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The Top Three High School Boy’s Coaches of All-Time
The criteria for making this list are: an impressive list of successes, no recruiting of athletes, the ability to develop a full roster, being ahead of the times (an innovator) and helping the boys to becoming better men for the rest of their lives (also known as leaving a mark on everyone he or she has trained). Without delay:
1) Harry Johnson, Boys Head Athletic Coach, South Eugene High School, Eugene, Oregon 1971-1977 – Seven State Championships.
When Coach Johnson (soon to be known statewide as simply “Harry”) took over the track program at SEHS, they had never won a state track and field championship in the school history. Only one high school in Eugene had won a state title in athletics, rival North Eugene ten years earlier. Harry’s teams won the state title his first year and every year after winning seven consecutive state championships. Its athletes set national records in the decathlon, steeplechase, 6-mile and 10,000-meter run, medley relay, and 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 top universities than any other school in the state, each year. This included all major sports (football, basketball and baseball) which had significantly more scholarships available.
As impressive as the stats listed above are, most of what made Harry great wasn’t so easily quantified. How did he manage to create such close bonds between the various team members in a sport of individuals? How did he manage to make every member of the team feel important to the overall success of the program? How did he manage to keep the seniors trying to beat five minutes in the mile motivated in a team that had several runners trying to beat four minutes in the mile?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I do know that he had the one trait that I’ve seen time and time again in coaches/managers who excel at the highest level. He kind of bought you into his process and gave you 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 pressure on his athletes.
He was also ahead of his time mentally. He rarely talked about winning and focused on preparation, knowing that if you prepared well you would be relaxed and confident when it came time for competitions. You have rarely seen his athletes tight or nervous. While the other teams’ athletes were “getting ready” to run/compete, Harry’s were loose and having fun. They saw everything as an opportunity, which made the idea of potential failures a million miles away.
I don’t know if the following was intentional or not (and I asked Harry and he wouldn’t admit it if it was) but Harry’s teams wore different colored tracksuits (at the exception of the school name on the back which was in school colors: purple and white). Thus, while his athletes were preparing for their events (without mentally burdening themselves), most of their competitors were preoccupied with the meaning of the different colors of sweat.
Some of the top performers wore blue sweatshirts, 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 seemed to have no rhyme or reason, but that didn’t stop athletes from other schools from coming up with a host of plausible reasons. The reality was quite simple; everyone could choose the color they wanted, starting with the seniors, until there was no color left.
Although Harry was undefeated in state championships during his tenure, his teams lost a few duels over the years. Harry could easily have won them all too, but he would rest many athletes to give less accomplished athletes a fighting chance, and they usually did. This also contributed to their development in the future.
However, there was an exception to this strategy. Harry despised cheating and there was one school in particular that was notorious for recruiting athletes away from other schools. When his team faced this school, Harry charged all of his best athletes and almost prevented this school from scoring every time. I believe it’s called sending a message.
2) Harry Johnson, Boy’s Head 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 for the football team. Soon after, they asked him if he wanted to coach their brand new gymnastics team. With no previous gymnastics experience at any level, but not one to back down from a new challenge, he said yes.
The rest is history, as it was here that Harry developed his coaching style and leadership qualities, leading the team to the state title every year before retiring.
3) Harry Johnson, Head Boy’s Cross Country Coach, South Eugene High School, Eugene, Oregon 1970-1977 – Eight state championships.
It could easily have been the top spot for Harry, as this former football star and trainer took a liking to a gang of lanky distance runners and turned them into men. The only reason I awarded him the number one track and field coaching job was because of the sheer number of diverse people he was able to pull together into one.
That said, he was probably best known for the work he did developing middle-distance and long-distance runners, and he did so without overloading them with destructive high mileage like many coaches in high school at the time. However, most high school teams in America do not have an all-time record in the mile as fast as 4:12. Harry has coached five of his milers to records under 4:10, two under 4:05 during his all too short time as head coach there.
Harry turned down many opportunities to coach major university athletics and cross-country programs, but eventually an opportunity too good to pass up presented itself. The upstart sports company known as Nike set out to create a first-of-its-kind track and field team to help post-college athletes train for the Olympics and Nike co-founders Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman , agreed that Harry Johnson was the man to lead this team, which became known as the Athletics West.
Who knows how many more championships Harry would have won and lives he would have touched if he had stayed longer? What is known is that the crop and some of the athletes he left to his successors won eight more state titles in the five years after he left.
For anyone wondering why I put it in the top 1, 2 and 3 on this list? The answer is two-fold: 1) Just giving it the top spot didn’t seem enough for its awesomeness and 2) I have an aversion to lists and awards in general because they’re always subjective, so I I thought why not?
“The difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary is that little extra.” • Jimmy Johnson
You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc
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