(19-May) -- Two-time Olympian Alan Culpepper has been named the new head coach of HOKA Northern Arizona Elite, the team announced today. Culpepper, 49, who was most recently an assistant coach and operations director at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), will succeed team founder and present head coach Ben Rosario who will continue with the team as executive director.
VIDEO STILL: Alan Culpepper speaking on a video conference today (video still via Zoom)
"This is a big day for me," Culpepper said on a video conference with reporters today. "It's a big day for the club and a big day for HOKA."
Culpepper retired as an athlete in 2008 at the age of 35. Since then he has owned a running store, worked in running-event management, and until he began coaching at UTEP was the director of operations and marketing for the week-long Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder, his alma mater. During his entire post-competitive career he has coached athletes individually, but coaching has never been his full-time job. As an athlete he coached himself to personal bests of 27:33.93 for 10,000m and 2:09:41 in the marathon. Essentially, he his a self-taught coach, he said.
"Really, I handled every aspect of my own training," Culpepper said when asked about his coaching qualifications. "Every significant PR, every significant accomplishment was done by my own cognitive thought and how I manipulated that training. So, that's where it started."
Rosario explained that Culpepper had been thoroughly vetted and that the team had interviewed a number of qualified candidates, both men and women. In the end, he and HOKA marketing chief Mike McManus thought that Culpepper was the best choice. Rosario cited Culpepper's ability to connect with athletes through his own experiences as particularly important.
"We targeted a number of different individuals," said Rosario. "We conducted a number of different interviews, eventually leading to visits. The first half of that process ended I'd say around the holidays and, in my mind anyway, it was kind of at that time we started shifting more from the idea of bringing on someone specifically to handle 1500m to 5000m runners to more of a full, head-coaching role." He continued: "As we entered the spring and started talking to Alan and had Alan out for his visit --despite talking to some wonderful people I think whose names I won't share for their sake-- it just became very obvious that Alan was the guy."
Jenna Wrieden, the team's assistant coach, will remain in that position.
HOKA NAZ Elite currently has 12 athletes (five men and seven women) representing four countries, but McManus said that over the next three years they planned to more than double the team to 30 members. McManus and Rosario said that they wanted to have a full complement of athletes from 1500 meters to the marathon and wanted the team to be fully international. Culpepper, who has a mile personal best of 3:55.12, is one of the best American athletes in history over the full mile-to-marathon range.
"We're thrilled to add Alan and in the future to expand NAZ to, say, a more complete distance team for middle distance all the way to the marathon," McManus explained on today's video conference. "For us, we want to have the very best professional distance program moving forward. So, Alan you're a big key on that and welcome aboard."
HOKA NAZ Elite was founded in 2014 by Ben Rosario and his wife, Jen. The team picked up the HOKA title sponsorship in 2015, and the team has enjoyed good success at the national level. Team athletes have earned 14 national titles, and ten Abbott World Marathon Majors top-10 finishes. In 2020, Aliphine Tuliamuk won the USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon, the highest honor earned by any team member.
But McManus wants the team to have more globally-competitive athletes across a wider spectrum of distances, and he sees Culpepper as key to that effort.
"I would tell you Alan's knowledge, his background, his expertise, everything he brings to the table, the savviness of what he already knows about the sport and our ability now as a group for Alan, myself, for Ben to really go after the very best athletes in the world," McManus said. He continued: "I would tell you Alan is the best individual to reach out."
As for Rosario, he said that he had been spread too thinly as both head coach and executive director. He said that he would just run out of day between coaching the athletes (his first priority), and running the team as a business. Working solely as executive director he'll be able to do that job so much better, he said.
"For me, after eight and a quarter years being the head coach and executive director of the team I'm going to be able to now focus as executive director and let Alan take over the nuts and bolts of training. That's going to create a ton of free time for me to build our brand, create more content, make us more marketable, and the list goes on. I'm excited about all those things."
Culpepper will relocate with his wife, Shayne, and family from the Boulder area and reside in Flagstaff. He said he will move slowly to integrate his training ideas with the programs which Rosario has already set up for the team's athletes.
"We're not going to reinvent the wheel for certain aspects," Culpepper said. "There's athletes who have had massive success, so for me to just jump in and to start stirring things up would just be foolish. So, the idea is to leverage the strength and the great work that Ben has already done with those athletes."