Coach Hopkins brings passion, fire to job

Sarah Hopkins is in her second year as head coach of Minnesota’s cross country team.

Aidan Coleman

Sarah Hopkins has devoted a significant portion of her life to cross country. Starting as a student-athlete, she later transitioned to assistant coach and finally head coach of the Gophers women’s cross country program.

However, the sport wasn’t always her passion.

“My parents wanted me to do a fall sport where I could meet people,” Hopkins said. “I had never [played] soccer or volleyball … and running was a sport that didn’t cut anybody.”

It’s hard to believe that Hopkins, who has worked with the Gophers for 10 years — two as the head coach — only got into the sport because of the whim of her parents.

Before her coaching career started, Hopkins was a member of Minnesota’s cross country team, making the team as a walk-on.

“She was not one of our best by far,” said Gary Wilson, the former head coach of the women’s cross country team.

Wilson, who was the head coach for 28 years, said that while Hopkins wasn’t in the top tier of runners on the team, she worked harder than those who were more talented.

“She was one of those kids that wanted to learn,” Wilson said. “She had a thirst for knowledge.”

Through that, Hopkins was able to make the most of her opportunity.

“I came to [the Gophers cross country team] kind of on a whim as a walk-on. I never earned scholarship money, but I loved every minute of my experience and got better every year,” she said.

Wilson said he saw the impact Hopkins had on the team.

“There were a couple kids on the team that were a pain in the ass,” Wilson said. “She was able to really be a positive influence on the rest of the kids. … She was always a natural leader.”

Following her collegiate career, Wilson asked Hopkins to stay on with the team. She accepted, as she was completing her fifth year of school.

Hopkins was with the program for several years before she was offered a head coaching position.

“After a year of grad school, I got offered the head coaching job at the University of Illinois, which at 23 is sort of a crazy place to be,” Hopkins said. “It was a huge compliment and a huge boost to my ego … [but] in my gut, I didn’t feel as though I was ready for that.”

Hopkins said she figured that if offers were already coming to her at age 23, there would be other jobs waiting for her down the road.

Following the Illinois job offer, Hopkins said Wilson and former athletics director Joel Maturi sat down to discuss her future with the team.

“Coach Wilson sat down with [Maturi] and said, ‘If we can guarantee [Hopkins] that this job is hers, she won’t take the Illinois job,’” Hopkins said.

Hopkins served as an unpaid volunteer coach for eight seasons prior to becoming the head coach when Wilson retired.

“If I could have sucked her in [to coaching] for about 10 more years for free, I would have coached till I was 85,” Wilson said. “She did everything: all the paperwork, all the on-campus visits. … She earned her stripes.”

After replacing a Gophers legend like Wilson, the pressure for Hopkins to succeed seems evident now more than ever.

“In college coaching, you can’t get too comfortable because it is a business,” Hopkins said. “As much as I would love to control my own destiny, there’s a lot of other pieces at play.”

Hopkins said not being heavily recruited out of high school made her become a better coach.

“If I was coming from the position of being the full-ride [runner] that was All-Big Ten right off the bat, it’s harder to relate to those kids that are struggling to get a little bit better every day,” she said.

While this is just her second year as head coach , Hopkins has already earned the respect of her runners.

“She can be a pretty tough coach,” redshirt junior Kate Bucknam said. “She’s very approachable. Her door’s always open. But she can get on us about things when she has to.”

Redshirt junior Liz Berkholtz said Hopkins’ desire for success is evident throughout training and races.

“You can see the fiery side and competitiveness that she brings to the table, which is awesome,” Berkholtz said. “We need a coach that wants it so bad.”