September 27, 2006

Cross Country Coach Johnson Teaches From Experience

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Four years after being hired as Cornell’s distance coach, Robert “Rojo” Johnson still truly believes that the sky is the limit for his runners and for himself. This comes as no surprise since Johnson, once upon a time, came within a minute of accomplishing his ultimate goal: making the Olympic trials. Now, Johnson’s goal is to spread the knowledge of cross country to not only his runners, but the world.

Over Johnson’s four-year tenure, the Red has been consistently dominant. In the last two years of outdoor track, the Red has outscored every team in events Johnson has coached —events of distances 800 meters and longer. As for cross country, Johnson emphasizes that the team is making significant progress.

“We want to be nationally ranked and go into nationals in cross country as a team,” Johnson said. “In track, we’ve been amazing. We’ve accomplished things in track that I probably didn’t even dream of accomplishing with my guys.”

Earning an economics degree from Princeton in 1996, Johnson is certainly a major league dreamer himself. Coming out of college, Johnson decided to dedicate himself totally to running, feeling he had a decent shot of making the Olympic Trials. When he fell short by a minute, he began to feel that coaching was in the cards for his future. The only questions was when and where. That answer came in the form of a former Cornell runner.

Robert’s identical twin brother, Weldon, worked with Bruce Hyde ’06, who had an outstanding season as freshman. Robert and Weldon trained with Hyde in Arizona during the summer going into Hyde’s sophomore campaign when word reached Johnson that a distance coaching position had opened up at Cornell. Hyde was seriously thinking about transferring from Cornell, but then mentioned to Robert that he would stay if Robert was the coach.

“Bruce knew I wanted to go into coaching,” Johnson said. “I was just trying to wait until after the 2004 Olympic trials because I just missed it in 2000. He was smart and kind of lured me into putting my name in the hat. [Head] coach [Nathan] Taylor was pretty persuasive after that.”

[img_assist|nid=18580|title=Leading the way|desc=Former and current cross country captains Bruce Hyde ‘06 (85) and senior Brad Baird (81), respectively, have been influenced by the wisdom and teachings of men’s distance coach Robert Johnson.|link=popup|align=right|width=100|height=90]
Once recruited by an athlete, now it is Johnson’s job to recruit runners to Cornell. Johnson admitted that recruiting was initially not his specialty. He did not realize how important recruiting was to the health of the program.

“The thing I don’t like about coaching is that you can be a pretty poor coach, but if you’re good at recruiting, you’re going to be successful,” Johnson said. “And that’s as important, if not more important, than coaching. … Coach Taylor definitely helped me with the recruiting aspect of the sport. Now, look at the success we’ve had. The type of kids that are coming here now, compared to three years ago, is just night and day.”

In terms of spreading his knowledge of the sport to his runners, Johnson gives a lot of that credit to his Dallas, Texas high school coach John Kellogg.

“I think John is the whole inspiration [for] why my brother and I are into running,” Johnson said. “His philosophy is what we use here at Cornell. He gives me the nuts and bolts of what we do, and I’m sort of the manager. I think he understands running and the actual physiology behind it better than anyone.”

Johnson’s brother Weldon is another major reason why he enjoys both running and coaching. As a college runner, Weldon was never any better than fifth in the Ivy League. Now, he is fourth in the country as a professional.

“I learned from my brother if you really dream big and believe in yourself, the sky could be the limit,” Johnson said.

Head coach Nathan Taylor has helped fill in the few holes in Johnson’s coaching repertoire. Johnson calls Taylor a master recruiter, a great motivator and an outstanding team builder. Johnson especially likes the fact that Taylor lets him coach his own guys.

Overall, Johnson helps to spread this knowledge about the sport in the form of his website, Robert and Weldon co-founded the website, which is now a major website for serious, hardcore fans of track and field.

“If there was a website where NFL football players would look for their news, this is that for runners,” Johnson said. “The message boards are big and they are there to share training ideas. World record holders get to come to the website. It’s kind of neat to think that you’ve started something like that.”