The criteria for making this list are as follows: an impressive hit list, not recruiting athletes, the ability to develop a comprehensive list, being ahead of their time (an innovator), and helping boys become better men by the rest of their lives (aka leaving a mark on everyone he coached). Without more adolescent:
1) Harry Johnson, Head Boy track and field coach, South Eugene High School, Eugene, Oregon 1971-1977 – Seven state championships.
When Coach Johnson (who was soon known throughout the state simply as “Harry”) took over the athletic program at SEHS, they had never won a state athletic championship in the school’s history. Only one high school in Eugene had ever won a state track and field degree, its rival North Eugene high school ten years earlier. Harry’s teams won the state title their first year and every year after winning seven consecutive state championships. Its athletes set national records in the decathlon, steeplechase, 6-mile, 10,000-meter sprint, distance medley relay, and four-mile relay (the latter of which still stands to this day).
Despite the fact that there were few Division 1 scholarships available in the sport of track and field, Harry’s athletes earned more full scholarships to major colleges than any of the other schools in the state, each year. This included all the major sports (soccer, basketball, and baseball) that had many more scholarships available.
As impressive as the stats listed above are, most of what made Harry great wasn’t that easily quantifiable. How did you manage to create such close ties between the various team members in an individuals sport? How did you manage to make all team members feel important to the overall success of the program? How did you keep seniors who were trying to break five minutes in the mile motivated on a team that had multiple runners struggling 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 that I have seen time and again in coaches / leaders who excel at the highest levels. Somehow he got you to accept his process and give yourself to something bigger than yourself. 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 way 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 the matches came. His athletes were rarely seen tense or nervous. While the other teams’ athletes were “getting ready” to compete, Harry’s were on the loose and having fun. They saw everything as an opportunity, which kept the idea of possible failures a million miles away.
I don’t know if the following was by design or not (and I asked Harry and he wouldn’t admit it if it was), but Harry’s teams wore different colored hoodies (except for the school name on the back which was on school colors: purple and white). So, as his athletes were preparing for their (mentally free) events, most of his competitors were concerned to find out what the different colored sweats meant.
Some of the best artists wore blue sweatshirts, others were in orange, black, red, green or burgundy. Some of 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 multitude of plausible reasons. The reality was quite simple; Everyone was able to choose the color they wanted, starting with the elderly, until one color ran out.
Although Harry was undefeated at the state championships during his tenure, his teams lost a couple of games over the years. Harry could easily have won them all as well, but he would rest many athletes to give less skilled athletes a chance to get ahead, and they usually did. This also helped in its development in the future.
However, there was an exception to this strategy. Harry despised cheating and there was one school in particular with a reputation for recruiting athletes outside of other schools. When his team took on that school, Harry carried all of their best athletes and almost prevented that school from scoring every time. I think that’s called sending a message.
2) Harry Johnson, Head Boys 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 on the soccer team. Shortly after, he was asked if he wanted to coach his new gymnastics team. Having no prior gymnastics experience at any level, but also not someone who backs down from a new challenge, she 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 each year before leaving office.
3) Harry Johnson, Cross Country Head Boy coach, South Eugene High School, Eugene, Oregon 1970-1977- Eight state championships.
This could easily have been the number one spot for Harry, as this former soccer star and coach liked a bunch of lanky distance runners and turned them into men. The only reason I awarded him his job as the number one track and field coach was the sheer number of diverse people he was able to bring together as one.
That said, he was probably best known for the work he did in developing medium and long distance runners, and he did it without overloading them with destructive high mileage, as many successful high school coaches did 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 coached five of his mile players to best marks of under 4:10, two running under 4:05 in his very short time as head coach there.
Harry turned down numerous opportunities to train in major college track and cross country programs, but eventually an opportunity too good to pass up appeared. The upstart sports company known as Nike decided to start an athletic team, the first of its kind, 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 that team, he became known as 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 culture and some of the athletes he left behind for his successors won another eight state titles in the five years after his departure.
For anyone wondering why I made it to the top 1, 2, and 3 on this list. The answer is twofold: 1) Just giving it first place didn’t seem like enough for its extraordinary quality and 2) I have an aversion to lists and awards in general, since they are always subjective, so I thought why not?
“The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.” • Jimmy Johnson
You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc