KENNESAW, Ga. – At 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, Joel Pearson walks out of a tunnel and up to the track to begin his team’s practice. No whistle around his neck or megaphone in his hand. He does not greet his athletes with yells or scowls. Instead, he greets his team with hugs. Men and women alike. Everyone gets a hug, or a high-five, and a smile.
To many, he asks about their day, how they are doing, and occasionally about classes. His reception lacks one word: coach.
“My name is Joel and the most important thing to me about coaching is relationships,” said Pearson. “They (student-athletes) call me Joel and I call them by their name. That’s very important to me.”
The 27-year-old was announced as the new head coach of the cross country program at Kennesaw State University at the end of July by Track and Field Director Andy Eggerth, just a month before the program’s first meet.
“Because he clicked right away with myself, the staff, and the athletes, we didn’t feel it was necessary to bring any more on campus for an interview,” said Eggerth.
Like Eggerth, redshirt senior Heather Morris knew that Pearson was the right man for the job, but with such a short time before the first meet, the runners had to understand and accept his training program very quickly. They also had to put their trust in someone they didn’t really know to lead them. Buying-in to a new system usually takes more than a month for athletes, but, here, they didn’t have much of a choice.
“It took about four days,” said Morris. “It didn’t take long. I had initially come into the program this year a little discouraged from the coaching change.
“After sitting through meetings with him and looking at his training program and everything he had planned for us, I was sold on it and I knew the whole team was,” said Morris.
Perhaps it was so easy for this team to buy-in to Pearson’s methods because the athletes themselves were involved in the hiring process.
“We always encourage them to be involved,” said Eggerth. “When we went from [Stan] Sims to bringing [Ryan] Wagner in, we invited the athletes. Ironically, only one showed up to, kind of, interview him, but with Coach Pearson basically everybody showed up.”
“When they switched between Sims and Wagner, I didn’t feel as involved or as important in the decision-making process,” said Morris. “Coach Eggerth and the rest of the coaches wanted our opinion in the matter, so I wanted to get as many people there as possible. I think that’s why we had so many people there [for Pearson].”
As excited as Eggerth and Morris were about the opportunity to engage Pearson and interview him, Pearson, himself, had no idea what he was walking into.
“I was nervous,” said Pearson. “Andy and I talked a lot, and I loved Andy a lot, and he’s telling me ‘I’m bringing you in.’ I’m the only person they’re going to bring in, so I was really excited. I thought that was great. Then, I get there and he says ‘here’s 10 women.’ He looks at them and pretty much says ‘Go!’
“They started firing away questions and ideals and comments. I was more nervous about my surprise interview with the women’s team than I was to be flown in from where I was to Kennesaw. It was great though because what I realized is that they were very passionate about who they wanted and they wanted someone who was going to take care of them, not only as students or as athletes, but as people.”
Pearson admitted that it was a benefit for both, the team and himself, that they interrogated him so heavily, though they didn’t know it at the time. The interview laid the foundation for a great respect between player and coach and gave Pearson a chance to ease the minds of the athletes in their first official meeting.
“I went home and wrote down the questions they asked and, after I was hired, I asked Andy [Eggerth] what he would do and how he would approach it,” said Pearson. “The first meeting was easy for me because I knew what they wanted to hear and, it’s okay to know this now, I was able to trick them. They probably didn’t realize, but I was able to put their mind at ease in the first 30 minutes.”
Relationships are something that Pearson speaks on in conversation about his teams. Another word he mentions a great deal is respect, but not in terms that most people would think.
“Respect to me is that I show up and I prepare to do exactly what’s best for them,” said Pearson. “It’s not that I call them ‘athlete’ and they call me ‘coach,’ or I say ‘do 20 pushups’ and they do them. It’s more of we both show up, equally prepared, and we do what’s best for each other and that’s that.”
Pearson has a proven track record of getting athletes to buy-in and respect him. That is evident in his recruiting past, which was a strong quality that Eggerth was looking for in his candidates.
Previous to coming to KSU, Pearson was a coach at North Carolina A&T. There, he was able to bring in Foot Locker finalists and a four-minute-miler. His accolades in the track and field world are also easy draws for athletes.
Recently, Pearson was accepted into the USA Track and Field Level 3 academy, the highest level of certification in the U.S.
“For recruiting, it’s a great thing,” said Eggerth. “It’s harder for the international coaches to get to some of these schools, so the international kids see it as ‘Oh you’re in highest level certified? My coach doesn’t have that.”
Pearson points all of his athletic and coaching successes to his father, Jim Pearson. Jim is a former American 50-mile record holder and 50-mile champion. However, Joel credits his coaching style to another source.
“My approach to coaching is attributed to how I was raised as a person and a Christian, and that’s all thanks to my parents, especially my mom,” said Pearson.
Family is a big part of Pearson’s life. Every meet that he goes to, he packs two bags. In one of those bags, without fail, is a picture of him with his family. His reason, “you bring the people with you that got you there.”