HOKA NAZ Elite Announces Alan Culpepper as New Head Coach; Ben Rosario to Stay on as Executive Director
Change comes as HOKA looks to more than double the number of athletes on the team and add more track-focused runners
By Jonathan Gault
May 19, 2022
Alan Culpepper will replace Ben Rosario as head coach of HOKA ONE ONE Northern Arizona Elite, effective immediately, the team announced in a press conference on Thursday. Culpepper, 49, a two-time Olympian, had previously served as assistant coach at the University of Texas at El Paso. Rosario, 42, who founded NAZ Elite with his wife Jen in 2014 (HOKA came on board the following year), will remain involved with the team as its Executive Director.
The move is part of a larger transition within NAZ Elite. At the end of last year, four male athletes, including Scott Fauble and Rory Linkletter, left the team for various reasons. In April, NAZ Elite launched a new logo and announced the signing of its first NCAA champion, Wesley Kiptoo of Kenya. And on Thursday, HOKA director of global sports marketing Mike McManus announced that the team plans to expand over the next three years from its current roster of 12 to a total of 30 athletes with the aim of broadening the group’s scope beyond its current focus on the roads and marathon.
“We’re thrilled to add Alan and in the future expand NAZ to a more complete distance team, from middle distance all the way through the marathon,” McManus said.
Culpepper’s hiring has its origins in a conversation between Rosario and McManus in Rosario’s office in downtown Flagstaff during the spring of 2021.
“We talking about recruits and he was really big on some athletes that were having success a lot of success at 1500 meters, 3000 meters indoors, 5000 meters,” Rosario said. “And I just said, look Mike, those are great athletes but that’s just not my specialty. That’s not where I’ve had the most success or where I feel the most comfortable. I feel comfortable coaching people to 5000-meter personal bests, but it’s people whose physiology is more suited to the marathon.”
Rosario suggested that if McManus wanted to expand the group’s focus, he should hire an additional coach. McManus agreed and the two spent the rest of the year searching for candidates for a mid-distance coach. By December, however, Rosario felt it would be better to hire a new coach for the entire group, which would require him to take a step back.
“It wasn’t from Mike and it wasn’t from HOKA, I just got the feeling that it was going to be better to have somebody in charge that was the head coach for the whole group, not only because I thought that would work best within the team, chemistry-wise, but to be honest, I thought it was best for me personally,” Rosario said.
To this point, Rosario had worn many hats for NAZ Elite, from head coach to wrangling sponsors, building the team’s brand, and writing the team’s weekly newsletter. By hiring Culpepper to handle the day-to-day coaching, Rosario says he will have more time to focus on projects that until now were not able to receive his full attention, such as building the team’s podcast network and YouTube following and bringing in additional sponsors.
Culpepper, who graduated from the University of Colorado as the NCAA 5,000-meter champion in 1996, was one of the top American distance runners of his generation. During a pro career that spanned from 1996 to 2008, Culpepper won US titles in the 5,000 (2002), the 10,000 (1999, 2003), and cross country (1999, 2003, 2007), as well as the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials and ran personal bests of 3:55.12 (mile), 13:25, 27:33, and 2:09:41.
His elite coaching experience is limited, however. Culpepper coached himself throughout his pro career but did not make his living in coaching until recently, instead largely working in the event space, where he was director of operations and marketing for the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado from 2015-2021. He was hired as cross country coach at Fairview High School in Boulder in July 2019 and spent the past year as an assistant coach at UTEP in his hometown of El Paso. He also worked as a private coach on the side from 2009-21 and said he coached anywhere from 12-15 private clients at a time during that span.
“I think it’s one of those things where gosh, you ask Steve Kerr — or Steve Nash, maybe that’s a better example, who did he coach before he got in the NBA?” Culpepper said. “I think that’s a better way to think of it, someone who lived it for over a decade. really, I handled every aspect of my own training. 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, and it stems from that. And the day I stopped training, I started coaching.”
Culpepper said that he did not launch directly into coaching full-time after retiring from running as he needed to find a job that could financially support his family of four — few of which exist for a coach with no experience. But he has always been a student of the sport, dating back to the days when he would pester his fellow athletes for training details.
“They’ll tell you, I was annoying,” Culpepper said. “I was pulling them aside at the dinner table in Zurich after the race like, dude, tell me more about your training.”
Rosario is not stepping away from coaching entirely. While Culpepper has already begun coaching some of the team’s younger athletes such as Kiptoo and Alex Masai, Rosario will continue to write workouts for some of the team’s veteran marathoners such as Kellyn Taylor, Stephanie Bruce, Alice Wright, and US Olympic Trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk.
“With those folks, it’s kind of like, okay, we’re pretty much sticking with what works,” Rosario said. “…It’s really following the same template that’s worked for us for a long time.”
That said, Culpepper will have the opportunity to collaborate and share input on their training, just as Rosario will have that same opportunity on the rest of the athletes Culpepper coaches.
Tuliamuk said that when she initially heard the team was looking for a new coach, it was scary for her because she did not know how the process was going to unfold. But once she realized Rosario was going to remain involved, those fears were allayed.
“All of us had a chance to talk to Alan when he came to visit and I really liked him as a person,” Tuliamuk said. “He’s very approachable…If the rest of the team thinks he’s a good choice, a good fit, then I’m on board with it because it’s not going to affect me as a marathoner as much as it going to affect the younger athletes.
“…I know that people are like, What’s happening to Ben? But I think that we are in a really, really good place right now with the changes that are happening that I just cannot wait to see where the club and the team goes from here. I can’t wait for us to blossom in ways that nobody has seen. I will say that we are about to light the world on fire.”
Though McManus and Culpepper’s relationship dates back over 20 years (McManus worked at adidas while Culpepper ran for the company as a pro from 1996-2004), Rosario said he did not have much of a relationship with Culpepper before getting to know him during the coaching search. But Culpepper quickly won him over.
“It just became very obvious that Alan was the guy,” Rosario said. “In fact, after Alan’s visit, [Stephanie Bruce] just sent me a very clear, one-sentence text: ‘You should hire Alan.’ Nobody knows our club better than Steph. I felt the same way, our board of directors felt the same way, Mike felt the same way. And luckily for us, Alan felt the same way.”
Culpepper fits a similar profile to two other recent pro group head coaching hires, Dathan Ritzenhein of the On Athletics Club and Alistair Cragg of Puma Elite Running. All three are white men who were accomplished college and professional athletes, though Cragg and Culpepper had minimal experience coaching top college or pro athletes before they were hired. Ritzenhein, who has had immediate success with OAC, had volunteered at both the University of Oregon and Grand Valley State and coached pros including Parker Stinson and Leah Falland before landing his gig.
Tuliamuk said that when NAZ Elite hired an assistant coach last year, she was adamant the position should go to a woman.
“I told Ben if we were going to be the best group in the country and we wanted to represent women, then we needed to also have a female coach,” Tuliamuk said.
That assistant job ultimately went to Jenna Wrieden, who will stay on in that role under Culpepper. Tuliamuk said the fact that Wrieden was already on board meant that she was not as concerned about representation when it came to the head coaching hire and that the team could focus on appointing the best candidate possible, regardless of race or gender (Rosario said that of the three finalists for the position, one was a woman).
“We have a female coach, we have three of us, African-Americans or Africans on the team (Tuliamuk, Kiptoo, and Masai),” Tuliamuk said. “And so it’s really cool that we’re a very diverse team, we might be one of the most diverse in the country so far. So I’m really excited about that.”
Talk about Culpepper’s hire on the LRC fan forum / messageboard. MB: HOKA NAZ Elite plans to more than double its team size to 30 and include track runners, Alan Culpepper hired as new coach