At one point in his young life, Rob Conner aspired to be a sports writer.
Once he came to his senses, the Olympia, Washington, native and University of Portland grad was on his way to becoming one of the top cross-country and distance coaches in America.
Conner enters his 30th season on The Bluff with a team that, coming off a No. 3 finish in the NCAA cross-country championships, is ranked 10th in a preseason poll.
"We're hoping to be better than 10th," Conner said. "If everything plays out, we feel we have a shot at a podium team again this year."
That would mean a top-four finish, which the Pilots are getting used to after placing third in 2015, second in 2017 and third last season. It will take some doing, since Portland loses five of its top seven runners from a year ago.
The Pilots return their No. 1 runner, two-time All-American Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse of France, who placed 21st at nationals last season. Supporting Roudolff-Levisse will be a host of promising runners whom Conner hopes to peak for the NCAA meet at Terre Haute, Indiana, on Nov. 23.
Conner has made it a habit of overachieving since he got the UP job in 1990 at the tender age of 26. The underfunded but always competitive Pilots have made it to nationals 19 times in his 29 seasons, including 13 of the last 14, and have finished among the top 10 nine times. The Pilots have finished ahead of Oregon head-to-head at nationals five of the last seven years. Six times, Conner has been honored as West Region coach of the year.
All this despite not having a track or outdoor training facility on campus and not having a full-time assistant until the hiring of Jack Mullaney just this year. (For the first five years, Conner coached both the men's and women's teams by himself; then the Pilots added a coach on the distaff side). Does he feel his team's accomplishments have been overlooked?
"I think so, to be honest," said Conner, who operated his first 18 years on the job without an assistant coach at all. "But it comes with the territory. I don't let that sort of thing eat me up.
"As a small school, we're not in the limelight as much as the big schools, even though we've done better than many of them. But the (track websites) we have today are giving us more national attention. And when you look at our record — especially averaging a top-10 NCAA finish over the last 13 years — it's pretty impressive. "
A fine runner in his own right, Conner competed for two years at Portland after spending two years at Clackamas Community College, claiming the individual title at the West Coast Conference championships as a junior — though he downplays the accomplishment.
"My running in those years is nowhere near anybody's running in our program today," said Conner, who later finished three marathons, clocking 2 hours and 36 minutes in the Portland Marathon at age 29. "It's a completely different level. My senior year (1985) was the best year in school history at that point. We finished 10th at regionals. That would be the worst performance in my 29 years as coach (at UP)."
After working a year as a sports clerk at The Oregonian while in school — and determining it was not his career path — Conner got his master's degree while serving as a graduate assistant at Northwest Missouri State. Five years later, while working his second season as head coach at North Idaho College, an opportunity arose at his alma mater.
Joe Etzel, then UP's athletic director, had hired Tom Millbrooke to coach cross-country and distance running at the school. After a few days, Millbrooke decided it wasn't right for him and returned to his position at Canby High. It was August, less than a month before the 1990 season was to begin.
During their interview, Etzel remarked to Conner, "You're kind of young."
Out of character, the normally modest Conner offered this: "Think about it this way. You'll be getting one of the best young coaches in the nation."
"And he bought that," Conner said. "Luckily, Joe was patient with me. I probably drove him crazy for a while. But I think he was satisfied in the long run."
How has Conner been able to succeed despite working with a small budget — he has nine scholarships, short of the NCAA limit of 12.6 for cross-country and track and field — and no track?
"It comes down to recruiting," he said. "You have to have good people. We don't necessarily get the best recruits, but we've become a destination opportunity for some of the best kids in the country.
"You have to have people who work hard. We don't have a lot of the distractions that the big schools have. We are here to train and go to school. Kids who come here want that as the priorities."
Conner sells UP as a strong academic school, though that can exclude some potential blue-chippers.
"If the kid has a 2.8 GPA, he's not coming here because he can't get into school," he said. "When I'm recruiting, I want to see that 3.8 and that good SAT score."
Soon, Conner will have another selling point. In March, the school will break ground on the Pat Becker Sr. outdoor 400-meter track and stadium situated on newly-acquired land on the Willamette River adjacent to the campus. The track, along with a 500-seat stadium, is scheduled to be ready for use for the 2021 outdoor track and field season.
"It's a game-changer," Conner said. Now, "It's an arms race with facilities. There are some big-time athletic programs around the nation. A (recruit) visits four big schools and he comes here and looks around and thinks, 'I don't see anything.'
"Now we're going to have maybe the most beautiful track facility in the nation, with Forest Park (where the Pilots do most of their training runs) on the other side of the river. It's going to be a beautiful setting."
The track and stadium set the table for the Pilots to have a full-fledged track and field program, though that appears to be well down the road.
"We'll still be a distance-oriented team," Conner said. "I'd love to branch out; we'd just need extra coaches. I'd like to at least bring in some sprinters, have a 4x100 relay unit. It's easy to recruit cross-country guys by selling Forest Park. It's hard to recruit a sprinter when he doesn't know where he's going to work out. This will open a lot of opportunities for us."
So, too, does a 240-meter three-lane indoor track at Chiles Center — on the second floor, circling the basketball court — that was installed last year. It's the only such track in Oregon and will allow the Pilots to play host to several college indoor meets this winter, focusing on distance races.
Conner has fine-tuned his training regimen through the years to ensure his runners are tapered and prepared for the big meets — regionals and nationals.
"It takes some experience," he said. "You can't just go to the NCAA meet for the first time and think you're going to do something. It takes getting there a few times to digest it as a coach. The athletes don't have that luxury. They have a four- (or five-) year window. It takes some input from the coach to make sure they're prepared mentally and physically. We've finally gotten to that point, where we are ready to go and pointing for that meet from Day One."
A year ago, the Pilots finished behind only national champion Northern Arizona and Brigham Young at the NCAA meet in Madison, Wisconsin. Pac-12 schools Colorado, Stanford and Washington trailed at Nos. 4, 5 and 6.
Only Roudolff-Levisse and senior Caleb Webb — the No. 6 runner a year ago — return for this season, though Conner has a stable of young runners with potential waiting for an opportunity. One is sophomore Riley Osen, who finished eighth in the steeplechase at the NCAA championships last spring with a best of 8:41.24.
"Emmanuel will be better (this season)," Conner said. "He has increased his training volume and his intensity. He finished 11th (at nationals) as a sophomore, but had a little bit of an injury to deal with last year. I think he's a top-10 guy. His confidence level will be up, and the Terre Haute course suits him.
"We have a lot of hungry guys who have been working very hard. We're optimistic. We don't want to toot the horn yet, but you build confidence through practice. I think we'll be ready to go."
Conner, 55, figures to go well beyond 30 years at the UP cross country/track helm.
"Originally, I wanted to be the longest employee in university history," he said with a smile. "I believe the record is 52 years. At one point, I thought I'd live forever since I'm a vegan. Now I'm sure I won't. "But I'll work 10 more years at minimum. I'd like to keep going as long as possible."
Conner admits he has done what he wasn't sure was possible when he took over the Pilot reins nearly three decades ago.
"When I got here, my goal was to get a team to nationals," he said. "In '93, we won the regionals. We had five seniors and I thought, 'We may never do this again.'
"But you just keep working hard and hustling and recruiting, and we've made it again and again and again. We had a streak of making it 10 years in a row. It's not easy to do that. We've averaged a top-three finish the last 15 years at regionals. If you're top three in the West, you're going to nationals.
"Sometimes you take it for granted, but we're really proud of what we've done."
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