Jesuit’s perfect score earns Cullen Doody top coaching award
NEW ORLEANS – The Jesuit High School cross country team had just finished second in the 2020 Division I state meet.
Cullen Doody had been the Blue Jays assistant coach for just six months when he suggested to his runner-up runners that even better days were ahead for the program.
He told them that he believed they were capable not only of winning a state championship but also of doing so with a perfect score.
“That was probably an arrogant thing to say,” Doody recalled.
As it turned out Doody’s statement was less arrogant than it was prophetic. Two years later Jesuit did “perfect score” – claiming the five fastest individual times – to win the 2022 Division I state title.
That accomplishment earned Doody the Greater New Orleans Outstanding Boys’ Prep Coach Award, which he accepted Saturday night at the annual Allstate Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Banquet at Club XLIV.
“We had improved so much in just six months that I thought if we just kept working hard that it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility,” said Doody, who was promoted to head coach before the 2021 season, which also produced a state title for the Blue Jays. “But it’s hard to get a perfect score.”
It’s so hard, in fact, that no team had ever gotten one in the Louisiana Division I cross country meet before.
The feat earned Doody National Coach of the Year honors, and he was selected for the Sugar Bowl distinction over three other distinguished finalists – Nate Roche, who coached the Carver basketball team to its second consecutive state championship; Marcus Scott, who coached the Destrehan football team to a state title and undefeated record; and Wayne Stein, last year’s coach of the year who led St. Charles Catholic to state titles in football and baseball for a second consecutive year.
Doody, 33 years old, was never an obvious candidate to experience such a meteoric rise – being a two-time state championship coach with an historic season on his resume.
He said he was “an average runner” at both Jesuit and LSU, competing with the Tigers for four years.
“I didn’t break any records at LSU. I didn’t win any SEC championships,” Doody said.
His best performance was 19th at the SEC meet, which, he said, “actually is not a bad performance.”
“But,” he added, “no one’s writing stories about that.”
Doody said he’s a good example of successful coaches in all sports who were average athletes.
“Sometimes when it comes so easily as an athlete you can’t relate, “ Doody said. “I had to learn a lot about what makes a good runner, what you have to do to get better.”
After getting his undergraduate degree, Doody enrolled in LSU MedicalSchool, but after his first year he had an accident while wake boarding in Lake Charles and “got a very bad concussion.”
“Cognitively I never recovered from that fully,” he said. “I sat out of school for a year. I never got back to 100 percent.”
The lingering effects of the concussion made the accomplishment of a medical degree unrealistic, so Doody changed course and began his career as a general contractor, but remained “passionate about running.”
“I called Jesuit up and said, if you need some help I’m willing to help,” he said, “and they were receptive to it.”
His alma mater brought him on board to assist head coach Rudy Horvath.
“All the credit in the world to him,” Doody said of Horvath. “He was very receptive to my input right away. He said, ‘it looks like you’ve got some good ideas’ and he just kind of let me run with the training for our team.
“Rudy knew that I was very serious, very passionate so he had no problem kind of turning over the training reigns so to speak to me.”
Jesuit had finished fifth in the state meet for three consecutive seasons before Doody’s arrival. The jump to the 2020 runner-up finish came as Catholic High won its fourth consecutive state title.
“Being an alum and knowing the talent pool at Jesuit,” Doody said, “I just thought there was no way they should be getting fifth three years in a row at the state meet.”
Doody said he “changed a lot of the training that we were doing and I saw how the kids responded to it.
“So I knew that they were going to keep improving with a couple more years of that training.”
Jesuit promoted Doody to head coach after the 2020 season “and it was kind of off to the races from there.”
That’s when Horvath decided to scale back his cross country duties while remaining head track coach. He continues to assist Doody with the cross country team while Doody continues to assist him with the track team.
Doody said that when he arrived the runners “were not as dedicated” as they needed to be in order to realize their potential.
“It was just kind of something they did, it wasn’t who they were,” he said. “It’s a full-time commitment. It’s not something you can just take off from three days a week and still be good at it.
“In running if you slack off you can have all the talent in the world but if you don’t train right you’re going to lose to guys that are training better than you.”
Training right, Doody said, is different than running as hard as you can.
“You need to do a certain amount of easy running every week,” he said. “If you try to go 100 percent all the time you will get hurt, you’ll break down. So you need to learn how to balance your easy days with your hard days. There’s a little bit of artistry to the workouts that you write.”
Doody added that “there’s a lot science in training” and made multiple comparisons to training cross country runners and training thoroughbred race horses.
“It takes genetics and it takes training,” Doody said. “I’m part horse trainer and part psychologist. That’s what running training is.”
It also helps to break up the monotony of training.
“He tries to make it fun for them,” said Doody’s wife, Laura, who Cullen said is “still the best runner that I know.”
Laura was a runner at LSU at the same time as Cullen and still holds three LSU records in distance running and was part of the Tigers’ 2013 SEC indoor championship team.
“He’s definitely a student of the sport – a lot more than I was,” Laura said of Cullen. “He’s always reading literature and watching videos and podcasts. He’s dedicated to an extreme degree.”
The Doodys just returned from a trip for the third consecutive summer to Flagstaff, Arizona, where they rent a house for two weeks and host Cullen’s top 13 runners. It’s an opportunity to train at an altitude that’s a relief from the New Orleans humidity.
The trip benefits the runners’ training as well as their bonding as teammates.
Now three years into Doody’s program, the Blue Jays have embraced the enhanced commitment that he requires.
“The kids take it very seriously,” he said. “They’re very bought in. All of our top guys are pretty much running year round. That’s what it takes.”
At the state meet in Natchitoches every team in every classification runs the same course on the same day.
“It’s one race and everyone from every team is going all out,” Doody said. “Not only do you have to have the best five runners, everyone has to have his best day. No one can get sick, no one can get hurt. It takes a very special group of kids, but it also takes a little bit of luck too.”
Racing conditions at the meet last fall weren’t ideal as a light rain turned the three-mile course muddy.
But the conditions didn’t slow down the Blue Jays as senior Jack Desroches – a Vanderbilt commitment who is one of four of Cullen’s runners who will be competing as freshmen on the collegiate level this fall – won the individual title in a course-record 14:46.0 and four of his teammates followed him across the finish line during the next 13 seconds.
Jesuit, which also won invitational meets against elite competition in Indiana and Alabama during the season, not only had a perfect score for the Division I title, but it had the top five finishers and seven of the top nine among all the competitors in 10 divisions.
“Cross country is a unique sport,” Doody said. “It’s very objective. You can just look at the times and tell these are the best runners.
“If a basketball team had the five best basketball players in the state they would kill everyone every game. That was the composition of our team. It’s very rare to have the five best of anything in any sport at one school and that was what we did last year.”
They also had the Outstanding Boys’ Prep Coach.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…