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.