Coach Johnson Honored for 37 Years

Jim Amidon — About 400 of us gathered Saturday night in Knowling Fieldhouse to honor our friend, mentor, and coach, Rob Johnson.

Rob Johnson, who for the last 37 years has been at the helm of the track and field and cross country programs at Wabash College, will retire at the end of this year. Saturday’s celebration was a modest tribute to a great man.

How do you honor someone who has become a fixture at a tradition-rich school?

His former runners, their families, fellow coaches, faculty, staff, and students honored him by their presence Saturday night. His legacy — his words of inspiration, wisdom, and even criticism — live on in all of us who have run for, worked with, and shared our lives with Rob Johnson.

For those Wabash men in future generations who will not have the privilege of knowing Rob, his name — and the impact he had on hundreds of Little Giants — will live on as long as Knowling Fieldhouse stands. The 200-meter oval inside the fieldhouse is now named in honor of Rob Johnson.

I can’t really remember when I first met Coach Johnson. I was not a runner, so it probably wasn’t until well into my time as a Wabash student. I became the sports information director for Wabash the day after I graduated in 1987 and count Rob as one of my very closest friends since that time.

Rob is not an easy friend to keep. He’s tough, cantankerous, and never checks his email. He expects you — whether you’re running for him or working with him — to always perform at your best, so he’s as demanding as they come. Should you let him down, you’ll get one more chance. And honestly, you never really wanted to let him down a third time. He embodies the whole tough love thing and when he’s mad at you, well, you know it.

Sports writers can write volumes about his record — the All-Americans, Academic All-Americans, conference championships, coach of the year awards, and his work with the United States Olympic Development Committee. I’ll let the sports guys talk about how Rob was the first and only Division III coach to serve as an assistant coach for the US Track and Field Team at the Olympics.

To me, Rob has never really been about wins and losses, conference championships, and the like. While those are nice, especially if you’re a coach or SID writing about the performances of individuals and teams, Rob matters more because he sees athletics as a useful metaphor for success in life, not a path to it.

Johnson knows what it takes for a freshman to work his way to a conference championship by the time he’s a junior or senior. He also knows that it will take twice that effort for a young man to get into medical school or law school. If he sees an athlete slacking off, he gets in his face — not because of the sports — but because of what happens in life after sports.

Back in the late 80s when we were working together on promotional materials for the cross country and track programs, Johnson used to say to me, “I’ve probably coached more doctors, lawyers, and CEOs than any coach in the country.” He didn’t do that out of vanity; he did it to make a point with me — that the Wabash program was, first and foremost, about making young men better men and helping them achieve their wildest dreams in life.

A couple of weeks ago when Jo Throckmorton was videotaping some interviews for a tribute video for Coach, Rob stopped us at some point and asked a question: “Why do you guys care so much? Why do you bother doing things like this for some old black guy you could easily have forgotten?”

After Jo had turned off the recording equipment, I leaned in close and whispered to Coach Johnson: “Why do I care? Because you cared about me when I was a 21 year-old kid starting my career. Because you and Coach Petty and Coach Pebworth taught me so much about work ethic, dedication, and passion. And because, honestly, you were like a father to me at a very important time in my life.”

I’m not the only person for whom that’s true. In fact, I bet scores and scores of Wabash men would say the same thing — that Rob Johnson was as much father as he was coach, and was always more concerned about our future than we were.

Which is why we really mean it when we say, Robert H. “Rob” Johnson is Some Little Giant!

In the pictures: Rob’s children — Bryan, Jenaffer, and Becca had moving comments about their dad. In the lower photo is Coach George Baldwin, who was Rob’s high school coach and life-long inspiration.

  1. Roberto Giannini

    Rob always, I mean always keeps asking me; “Giannini, are you OK?” And to my answer: “I am OK…why?” he always replies: “I worry about you.”
    Perhaps, my still pending home situation or the fact that I was going through some “growing” pains or frustrations with recruiting or just the fact that I don’t live with my wife but a few hours a week, pushes Rob to poke his head inside my office (just next to his, so he doesn’t have to go that far!),sit for a few minutes and inquire about my well being.
    He has been doing that since day one, and he even hosted me in his house for six weeks when I didn’t have a place to stay this winter.
    We share many late hours in the Athletic Department. Him and I, in the office until 10, 11 pm. He doesn’t have anyone to go in Crawfordsville, and I…I don’t either. So we just hear eachother’s TVs, phone calls, and, personally, his explosive laughters every time something funny it’s said to him on the phone.
    Our companion, most evenings, is Horace Turner, or H.T., as I learned very recently most people call him, who doesn’t have anyone to go to either and spends his time with his best friend Rob.
    An unlikly trio this one! Two black men from New Jersey,and a white guy from Bologna, Italy. Two men who gave, and received, so much to Wabash, and another one who is still trying to find his place in this communitity. Two men who received their “calling” a half a century ago, and another one who didn’t listen to that call until he was a half a century old!
    Nevertheless, the fulcrum of our improptu meetings and sharings has always been Rob’s office, better known as “the paper jungle of the Midwest!” Amongst the mess though, many wise and important messages are delivered, from Rob and H.T., and received by me.
    As I see Horace strolling down the Athletic Dept.’s corridors, I am sure I will see Rob doing the same once Coach Morgan takes over this July 1st.
    I definitely hope so, because I miss Rob already and the opportunity to go and tell him “something good” just two steps from my desk. I guess, I’ll have to call him on the phone more often.
    I am going to miss my neighbor, my friend, and my adviser…I am going to miss him, I am going to miss him…a lot!

  2. Jenaffer A. Beasley

    Do you know my dad? Coach Johnson?
    A Physical Description:
    My dad is a beautiful man. My dad is 6 foot 2 (he was when I first met him), with beautiful brown eyes (when they’re not blood shot from looking at track footage) and black hair (mostly). My dad has spectacular black skin that glistens in the sunlight in any track stadium and in our back yard. He has a heart of gold that is so big, that it can actually be felt and seen… more on this later. And of course, my dad has a great smile.
    Do you know my dad? Coach Johnson?
    His personality:
    My dad is loud and proud and always has something to say (that is usually positive and uplifiting and that oftentimes makes sense!) like “Don’t be an a-hole. Where’s that ACE factor? Attitude Character/competence/commitment/
    confidence/concentration Effort. Be the best you, you can be. Never let anyone be nicer to you than you are to them. Leave a place better than how you found it. Hustle, hustle, hustle. Look up! Keep your eyes on the prize! And Jen, whatever you do, don’t be an a-hole.”
    Do you know my dad? Coach Johnson?
    Loving Support:
    I remember how much Dad’s life was my life. When I was younger, I could always find him at the track or at the college. If he wasn’t in his office, he was with the team. He was practicing with the guys. It was sometimes hard to see him be a dad to them when I wanted him all to myself. I learned that in a way he was their dad too… I have fond memories of running around the stadium, track, and buildings with my brother and sister. We felt safe and secure in his care and as we watched him care for others.
    My Dad worked hard to raise money for the cross country Spring Training in Gainesville, FL each year. We loved to help him pop the popcorn and sell it at the football and basketball games. Until I was in middle school, I just thought that popping the popcorn was part of my dad’s job description. I later found out that it was an extra service he wanted to perform in order to help the team go to a great training facility each year.
    As I got older and left for college and began my own life… I loved getting care packages, postcards, notes, and birthday cards from dad with his signature smiley face sporting the “W” on its cap. No matter how busy he was, or where he was in the country with his team, I knew that my dad loved me; I knew that amidst his busyness he was also thinking of me.
    When times were hard, dad was and is always there for me. I decided to start training and working out to get into the Los Angeles Police Academy. Through all me tears and injuries, Dad always had answers, strategies, and loving support for me. He helped me through to reach my impossible goal. He would express his concern for me and always he would say “I’m proud of you, Jen.”
    Do you know my dad? Coach Johnson?
    Unforgettable Experiences:
    Sometimes other people would help me to appreciate my dad better.
    I am told that some people have the ability to see colors surrounding people with whom they interact or observe. I do not possess such talents… One time, a man who could see people’s “aura” told my dad that he could see bright colors emitting off of him so intensely that his aura could fill a football field. I looked at this man; I looked at Dad… and although I could not see it… Yeah, I could see it. When other people point out the POWER within someone you love, you look with new eyes on their calling; their purpose; their power.
    When I lived in California, my father would visit me when occasion provided (a track convention). I recall such time when dad was with his National and International track buddies at a huge convention in California. He was so at home. He came alive in ways I will always remember. He was track and field, he knew, and he was known in his community. I loved to see my dad in action as he operated in his calling, it really brought him alive and it was a blessing to be a part of each time. His joy in what he did — and will continue to do, I am quite sure — gives me great joy and confidence about my own life. My father answered the call to be a hands on, heart and soul, blood/sweat/and tears teacher… a coach. This encouraged me to stop running from my own calling of teaching. I strongly believe and know that who I am stems in large part from my father’s courage to answer the call to not only be my daddy but their daddy too in a way. He had the courage to coach.
    We can’t argue with God and win. When we finally accept who God has called us to be — when I finally accepted who God was calling my father to be– I had to realize this was the way things were meant to be. As the Scripture tells us, “the potter does not tell the maker how to mold it.” Thanks, Dad, for having the courage to answer the call.

  3. I have recently retired from coaching high school for 40 spring seasons. I got my start from Rob Johnson at Englewood H.S. in 1969. I used to train on his high school track. Before I knew it, he was giving me tasks to do. The next year I officially coached with Rob. I learned more from him in one calendar year than I had in my previous 8 years in the sport. The lessons he taught me were the bedrock of my career. He was and still is my role model of what coaching track is all about.

  4. Mack A. Cauthen

    Where do I begin? Coach Johnson was more than a high school coach, mentor, and friend.
    As a student athlete at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, NJ, coach Johnson was ahead of his time in track techniques and training track athletes. He would would attach a bar behind his white Chevy Impala, and have two runners hold onto the bar as he drove around the cinder track. If you didn’t let go of the bar after he honked his horn, you’d have some serious “strawberries” on your legs from the cinders.
    During my junior year of high school, I wanted to go out for the fottball team. Coach Johnson told me that he couldn’t stop me from going out, but he guaranteed me that I would not play a down. I though this act was selfish on his part, but I later realized he was protecting “his runners”. The footaball team was 1-27 during my three years, while we were State Group Track Champions during my junior and senior years.
    I could go on about the impact Coach Johnson had on me as a athlete and a person. Whenever business took me to Danville, IL or Indianapolis, I made it my business to visit Coach Johnson.
    Coach, Happy Retirement, and may God continue to bless you! Long live the “Mighty Burners”!

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