For Robert Johnson, leading Track Town isn't just about winning

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Robert Johnson has had huge success as track and field and cross country coach for the University of Oregon. He describes himself as an advocate for his athletes.EUGENE — Given his druthers, Robert Johnson would rather be doing just about anything than sitting down for a lengthy interview with a journalist.

Johnson’s first choice would be working with his University of Oregon track and field athletes.

In his third year as head coach of the men’s and women’s programs, the native North Carolinian pulled off a rare double this spring, capturing NCAA titles with both squads. Labor of love is a cliché, but it fits perfectly for Johnson, who is 42 but looks a decade younger.

Next might be a foray on the golf course. He is a member of Eugene Country Club who can get lost for hours with headphones at the driving range.

Right in there would be spending time with his wife of five years, Jackie, a massage therapist for the Oregon Track Club. Maybe watching a movie — he often finds himself quoting a favorite line or two from a favorite film to his athletes.

But revealing himself to a writer? A necessary evil, to be parceled out as infrequently as possible.

“I just think it’s less about me and more about the kids,” Johnson says as he settles in for an interview in his Casanova Center office. “I always wanted to be that way, as an advocate for them.

“At Oregon, it’s a little different. You need to be the face of the program, and track is one of the signature sports here. What comes along with that are media and activities where they want you to talk and be seen. Probably not my cup of tea, but I understand it, and we accommodate more of these than I would do on my own. I’d rather be seen and not heard.”

What Johnson has done since taking over for Vin Lananna running the UO program is extraordinary. In his three years, the Ducks have won eight NCAA championships — men’s cross country in 2012, women’s indoor track and field in 2013, men’s and women’s indoor and men’s outdoor track and field in 2014, and men’s indoor and outdoor and women’s outdoor track and field in 2015.

Johnson is caretaker of an Oregon program that has carried a hallowed tradition in the sport for many decades, headlined by the three Bills — coaches Hayward, Bowerman and Dellinger. None of them, however, won back-to-back NCAA men’s outdoor crowns.

Oregon track’s Mount Rushmore might soon be ready for a fourth head of granite. The very idea is daunting to Johnson.

“I still have to pinch myself about the year we had last year,” he says. “Oregon track and field has been around a long time and has a lot of historical aspects. Some would argue it is one of the most successful programs in NCAA history in any sport.

“To have a year like we had last year that was unprecedented — that’s really saying something because of all the greats who have been here. Hayward, Bowerman and Dellinger are legends. And some day, somebody is going to probably put your name in there when you’re dead and gone.

“The one thing I can’t emphasize enough: I didn’t do it by myself. I have had great athletes. I have a phenomenal coaching staff. I’ve been blessed in many ways.”

• • •

Johnson came to Oregon in 2005 when Lananna was hired away from Stanford to oversee the UO men’s and women’s programs, replacing embattled Martin Smith, who announced his resignation after six years as the Ducks’ “director of track and field programs.” Smith had added the UO women to his men’s coaching responsibilities in 2003, with Tom Heinonen retiring after coaching the Ducks’ women for 26 years.

Heinonen had coached Oregon to the 1984 NCAA outdoor title and to nine conference crowns, but the UO women hadn’t finished among the top 10 in the NCAA outdoor championships since 1993 or in the top five at the Pac-10 meet since 1999. Oregon’s men had done better, but not at the levels during the Dellinger era (1973-98).

“When I arrived, we had the vision that we were going to make Oregon the most dominant track and field program assembled in the history of the NCAA,” says Lananna, who now divides his time between his job as UO’s associate athletic director in charge of track and field operations and as president of TrackTown USA. “I needed to put together an all-star staff.

“I was very careful in what we were looking for. Robert fit the bill. He is charismatic, big-thinking, hard-working and excellent in his interaction with the athletes.”

Johnson had spent the previous two years at UCLA, coaching the jumps for both the men’s and women’s team and coordinating the strength and conditioning program for the women. The Bruins had won the NCAA women’s title his first year and were a perennial power in the Pac-10.

Lananna flew Johnson to Eugene for a job interview.

“A one-hour dinner turned into four or five hours,” Lananna says. “That night, I offered him the job. He was the only person I interviewed. I talked to a lot of people on the phone, but he was the only person I brought on campus for that position. I was that impressed.”

Johnson laughs about it now, saying Lananna “sold me a pipe dream, that I should look at the forest instead of the trees.”

In 2004, the UCLA women “had won the conference meet and were runner-up at the NCAA meet,” Johnson says. “Oregon was having some issues on the women’s side. Part of me coming here was getting the vibe back on the women’s side, because the men’s side had had some success.

“Vin tricked me. I was supposed to coach just the jumps for the men and women; when I got here, he was like, ‘You’re also going to coach the hurdles and sprints for the women.’ I got all these responsibilities I knew nothing about.”

Lananna shrugs that off with a smile.

“I said, ‘You’re going to have to learn the sprints and the hurdles, too,’” he says. “You hire good people. I don’t worry about putting someone in a box. I knew Robert would learn quickly, and he did. We gave him the resources to get it done. He and the rest of our staff turned out to be a great match.”

Johnson focused on the women’s side, with special emphasis on recruiting. In 2008, he became the associate head women’s coach. By the time he took over for Lananna running both the men’s and women’s programs in 2012, the UO women had won four straight Pac-12 outdoor championships and three successive NCAA indoor titles and were runners-up in the NCAA outdoor championships four times in a row.

It’s gotten even better since then. Not bad for a kid from the sticks in rural North Carolina.

• • •

Johnson grew up in Morganton, a town of less than 17,000 about an hour and a half from Winston-Salem. Robert didn’t know his biological father. His mother, Brigitte Johnson, was a beautician. Robert and his brother were raised by his mom and his grandparents, Mack and Martha Wilson, whom he says were his biggest influences growing up.

“It was a very humble beginning,” Johnson says. “Early in my childhood, we lived on a farm, with pigs and chickens and apples and corn and tomatoes and greens.”

Later, they lived in town on Avery Road near a host of relatives.

“I had a great-grandfather who lived a stone’s throw away,” Johnson says. “Had two uncles who lived less than a block away. Cousins lived on down the street. That whole road was like a community. You could get a whoopin’ on the other end of the street and get home and get another whoopin’.”

Johnson was a two-sport athlete at Freedom High, the sixth man on a basketball team that went 27-3 and reached the state 4A semifinals his senior year. He was better in track, which changed his life course.

“I wasn’t going to go to college,” he says. “I was going to enlist in the Army. But I triple-jumped 47 feet the first meet of my senior year, and suddenly I had all these coaches beating on my door.”

Johnson finished second in the triple jump at the state meet but couldn’t qualify academically for four-year schools, so enrolled at Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Fla.

“My first year there, I had a growth spurt; I woke up one morning and my feet were off the end of my bed,” Johnson says. “I went from 5-10 to 6-6 in about two years, and the recruiting process starts all over again.”

Johnson chose Appalachian State in Boone, N.C, which had recruited him in high school. He was a two-time triple jump All-American and an NCAA high-jump qualifier and school record-holder (7-1 3/4) with the Mountaineers. As a senior in 1996, Johnson was the Southern Conference triple and high-jump champion and its outdoor track and field athlete of the year. He qualified for the Olympic Trials that year in the triple jump but was unable to compete because of an ankle injury.

Over the next four years, Johnson competed professionally and registered a personal record of 54 feet in the triple jump. He ended his career by placing eighth at 53-3 1/2 in the 2000 Olympic Trials at Sacramento, Calif.

By that time, Johnson had begun his coaching career at Appalachian State, where he worked as an assistant from 1997-2003. During his time there, Johnson began caddying at Diamond Creek, a posh country club in Banner Elk, N.C.

“It was good money,” Johnson says. “Work a loop (18 holes) and you could make $250. Two loops a day and you could make $500.”

There was a fringe benefit, too. Monday was employees day. Johnson got turned on to playing the game, and got to play for free.

Johnson was caddying when he received a call on his cell phone one afternoon. It was Jeanette Bolden, the women’s track coach at UCLA.

“I’m looking for a jumps coach,” Bolden told Johnson. “I keep asking people, and your name keeps popping up.”

“I’m in the middle of something,” Johnson told her. “Can I call you back tonight?”

Says Johnson: “I got home and brushed up on UCLA so we could have a more intelligent conversation. We talked, they brought me out for an interview, and offered me a job on the spot.”

Two years later, Johnson’s reputation as a standout jumps coach had grown even more. Soon he was on a plane to Eugene, preparing for a new chapter to his career.

• • •

Oregon had enjoyed slivers of success with female sprinters over the years such as as Rosie Williams, LaReina Woods, Debbie Adams, Stefanie Hunter, Melanie Batiste, Camara Jones and Grace Bakari and with jumpers such as Julie Goodrich, Kelly Blair, Sara Jessie, Laurel Roberts and Shari Collins.

But many of them were Northwest kids who chose to stay home. The Ducks’ calling card had always been with distance runners, in part because of the Northwest’s typically wet spring weather. It was difficult to get Californian sprint/jump recruits to buy into the idea that they could thrive at Oregon.

“Weather is one of the things our competitors use against us,” Johnson says. “That’s something we faced early on, and we still face it today, although it’s gotten easier because we’ve had some success. But when I started, we had to break a barrier.

“I can remember calling recruits and saying, ‘This is Coach Johnson from Oregon.’ And they’d say, ‘Who?’ I tend to have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. To hear ‘no’ so many times when you’re calling recruits, you take a hit there for a little bit. What’s going on?”

In his first three years, though, Johnson convinced Keshia Baker from Fairfield, Calif., Jamesha Youngblood from San Pablo, Calif., and Amber Purvis from Richmond, Calif., that the sun actually shines once in a while in Eugene. And he got Oregon Class 6A sprint champion Mandy White of Lakeridge to stay in state.

“We got a couple,” Johnson says, “and then we got a couple more. Now we can really pick and choose from all over the country with what we’re doing here.”

Over the past three years, the Ducks have had as good a female sprint corps as there is in the country with national and NCAA champions English Gardner, Jenna Prandini and Phyllis Francis.

Baker recalls sitting with Lananna and Johnson during her recruiting visit in 2006.

“I attribute much of my success to Vin’s vision, and I remember him telling me he had a lot of confidence in Robert to see that vision through,” says Baker, 27, who won three straight conference 400 titles, was a member of Oregon’s 4x400 relay unit that won an NCAA crown, and was on the U.S. 4x400 relay team that won gold at the 2012 Olympic Games. “Everything played out exactly how he said. He got us all on board to believe exactly what he was saying, even though we weren’t that good to start.”

From Johnson, Baker says, she learned a lot about the sport of track and field, about running the 400, about the history of the University of Oregon.

“He taught me how to be a good leader,” says Baker, now living in Long Beach, Calif., after the recent birth of a son, her first child. “He was really good at breaking down things for me and giving me the basic foundation and continuing what I’d learned in high school.

“Robert is funny, down to earth, a person you can talk to, a good personality, easy to get along with. Even-keel, and a very good role model. Going to Oregon was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, and I attribute much of that to him being my coach."

Youngblood knew nothing about Oregon or its track program until Johnson showed up at her doorstep.

“He recruited hard,” says Youngblood, who became a two-time conference long-jump and triple-jump champion, placed fourth in the long jump at the NCAA championships and was part of the Ducks’ 4x400 NCAA title unit. “He was such an awesome person when I first met him. My mom fell in love with him. I had such an amazing time, and he did such a good job on my visit, I couldn’t say no.”

What did Johnson do for Youngblood during her time at Oregon?

“What didn’t he do?” says Youngblood, now married to former Oregon football standout Jerome Boyd and recently a first-time mother to a baby girl. “He did everything. He was a very good mentor. Whenever we needed advice about anything, he was always there.

“I got to watch him develop as a coach. He wasn’t known for his sprinting knowledge like he is now. He’s like the sprint master. I got to watch him develop his craft. As I got older, we worked more together. We went from jumping to sprint practice. He would critique us on so many things. Every day at practice was really fun.

“Robert is goofy — that’s the best way I can describe him. He has a very good sense of humor. He always wants to joke around. I can call him up right now and say something that happened my freshman year and we’d laugh about it for five minutes.”

Johnson developed an esprit de corps among his athletes.

“His door was always open for you to come in and, if you had any problems, were homesick or something, he was there to help,” says Youngblood, who lives in Stockton, Calif. “He was so involved and caring with us, it passed down to everybody on the team. We were a team, and (athletes from) other schools noticed how much we loved each other. It seemed like they were jealous of our camaraderie.”

As with Youngblood, Johnson won over White’s mother in the recruiting process.

“He was easy to talk, easy to be around,” says Donna White, Mandy’s mom, who still lives in Lake Oswego. “You felt safe with him. Mandy was in good hands. I felt all of those things as a mother.”

Mandy — who became Oregon’s first 100-meter All-American — remembers Johnson as “a charismatic coach, but also a no-nonsense coach. He’d compliment us sometimes, but he’d put his foot down, too.”

White recalls Johnson’s sense of humor.

“He’d give us flowers and say he wanted to give them to us ‘while we’re still living, so we can appreciate it,’” says White, who lives in Los Angeles and is still competing in track. “He was like a father figure to me. ‘Stay away from the frat guys,’ he’d say.

“Sometimes people can get the wrong idea about him. He’s a very private person. He doesn’t like to be in the spotlight. But he’s a very good person.”

Leah Worthen — now married to former UO center Max Unger and also the new mother of a baby girl — wasn’t a star when she ran the relays and the 400 hurdles at Oregon from 2006-09. But the Marshfield High grad improved each year, and credits much of her success to Johnson.

“The first thing he said to me when I came into his office was, ‘Oh, you’re a little thing,’” Worthen Unger says. “We had our little get-to-know-each-other period, but it got over quick. I really love Coach Johnson. We had a great relationship. He made my track experience at Oregon great.”

Johnson was a combination of a taskmaster and a favorite uncle as a coach, Worthen Unger says.

“His workouts were hard as hell,” she says. “He came to a program as a sprints coach, an event where we were just getting by. That’s what he inherited. He was probably shaking his head, thinking, ‘What am I going to do with these girls? I know — kick their ass in workouts.’

“He was really knowledgeable, but what was really great about Robert as a coach wasn’t the technical stuff. He was relatable. He’s cool. He really cared about us. He instantly brought you in, and you felt you’d known each other for years.”

Laura Roesler was three times a Pac-12 champion and the NCAA indoor and outdoor 800 winner as a senior in 2014. She worked out with Johnson and his sprint group every day at practice.

“Robert has an individual plan for each of his athletes,” says Roesler, a Fargo, N.D., native. “For me, he saw running beyond college. That’s how he set up my program. It was nice to know he was looking out for my interests, not only as a collegiate athlete but as a post-collegian.

“I learned so much. Most 800 runners don’t get sprint training and background and the technical stuff I got to experience at Oregon. That was super important.”

Johnson’s intensity intimidated Roesler at first.

“It took me a while to get past being afraid of him,” she says. “He wanted us to be so good, sometimes he seemed too intense. He’s just passionate about what he does. He wants to see us succeed. He pushed me past limits I thought I had. He saw more in me than I saw in myself.”

• • •

Since Johnson became head coach, he has continued to coach individual events — the jumps and 400 for both men and women, the 800 for women and a couple of his male athletes. Johnson helped develop Mike Berry, the school 400 record-holder (44.75) and a three-time NCAA runner-up.

“Robert knows his stuff — the mechanics, the science, the technical aspects that go into it,” says Berry, 23, now living in Seattle and training as a Nike-sponsored runner. “He’s a great teacher. He is hands-on. He’s tough at times, but he does it to get the best out of his athletes.

“He’s real cool, man. A jokester. I had a lot of fun with him. For me, he was a role model, a father figure and a wonderful person to be around. He was always trying to brighten the mood in every way.”

Distance runner Parker Stinson appreciated the cohesiveness Johnson brought to the men’s team.

“With so many different events, it’s hard to bring a track team together, but he did it with us,” Stinson says. “He did a lot of things to build chemistry. On road trips, he’d room a thrower with a distance runner. Every few weeks, he’d hold a team meeting. He really cares, and everybody bought into that.”

• • •

Johnson’s closest friend among his staff members is Andy Powell, UO’s associate head coach who works with the male distance runners. They came to Oregon together when Lananna was forming his staff in 2005. Powell’s wife, Maurica, coaches the female distance runners.

“It’s been fun,” Powell says. “We’ve grown pretty close. We’ve seen the program build up into what it is now. It’s been a lot of hard work, especially when we first got here.”

Johnson and Powell live a half-mile from each other and spend plenty of time together outside of work. They are golf partners during the summer. “He has to give me more than a few strokes,” Powell says. “I try to keep up.”

Powell says a key to Johnson’s success is the strong relationships he has with his athletes.

“His motto is that every student-athlete matters,” Powell says. “He starts to build relationships when they come in as freshmen. You can tell he cares about them. That’s why he gets them to do extraordinary things.

“He is competitive, for sure, and driven, but has a good perspective on things. He treats the staff well. He treats the athletes well. He doesn’t run them into the ground. it’s not all about winning; it’s about the whole student-athlete experience. That’s really important.”

When Johnson crafts what he calls “mission statements” before each season, he wants the athletes’ participation.

“Our goal is to win, to be on the podium, to win a trophy,” he says. “But I always tell them, ‘I’m not jumping over no hurdles. I’m not running. I’m not jumping any sand pits. I’m not throwing any implements. This is your team. You can make it what you will.’

“Does that mean the prisoners are running the prison? No, probably not. But I tell them, ‘I will listen, I’ll take your advice, I’ll err on your side of things.’”

Bowerman was head coach of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. Lananna will serve as head coach on the men’s side at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Does Johnson one day hope to follow suit?

“I wouldn’t say that’s a goal,” he says. “If something like that happens, it happens, but those aren’t my aspirations or dreams. Those things don’t motivate me in the morning when I get up.”

What does?

“Relationships,” Johnson says. “Everything we do is based on relationships. They say it’s about who you know, not what you know. There’s a little bit of truth to that. I love making an impact and changing lives on a day-to-day basis. Kids oftentimes come in as freshmen green as a blade of grass, and I get to see them mature and grow.

“And I enjoy the recruiting piece of it. I like meeting the parents and the kids, interacting with the coaches. Those are all good things for me.”

• • •

In only his fourth year as a head coach, Johnson’s reputation in college circles is growing.

“He’s the best there is,” Powell says. “We’re biased at Oregon, but he really is. He’s the best coach in the NCAA, and his peers would agree.”

“If you look at his success, it’s hard to argue he’s not the best coach in the country,” Lananna adds. “He has exceeded all the coaching expectations.”

Powell marvels at his cohort’s versatility.

“Robert came in as a jumps coach, took over the sprints, and now he’s coached more two-minute women 800 runners than anyone else,” Powell says. “He knows all the events. We can talk for hours about 4x400 philosophy, but also distance running or cross country.

“He gets the most out of his athletes. And they even progress after college, which is important. It doesn’t matter if it’s a No. 1 recruit, or the ones he saw some talent in out of high school that he also develops. That’s the test of a good coach — coach a lot of events and be able to develop. He does it better than anyone.”

There are times, of course, when Johnson needs to get away. Sometimes, he’ll sit at home and watch a “chick flick” with his wife. Often, he’ll head to Eugene Country Club.

“I love the solitude of hitting golf balls,” he says. “I don’t play nearly as much as I practice. I can go to the range and put my headphones on and get lost, hit ball after ball after ball. Next thing you know, it’s three hours later and it’s dark. Somebody taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘They just made an announcement. Time to go.’ “

Johnson seems content in Eugene, where track and field is cherished like no place else in the nation. And at Oregon, where the sport is supported financially and emotionally better than anywhere.

“I’ll stay here and coach as long as it’s still fun,” he says. He pauses for a minute to reflect.

“It’s as fun as it’s ever been for me,” he says. “You’re ever growing. You’re ever evolving. I’m probably a better coach now than I was. I’m probably a better facilitator. I don’t ever want to call myself an administrator, but you do a good bit of that on this job, and I’m better at that than I was four years ago.”

It’s a good life, and Robert Johnson is appreciative. Even if he has to occasionally allow people inside the shell, to know more about a private man in a very public position.

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