFSAA memory was my senior year in cross country at Fanshaw Golf Course. Our team was pretty solid and I think we finished 3rd. My graduating year was a great class and I think 13 of us ended up going to the US on scholarships the following year. My best experience representing Canada was my time in Beijing at the World University Games. They put together an amazing event and it was an experience I'll never forget. This is when the USA used to send a team and I had quite a few friends from home and from the NCAA system who were there with me. It was a fantastic experience.
AM: How hard was it to make the transition from being an elite athlete into coaching?
Watson: The transition was pretty smooth, I knew the time was right to make the change. I couldn't stay healthy for longer than a couple months at a time and was spending more time talking with Dieter Hogan (coach at the time) about training and what he went through to become a great coach. I was always a student of the sport, reading whatever I could get me hands on but more importantly talking with other athletes and coaches. Then Chris Fox called me while I was living and training (injured again) in Kenya and offered me a position working for him at Auburn. Chris was good friends with my college coach Sean Cleary who recommended me to him. I think I knew from the day I stepped on campus at WVU that I was going to run for as long as I could and then I would coach.
AM: Who were your major influences on you as a coach that shaped your philosophy?
Watson: Dieter Hogan had the biggest influence on what I do today with my kids. He could talk for hours about everything in the sport but then he could make it very simple at the same time. In the time I spent with him in Boulder and Kenya over three years I learned more about this sport than any book could ever teach me. In Kenya, I was lucky enough to also spend quite a bit of time talking with Brother Colm and Renato Canova and those conversations were something that I am very grateful for. Sean Cleary at WVU was my coach in college and was also a big influence on what I do with my kids today.
AM: Without getting too specific, what is your general training philosophy and attitudes on physiological and psychological preparation?
Watson: It is pretty simple. We need to develop the aerobic system of the kids in the program a little more each year. To run competitively at this level you can't get by running 50-60 miles a week when there are guys running 100 plus. That said all my athle0tes are on different volumes but they make up the time difference by cross training. A perfect example I tell all my kids is my first year at Auburn I had a kid Scott Novack who could not run tempo runs with our top girl. He was aerobically very immature but four years later he ran 8:08 3000m, 8:53 steeple and 14:09 5000m and was the 5th guy on our team that was 5th at the NCAA's. Strength builds speed is what I believe and what the program here at UNC is based on.
AM: Auburn won an NCAA Championship in track your first year there but the distance program had not traditionally been strong. What were some of the challenges you faced with cross country and how did you overcome them to finish 5th at the NCAA meet your last year?
Watson: Auburn was great to me and I was able to take a program that would place in the middle of the SEC conference to 5th in the NCAA in 4 years. You have to understand the SEC is a very competitive conference and if you are not winning you are not going to be coaching there very long. We had world class throwers, jumpers and sprinters when I got there and it was made clear to me from the start I better bring in kids who could score at the conference level from day one or don't even bother bringing them in. There is nothing wrong with this, but that is just the way it was in the SEC.
I had athletes from all over the world and they all got better and bought into the whole team concept at Auburn and we created a great little training group. With scholarship money at Auburn it was basically all or nothing, so my five guys on money better be healthy and better be running well or we were in trouble. On the girls side it was even more difficult as we had one of the best sprint coaches in the country, Henry Rolle, who was brining in incredible talent. I remember walking into Coach (Ralph) Spry's office on many occasions thinking I was going to get money for a pretty good girl only to have Henry (Rolle) walk in and say “Man she is okay, but I have the World Junior Champ wanting to come.” Henry got the money every time and I had no complaints with that. It taught a side of this business I had not been around before. Starting out at Auburn in the SEC was an amazing experience for me and taught me what is needed to win at this level and what type of talent you need to have.
AM: When you arrived at North Carolina both of the cross country programs were very weak and it was apparent not much recruiting had been accomplished. How were you able to achieve such a dramatic turnaround to have the top rated recruiting class in the US by Flotrack?
Watson: It was openly discussed by many coaches the potential for success at UNC if someone would just go in there and really try. I walked away from a team at Auburn that I thought could win the NCAA championships (before the departure of Girma and Julian). Everyone kept telling me you better take the UNC job. It is a special place. I talked at length to Mick Byrne and Chris Fox about the decision and both told me I would be a fool to pass up the opportunity. I came in and start sending emails, making phone calls and doing home visits and as I talked to kids and their parents it was evident they were as excited about the potential at UNC as I was.
I think we did about 30 official visits last year and I got everyone I really wanted except two (one went to Princeton and one went to Oregon). The first to sign on was Steve Magnuson and this was so important to the whole recruiting class. Steve was one of the top returners in the country and when he jumped on board and showed others we really were going after this. The in-state kids were very important as well as traditionally they all went to NC State and this year we got the top 3 and it just happened that the top three were also 3 of the best in the US last year. Jake (Hurysz) ended up 6th at Footlocker and ran 4:06 and 8:49 (mile, 3200), Isaac (Presson) ran 1:49 relay split, 4:07 (mile) and 9:00 (3200) and Mohammed (Aboshouk) ran 8:26 (for 3000m) and 14:41 (for 5000m).
It was so much fun watching these kids all light it up during the year. I told each kid if they came to UNC they will graduate with a world class degree and I will put them in an environment where they will have every opportunity to run fast and I will surround them with the talent needed to win an NCAA title.
AM: What are your short-term and long-term expectations for the program and how do you plan to accomplish them?
Watson: Short term is to try and finish in the top 3 at the ACC's this year and maybe make the NCAA meet. Even with all the young talent we brought in it is going to take a year or so for these guys to mature enough to compete with the guys who have been training at the college level for 3-4 or 5 years.
Long term when we have a year or two of real training under our belts we better be getting it done because we will have just as much or more talent than anyone in the country. When this class and the class we put together this year are as strong as our competition there will be no reason why we can't be in the hunt for an NCAA trophy in the next three years. After that the machine should be up and running and I want UNC to be like Stanford, Wisconsin and the old Arkansas teams, which means running for an NCAA title year in and year out
AM: How is the team looking so far in camp?
Watson: Team looks good so far. We are very lucky we have two great leaders and role models in Adam Cunningham and Evan Watchempino to help these guys as they adjust to college life and the demands of training at a higher level. It is amazing to see how tight the group is. Every time I turn there are 8 freshmen guys all together here on campus. I'm very excited for the next few years as I get the opportunity to work with some of the best young talent in the NCAA.