Brooks Johnson, Outstanding Track Coach

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The track world has lost an epic coach, and society has lost a man who helped to develop leaders among his aspiring athletes. Johnson died of prostate cancer on June 29, 2024, at age 89. He coached athletes in track and field for more than fifty years, with accomplishments that included:

  • Track coach at the University of Florida (1975-1979), Stanford University (1979-92) and California Polytechnic State University (1993-96)
  • Coach of many Olympic athletes since 1960
  • Official coach of the U.S. Olympic teams of 1976, 1984, 2004, and 2008
  • NCAA Division III Men’s Indoor Track & Field National Coach of the Year in 1977
  • NCAA Division I Men’s Indoor Track & Field National Coach Athlete of the Year in 1988
  • US Track and Field College Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Class of 1997
  • Nike Coach of the Year by USA Track and Field In 2010
  • USA Track and Field Legend Coach Award in 2018
  • U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Association Coaches Association’s George Dales Award for enhancing the profession of coaching track and field and cross country in 2019

Progression in Track and Field
Johnson rose from a tough beginning in Miami, with a father who shined shoes and a mother who was a housemaid. He attended Tufts University where he was a football halfback and kick returner, and was one of Tufts’ most successful athletes. He held the national intercollegiate record for the 60-yard dash in 1955. In 1960 he set the world record; and three years later he was awarded the gold medal for his participation in the winning 400-meter relay team at the Pan American games. In 1963, he won a gold medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay in the Pan American games, with Ira Murchison, Ollan Cassell and Earl Young. He failed to make the U.S. 1964 Olympic team because of an automobile accident on the way to the qualifying meet at Stanford University.

In 1965, at age 30, he started coaching high school athletes at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., where he also served as athletic director and taught cultural anthropology and history. His athletes won five national titles and set eight world records, and eleven of his athletes competed in the 1972 Olympics. He stayed at St. Albans for 12 years and then went on to coach at the University of Florida, Stanford and California Polytechnic State University. In 1996, he retired from collegiate coaching and worked with top level track and field athletes. He has coached athletes in every Olympics since 1960, including Esther Stroy and Robin Campbell who made the Olympic team as 15-year-olds. He also trained Evelyn Ashford, Chandra Cheesborough, Lacey O’Neal, Fred Sowerby, Martin McGrady, Sheila Ingram, Larry Shipp, Ray Brown and Nikki Gwen Harris. Three sisters, Robin, Donna and Kim Campbell, won the National AAU championship age group 8-9. 10-11, and 12-13 on the same day. Robin made the U.S. Olympic team and Donna was one of the best age group runners ever. She consistently beat all the boys in her age group, but unfortunately developed a non-healing injury while training as a scholarship student at the University of Florida.

While at St. Albans, Johnson coached three of my children. My daughter, Jan, was second in the National girls 7 and under age-group championships to Kim Gallagher, who finished third in the 1988 Olympic 800 meter race at 1:56.91. My son, Geoff, finished second to Greg Schwastek in the 7 and under age-group National Championship. My son, Gene, set world records for his age group by age 8, running the half mile in 2:38.7, 1,320 yards in 4:17, the mile in 5:40.8, the two mile in 12:10.2 and the three mile in 20:03.4 (breaking the old mark by 1:32.6). At age 9, Gene ran a mile in 4 minutes and 54 seconds and was written up in Sports Illustrated, the Washington Post and several other publications.

Mentor for Champions and Good People
In 1996, Johnson went to work for the Disney Corporation “to jump-start their sports program.” He coached a select group of athletes including Justin Gatlin, Tiffany Williams and David Oliver.

I am proud to have known this fine human being, a very talented man who enriched the lives of a large number of people who trained very hard to become champion runners. He found ways to get his athletes to give more than their peers to become champions and good human beings. While only a few can become champions, the vast majority of his students used their experiences of being coached by a gifted expert and being associated with world-class athletes to become successful and happy adults. We will all miss Brooks Johnson.

Brooks Johnson
February 28, 1934 – June 29, 2024