It's appropriate that Clarence Robison, the BYU track coach, should wrap up his career at the NCAA championships this week in a pine tree-shrouded place like Eugene, Ore. Forests were the coach's first love, and it was as a forest ranger that he first decided he was going to make his mark on the earth.
But that was before World War II.Robison joined the navy shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and was soon standing on the bows of ships dodging bullets and mines and running missions throughout the South Pacific. When the war was over and he returned home he rethought his forest ranger aspirations. It wasn't that he liked the forests any less than he had growing up in and around them in his native Fillmore, Utah. The problem was that he wasn't wild about the prospect of continuing in the employ of the U.S. government.
"I decided I didn't want Uncle Sam to tell me how to spend my life and where to live," he said.
So he switched his major at Brigham Young University, concentrating on the health sciences . . . and a track coach was born.
Since 1949 he's coached every male athlete who has stepped on the track at BYU. This included himself, although only unofficially. In '49 Robison, by now a war vet at 26, was already a member of the BYU faculty - teaching health classes - and enrolled in graduate school. But he still had a year of eligibility left, and since he had been beaten in only one Skyline Conference race during his three-year BYU running career - by an Olympian, Robison remembers, named Dave Bolan from Colorado University . . . funny how you always remember the ones that got away - the Cougars decided they needed him more as a member of the track team than the track team's coach. Stan Watts, the school's new basketball coach, carried the team's clipboard that season and Robison kept on running.
They told him as soon as he ran out of eligibility the team was his.
In the summer of 1949 Robison joined other members of the U.S. national track team - he had been to the Olympic Games in 1948 in London as a 5,000-meter qualifier - and toured Europe. He turned a few heads in Oslo and Stockholm and Paris by winning 12 of the 16 races he entered.
But the running didn't command all of Robison's attention. Now that he was a part of the coaching fraternity, he was keenly interested about the nuances of coaching. On plane rides and bus trips he sidled up alongside many of the greatest minds in U.S. track and field. He learned pole vault techniques from Bob Richards, and weight discipline techniques from world record holders Fortune Gordine (iscus) and Jim Fuch (hot put). And he followed Brutus Hamilton, the U.S. team's head coach, around like he was his shadow. Hamilton talked about his philosophies concerning the handling of athletes, and how to get the most out of them, and help them get the most out of themselves.
By the end of the tour the new BYU track coach had a notebook full of notes.
Through portions of five decades since, and eight U.S. presidents, and two more wars, and more track and field technique changes than you could shake a bamboo pole at, it's been coach Robby doing this and coach Robby doing that at BYU.
There have been 19 WAC championships - plus a few more Skyline Conference championships that nobody kept track of.
There was a tie for a national championship in 1970. There have been more than 100 All-Americans. And more than that, there have been thousands of satisfied BYU track athletes.
More than 250 of them assembled on the occasion of the WAC championships held in Provo a couple of weeks ago. As soon as coach Robison had nailed down the 19th conference crown they pulled a curious variation on the tradition of throwing the coach in the steeplechase moat and instead threw him a party.
The testimonials and tributes went long into the night, and are lingering still. After 40 seasons, the coach couldn't stop his retirement now if he wanted to. He'd be too embarrassed. Sendoffs like this one are all too rare.
"Well, it has sunk in these last couple of weeks, this is the last lap," says coach Robison. Make that a victory lap. Looking at the reviews, the forest ranger-turned-coach obviously didn't do badly at his second choice. When he walks away from the track in Eugene Saturday - with yet another BYU top 10 national finish, no doubt - he walks away from a four-decade career during which no one ever tried to fire him, or even asked him to leave. A truly incredible feat in this day and age, not to mention the fulfillment of coach Robby's earliest goal - that no one would tell him how to spend his life and where to live.