Sue Parks is the Director of Cross Country and Track and Field at Eastern Michigan University and has been a coach at EMU since 2006. She was recently named 2023 women’s coach of the year by the Mid-American Conference (MAC).
Sports writer Mackenzie Thompson had the opportunity to speak with Sue Parks to discuss her time at Eastern Michigan University and how she’s been able to create an accomplished program. Below is the Q & A.
157 championships is truly something. When you change the new number in the Student Athlete Performance Center after winning a championship, how do you feel? Does the feeling of excitement ever go away?
“I don't think I ever get used to it because every season is different, every championship is different, each one is really hard fought. Every time you think you have a gap over other teams something can come up and derail you, so it's never easy. Every championship is really rewarding and every time we can be a part of changing that number is really special.”
You’re constantly taking the team to new heights each year. What do you do that allows you to continue to elevate each year? Does your recruiting methods change? Are you implementing new strategies each season, or have you come up with a recipe for continued success?
“It's actually changed a lot because when I first got here I was just on the women's side at that point and the program had been very successful, but I just had a different idea of the way I wanted to build the program. They had a really small team and just certain areas that we're focused on and I really wanted to build a total program and have strong athletes in all event areas. So we set out to do that and it's what we've continued to do, but it's changed along the way, obviously. And, you know, we've just had to be creative with our recruiting. We just started out trying to find athletes in the state of Michigan, we still get great athletes from our state here and there, but knew we had to branch out, get some international athletes to really recruit nationwide and just find people that were the right fit for Eastern Michigan. I feel like that's been the key to our recruiting is just finding those people that fit into our program and buy into what Eastern Michigan is all about.”
You have a special connection with Eastern Michigan; born and raised in Ypsilanti, attended Ypsilanti High School and even was a student athlete here at EMU. What does it mean for you to be here now in year 17, bringing championships back to Ypsilanti?
“It’s just really exciting to me. I was in a pretty good spot when I was at Ball State, and didn't really ever see myself getting back to Eastern and the opportunity presented itself and it was just really great timing for me. My parents are getting older and most of my family is in this area and it was just really nice to have the opportunity to come back to my alma mater, not that many people get that opportunity. It was really special to be able to come back, but the road to the top was tough. When I first got to Eastern, we were dead last in my first indoor MAC meet dead last outdoors in my first outdoor MAC meet. We really had to work hard to get to the top. And then once you get to the top it's hard to stay there. So, it's been a great run and I'm really thankful for my opportunity here at Eastern.”
In 2020, you got to change your title, and now you oversee the men's and women's programs. What was that transition like for you? How do you still manage to do both in year 3?
“I always had it as a goal that I wanted to be a director of a program. I did not know if it would ever happen because it's not all that common. It's becoming more common as time goes on, but you know, I got the opportunity and it wasn't an easy transition because of the timing. We started out during COVID and at that point, we were trying to keep, the events group separate, we were practicing at separate times with different groups and things like that. So, you know, we wouldn't have the team all together in one spot, just because of all the factors with COVID. So it was hard to get to know everybody on the team, to bond with the men at first. But I really like it, I really enjoy working with both genders. I feel like it just gives you a different outlook. Everybody's different and it's just fun to deal with different personalities and different mindsets on the team. I don't feel like it's ever been a problem in any way, I feel like our athletes have always been very respectful. I feel like we really hit our stride this year, coming out of COVID, it took us a little while to really figure out our system and our plan. Once we got it all down with the coaching staff and everything, I feel like we were on a good roll.”
What impact has your father had on you as a former athlete and coach? What lessons or messages has he left you with?
“One of his famous phrases that sticks in my head is, 'Don't ever burn your bridges' and I guess you can take that a lot of ways, but for me, it's always like, always give somebody a chance, and never give up on somebody and even if you don't like what somebody says, or like what somebody does to you always be respectful, and don't ever stop talking to them just for that reason. My dad was always big on the underdog and taking on people that maybe weren't great to start out with and making them into something, and so, I think we're just a program of opportunity. We like to pride ourselves on really coaching well, and taking those maybe underdeveloped people and making them into something and, and not that we don't have our share of superstars, but a lot of them didn't start out like that and we built them up. I feel like we got a great coaching staff of coaches that develop athletes, and we'd like to continue to do that.”
What do you look for in an athlete while recruiting? How are you able to spot talent from different countries and mesh different personalities together?
“It takes a lot of digging, I remember when I first started recruiting internationally at Eastern, because I didn't do it so much at Ball State, we just had a different situation there. It was digging into results and contacting people on Facebook. One of my top success stories, Alsu Bogdanova, contacted her on Facebook, she had already committed to another school, but she thanked me for contacting her, and something fell through at the school that she was intending on going to. She contacted me back and said, 'Hey, would you still be interested in me?' And this was literally like July before the fall and somehow we made it happen. She got here and showed up and ultimately ended up finishing second in the NCAA meet for us. So, she was somebody who had no idea like what team stuff was all about what the conference was and that's the one thing that we've had to teach people is that when it comes to competing in the conference, we go all in, that's what it's all about. For us of course, we want people to continue on and be at that national level, but when it comes to conference time, we're going to show up with the goods we're going to show up with our A game. Everybody knows what it's all about and not that things always still perfectly, because they don't, but we want to always pride ourselves on being that team that's going to be ready, when the MAC rolls around.”
What is your favorite and least favorite part about meet day?
“The long track meets can kind of be tough. When we were out at California, we had events starting at 9 a.m. and we finished up with some of the distance races at midnight, we were eating at In-N-Out at 12:30am. What I don't like is that I can't always see everybody compete. If anybody's wearing an E on their chest, I want to see and be able to see them compete and watch what they're doing. I feel like that's very important as a head coach, but the way track meets are set up these days, you just cannot see everybody. We were out in California, and we had 41 people there, and there were people that I just could not see compete, it was just impossible, you know. When we go to a MAC meet, I make sure I'm there, for every single event, I don't miss anything. But at normal meets it's hard to be able to be there for everybody. My favorite part is just watching the athletes compete. What's really special is when it all comes together for an athlete, and they run that huge PR, or get that big jump, or that big throw and all that hard work pays off that's, that's what really does it for me. And obviously, the team titles when all those PRs, and good performances come together with a team win that's really special as well.”
Do you have a favorite moment or memory, either as a student athlete or coach?
“There's probably a number of them, but one more recently that sticks out in my mind was in cross country 2019 we were not favored to win. This was on the women's side, we had gone to pre-national meet two weeks before and performed really poorly. We got hammered by Northern Illinois and Toledo, I mean these teams were so far ahead of us. It was like how are we ever going to beat these teams two weeks later, but the girls just really believed in the training and what we were doing and that we could do it. We came away somehow with a two point win and it was just athletes grinding it out that last thousand, it was just one of those championships that you'll never forget because you're just waiting for the score to come up. Then, all of a sudden you see Eastern on the top, nobody really knew what the outcome was so that was one recent one that was really special because it was kind of against the odds and and we pulled it out.”