The criteria for making this list is as follows: an impressive list of successes, no recruiting of athletes, the ability to develop an entire roster, being ahead of their time (an innovator), and helping boys grow into better men for the rest of their lives (also known as leaving a mark on all those he or she coached). Without further ado:
1) Harry Johnson, Head Boy’s Track & Field coach, South Eugene High School, Eugene, Oregon 1971-1977- Seven State Championships.
When Coach Johnson (who was soon known throughout the state as simply “Harry”) took over the track program at SEHS they had never won a state track & field championship in the school’s history. Only one high school in Eugene had ever won a state title in track & field, their rival North Eugene high school ten years earlier. Harry’s teams won the state title his first year and every year after winning seven straight state championships. His athletes set National records in the decathlon, steeplechase, 6-mile and 10,000 meter run, distance medley relay and the four-mile relay (the last of which still stands to this day).
Despite the fact that few division-1 scholarships were available in the sport of track and field, Harry’s athletes earned more full scholarships to major universities than any of the state’s other schools, every single year. This included all the major sports (Football, Basketball, and Baseball) that had many more scholarships available.
As impressive as the statistics listed above are, most of what made Harry great was not as easily quantifiable. How did he manage to create such close bonds among diverse team members in a sport of individuals? How did he manage to make every member of the team feel important in the overall success of the program? How did he keep seniors trying to break five minutes in the mile motivated on a team that had multiple runners striving to break four minutes in the mile?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that he possessed the one trait I have seen again and again in coaches/leaders that excel at the highest levels. He somehow got you to buy into his process and give yourself over to something bigger than you. In doing so, he also found a way to make hard work fun. He didn’t always have the best athletes but he never put any pressure on his athletes.
He was way ahead of his time mentally as well. He rarely talked about winning and focused on preparation, knowing that if you prepared well you would be relaxed and confident when the meets came. You rarely saw his athletes tight or nervous. While other team’s athletes were “psyching themselves up” to race/compete, Harry’s were loose and having fun. They looked at everything as an opportunity, which kept the thought of potential failures a million miles away.
I don’t know if the following was by design or not (and I asked Harry and he would not admit to it if it was), but Harry’s teams wore different colored sweats (except for the school’s name on the back which was in school colors: purple & white). So while his athletes were preparing for their events (unencumbered mentally) most of their competitors were preoccupied with figuring out what the different colored sweats signified.
Some of the top performers were in blue sweats, others were in orange, black, red, green or burgundy. Some in each color were seniors, but others were juniors and sophomores. It was confusing to outsiders and appeared to have no rhyme or reason, but that didn’t stop athletes from other schools coming up with a multitude of plausible reasons. The reality was quite simple; everyone got to choose whatever color they wanted, starting with seniors, until a color ran out.
Though Harry was undefeated in state championships during his tenure, his teams did lose a couple of duel-meets over the years. Harry easily could have won all of them too, but he would rest many athletes to give less accomplished athletes a chance to come through, and they usually did. This also helped in their development going forward.
However, there was one exception to this strategy. Harry despised cheating and there was a particular school with a reputation for recruiting athletes away from other schools. When his team faced off with that school, Harry would load up all his top athletes and nearly shut that school out from scoring every time. I believe that’s called sending a message.
2) Harry Johnson, Head Boy’s Gymnastics coach, South Eugene High School, Eugene, Oregon 1963-1972- Ten State Championships.
Harry started working at South Eugene high school right out of college as an assistant coach with the football team. Soon after, they asked him if he wanted to coach their brand new gymnastics team. Having no previous experience with gymnastics at any level, but not one to back down from a new challenge, he said yes.
The rest is history as this was where Harry developed his coaching style and leadership qualities leading the team to the state title every year before stepping down.
3) Harry Johnson, Head Boy’s Cross Country coach, South Eugene High School, Eugene, Oregon 1970-1977- Eight State Championships.
This easily could have been the number one spot for Harry, as this former football star and coach took a liking to a bunch of gangly distance runners and made them men. The only reason I awarded his job as track & field coach number one was the sheer number of diverse people he was able to bring together as one.
That said, he was probably most widely known for the job he did developing middle-distance and distance runners, and he did it without overloading them with destructive high mileage like many successful high school coaches did at the time. However, most high school teams in America don’t have an all-time record in the mile as fast as 4:12. Harry coached five of his milers to bests of under 4:10, two running under 4:05 in his too short time as head coach there.
Harry turned down numerous opportunities to coach major college Track and Cross Country programs, but eventually an opportunity too good to pass up came along. The upstart sports company known as Nike decided to start a first of its kind track team to help post-collegiate athletes train for the Olympics and Nike co-founders Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman agreed that Harry Johnson was the man to lead that team, which became known as Athletics West.
Who knows how many more championships Harry would have won and lives he would have touched had he stayed longer? What is known is that the culture and some of the athletes he left behind for his successors, won another eight state titles in the five years following his departure.
For anyone wondering why I made him top 1, 2 and 3 on this list? The answer is two-fold: 1) Just giving him the top spot didn’t seem like enough for his extraordinariness and 2) I have an aversion to lists and awards in general, as they are always subjective, so I figured why not?
“The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.” • Jimmy Johnson
You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc