Oct. 31, 2013
Mark Carroll wants to build a national championship cross-country program at Auburn (Phillip Marshall photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - Like most 12-year-olds in Ireland, Mark Carroll wanted to be a soccer player, to score goals as thousands cheered. It was by sheer chance that he found the sport that would take him literally around the world and finally to Auburn University.
Carroll has been Auburn's head cross country coach and coached the distance runners since 2009. It all started when, on a whim, Carroll he entered a school cross-country race.
"I was wearing a pair of basketball boots," Carroll says, laughing at the memory. "I didn't know anything about running or training. I just ran as fast as I could for as long as I could, and I finished second."
Carroll liked the feeling of pushing on when he was tired and even liked being out of breath. He liked it all. He became a runner that day. It was the first step in the adventure of a lifetime.
In 1991, Carroll signed with Providence College. The oldest of five children, he traveled 3,000 miles to pursue his dream.
"Packing up and leaving at 18 or 19 years old is not easy, especially traveling 3,000 miles," Carroll says. "I was pretty clear at that time what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a successful runner. I was pretty driven. The opportunity here in the U.S. to take a scholarship was probably going to put me in position to do that."
At Providence, Carroll worked under Ray Treacy, another Irishman, who was on his way to becoming one of the nation's top track coaches. Treacy is still the head coach at Providence today.
"It was an easy fit," Carroll says, "with an Irish coach and some Irish guys on the team already."
Carroll was a six-time All-American and won an NCAA indoor championship in the 5,000-meter run. He made the Irish Olympic team in 2000 and 20004. Along the way, he met Amy Rudolph, an American track star and Olympian who would become his wife.
In 2003, Carroll began to work as a coach and a mentor. Like in that cross-country race of long ago, it was then that Carroll knew then what he wanted to do.
"I started working with some younger Irish athletes," Carroll said. "I was still running. It was kind of an overlap between my career coming down and some up and coming lads back in Ireland who asked me to help them out.
"We had some good success. Six or seven years ago, I was watching the NCAA cross country and I said to my wife that I'd really like to become a college coach."
In 2009, Auburn track coach Ralph Spry called. Carroll and his wife headed south to an unfamiliar place. Carroll says it was a decision he has not regretted.
"When I came to visit and took a look around the town, I was really amazed by the facilities on campus and places to train and run, natural environment and terrain," Carroll says. "We'd lived for 18 years in the city. When Coach Spry offered me the position, it was an easy answer."
Carroll has steadily built Auburn's cross-country program over the past four seasons. The Auburn men are expected to finish in the top three in Southeastern Conference Championship in Gainesville this weekend. The women are performing at their highest level in several years.
Thad McCormack, father of Auburn star Ty McCormack, says it's not by accident that the Tigers have thrived under Carroll's leadership.
"He's a man who you want to run for," McCormack says. "Families just love him. He's going to make Ty a better runner, and that's what we were looking for."
Carroll's goal is to make Auburn a national power.
"A lot of the top distance athletes in the country probably wouldn't view Auburn as a top distance program," Carroll says. "We are trying to change that. Performing well this week would help change that. What I've found is once we get athletes on campus they fall in love with it. The hard part is getting them to visit. Once we get them to visit, they go `Wow.'"
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: