Matt Beisel returned to his alma mater in the summer of 2016 as Concordia University’s Head Coach of Cross Country and Track & Field. So far in his tenure, Beisel has led the Bulldogs to a combined six GPAC titles and is a six-time GPAC Coach of the Year. Beisel prides his programs not only on athletic success, but on how they glorify God. Concordia continues to excel in a big way both athletically and academically under Beisel.
Q&A with Coach Beisel
What is the most memorable sporting event you have attended as a spectator?
I’ll have to say – watching my daughter Keegan and her Seward High School team win the Nebraska Class B State Cross Country title this past fall was right up there with the best memories. In addition, my other most memorable sporting events all have to do with championships my high school and collegiate teams have won or done really well at. We’ve been fortunate to win GPAC titles six times (XC, indoor, and outdoor track) since I began coaching at Concordia. GPAC titles are a big deal and every single one is a highlight to me. It will never get old for me. Placing third at indoor and outdoor nationals for our women this year was pretty awesome. Placing 12th at women’s XC nationals in 2019. Winning conference titles for Concordia University Chicago in track, and winning multiple state high school XC titles – including sweeping the Arkansas State Championship for our girls and boys when I was at Little Rock Lutheran High. The joy I see on the faces of these athletes is the best.
Which person/people were most influential in your career choice?
It’s definitely a God thing more than any one person influencing me to become a coach, since I never envisioned myself as a career coach. I could list so many people who have influenced me professionally and helped me along the way once I found myself in coaching roles, but nobody ever said to me, “You should be a coach.”
I grew up in a family where sports was almost never discussed – my parents just weren’t into sports. I was socially awkward and goofy as a kid, and it’s by the grace of God that Mr. Nelson, my P.E. teacher, suggested I go out for intramural track in eighth grade, which somehow led to my dad taking me to the high school cross country meeting before my freshman year of high school began. I ran my first high school cross country season in basketball high tops and had the worst shin splints ever. It was miserable, but the social piece of XC – something I had never experienced on a team – was enough to keep me going. I didn’t know anything about running, and fortunately Coach Benny Bernhardt – who was my distance coach in track, but was not my cross country coach – helped me understand that running shoes are a thing. That helped with the shin issues! He was also very encouraging and supportive.
In college, I got a Lutheran teaching degree here at Concordia, and it never once crossed my mind (duh) that a reasonably successful collegiate athlete like me would almost certainly be asked to coach at my first school. So I never took a coaching class or paid any attention to anything other than distance running.
At my first call to The Lutheran School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, they’re like – “Welcome! You’re teaching all these classes, AND you are head cross country and track coach! Have fun! Here’s 60 kids, no facilities and no assistant coaches!” I did get creative on finding ways to practice, and had some wonderful parents step up and help.
Thank goodness for all the awesome men and women who mentored me through these years as I figured things out. And thank goodness for the patience of my junior high and high school parents as I wrestled with a very steep learning curve. I always imagined that I wanted to be one of the best science teachers in the world, and got my MS in Science Education at University of Iowa. Suddenly after seven years of teaching and coaching in Little Rock, Arkansas, I got an unexpected phone call from Concordia University Chicago asking me to interview for the head track coach position, which I ended up accepting. I didn’t seek out a coaching career. I was an unlikely candidate in so many ways, and yet here I am, full-time coaching at my alma mater. Ultimately – I wouldn’t be where I am today without God completely directing me.
What is one book you would recommend to others in your profession?
The Bible, 100 percent. Coaching at this level is extremely demanding time-wise between coaching, recruiting and administrative work. The most important things I’ve read have to do with keeping Christ first in my life, and growing in faith. As my faith grows, I am able to more effectively serve the athletes and staff in my care, and be a better husband and father. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was very influential.
What’s the best coaching advice you’ve received?
Matt Logue, a friend who coaches and teaches very successfully in Girard, Kansas, told me at the beginning of my career when I knew nothing but distance running and was panicking, since I had to figure out how to coach hurdlers, jumpers, sprinters, and throwers: “Go to as many clinics as you can. Learn everything you can about the events you know the least about, as you have athletes who want to do them, and in 10 years you’ll know so much you’ll start forgetting.” He told me to learn, but also to relax and know that perfection wasn’t expected.
John McDonnell, the long-time head coach of the University of Arkansas track & field program, told me (and many others) – the most important thing to achieve success as a coach is to KNOW YOUR KIDS. If you have a trusting relationship with them, then you’ll know when to push them and when to hold back. They will invest in the relationship with you and good things will happen performance-wise.
Milton Williams, long-time head track coach at the University of Arkansas – Little Rock, would come to my high school classroom for hours and meet me for lunch to help me understand speed and power events, and how to develop a training plan for these. He also gave me important perspectives on distance coaching. Most importantly, he was a servant and mentor to me. I thought, “Why is this NCAA D1 coach taking the time to help me with all this?” It’s served as a model to me as I’ve found myself in the position to help others.
There are so many others I could list who have been influential.
What do you find most rewarding about coaching?
Serving my athletes. Building meaningful relationships and mutual trust, so that I’m able to be there for them when and if they need me as a listener, as a prayer-warrior, as a friend. Obviously this all helps me coach them better from a performance standpoint, but what I do is a ministry and I love it.
What has changed the most about the profession since you started coaching?
From a distance-coaching standpoint, there have been big changes in how the role of speed and power development affect performance in distance running. How we communicate with recruits has changed, and having so much access nationally to performance databases like athletic.net and milesplit, in addition to recruiting services, have been huge.
Beyond athletic talent and ability, what is the No. 1 trait you’re looking for in a prospective recruit?
For me it’s about who they are as a person. I am very clear and consistent with my messaging about the unique and awesome Christ-centered environment at Concordia and on our team, and I’m looking for kids who find a place like this to be a good fit. Our attrition rates are very low, so it seems to be working. Kids who say “yes” to us tend to be people who care more about others than themselves, who are about the team, and who have a great love for the sport. We also tend to get high academic kids.
Name something your own student-athletes have taught you in your time as a coach.
The relationship is most important. Also, there’s a lot I don’t know, and some of my best learning comes from the athletes themselves.
What athletic achievement of your own are you most proud of?
I ran under a six-minute mile in flip flops during Mayterm one night with some of my teammates, down Columbia Avenue, when I was a student here at Concordia back in 1991.
How are you most likely spending your free time away from work?
Mostly at home with my family, and – when we have the time – traveling, and doing outdoors stuff like hiking and fishing and camping.
What would you choose to eat for your last meal?
Is it ok to say ‘bacon’?? Because I’m always down for bacon. My wife’s amazing guacamole, which should be considered its own food group. Chinese food is pretty special. Brisket done right. Sushi.
What’s your favorite Lincoln (or Lincoln area) restaurant?
Which movie or TV show do you quote from the most?
Lorenzo’s Oil, a movie with Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon. Because I have it memorized from showing it to class after class of science students. Probably anything from the Star Wars universe including Mandalorian. And Clint Eastwood movies.
Where have you gone (or are planning to go) for vacation this summer?
After Nationals, my family and I spent a week at the beach in the Florida Panhandle. My wife and I did a 25th-anniversary trip for a week to a dude ranch in the Wyoming mountains. Both were much-needed and refreshing (and fun!).
Which social medium (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.) do you use the most?
Facebook mostly, although I do a little Instagram and Twitter.
What genre of music do you prefer?
I have a wide range of tastes, and what I listen to depends on the vibe at the moment. Country, as well as really old classic country like Hank Williams Sr., Christian, classical, modern chorale, folk music, bluegrass, Christmas music (any time of the year), classical organ, alternative/Indie, rock, pop, dubstep, movie themes, Disney… and more. Even (ha ha) country rap from time to time…
What was the first car you drove?
Ford Maverick – 4 door, brown, no A/C with only an AM radio. Yeahhhh.
Name a famous person you’ve met.
My wife and I moved to Arkansas and shortly thereafter were asked to attend a fund-raiser at a downtown bank in Little Rock. We rode the elevator up to the top floor, but it stopped a few floors up and a short guy in a suit with some taller guys in suits got on. He asked us who we were, where we were from, etc and when the elevator opened, all these people started clapping and swarming him. Yep, Governor Mike Huckabee and his security team. And we had no idea because we had just moved there. An hour later we bumped into him again and he had a photographic memory for everything we told him.
If you had to choose any band or musical artist to perform at Bulldog Stadium, who would you choose?
Rush. The best group ever. But having John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers would be sweet. Johnny Cash. Allison Krauss. So many choices…
What is the No. 1 thing that makes Concordia a special place?
If you are interviewing for a position as a professor or coach at Concordia, and are not talking about loving our students unconditionally, about working intentionally to build lifelong relationships with them, of knowing who they are outside the classroom and the athletic field, and of being there to serve them in the name of Christ, you are probably not going to get hired here. You’ve also got to be REALLY good at what you do, professionally. Decades of this type of hiring have created a unique family-centered environment that is unlike anywhere else I know. I’ve experienced this as a student-athlete in the 80s and 90s, and now as a coach I see this every day.
What is it that keeps you excited about your job as you look ahead to the 2021-22 academic year?
These wonderful people who are part of our team. Our athletes are some of the best people I know, and I can’t wait to bring our incoming freshman class together with the returners and experience the magic that will happen as they get to know each other. I really love spending time with my coaches – Ed McLaughlin, Mark Samuels, Ben Hinckfoot and Jason Berry. They make me laugh. And since we are all pretty competitive, the potential for winning additional GPAC titles and National titles always gets us fired up. Our teams graduated a few really good athletes, but we are returning a ton of talented kids, and have a recruiting class of 50 who are going to be impact players. I love recruiting, and am already having a great time building relationships with the big group of 2022 and 2023 prospects.