Without further comment, the University of Oregon announced last week that Track and Field Head Coach Robert Johnson would not have his contract renewed. Johnson has been with the Ducks program since 2005, hired by then-Coach Vin Lananna to work on throws, hurdles and sprints. When Lananna moved into Athletic Administration in 2012, Johnson was named Head Coach. Under Johnson, Oregon’s Men won NCAA Outdoor Titles in 2014 and 2015, and the Women won NCAA Outdoor Titles in 2015 and 2017.
However, the program’s performance has leveled off and Johnson’s tenure at Oregon has drawn controversy, some of which will sound familiar to Duck fans. In 2021, a half-dozen former Oregon female Track and Field athletes said that Johnson had created a toxic environment in the program surrounding body image. In particular, the athletes claimed, Johnson was an advocate of an “ideal body fat percentage” philosophy that sounded similar in their allegations to what former Oregon distance runner Alberto Salazar had also been said to advocate while he was the Head Coach of the Nike Oregon Project. While some of the accusations against Salazar were for the kind of doping every track fan is familiar with – testosterone or prednisone injections to enhance performance – Nike Oregon Project Athletes also alleged they were given other drugs to assist with weight loss. Some of those drugs, such as one to treat thyroid disease, were intended only for their specified use and may have been used to dodge PED prohibitions. Salazar was ultimately banned from any activities of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee for sexual and emotional misconduct. Salazar denies any wrongdoing.
Athletes said Oregon’s program caused some to develop negative body images and to adopt unhealthy dietary habits and that Johnson himself had engaged in body shaming in some instances when athletes were not meeting the program’s goals. In cases where coaches felt an athlete’s body fat percentage was too high, they might be required to do additional non-sport-specific cardio exercise, such as riding a stationary bicycle. Johnson at the time, however, noted that nutritionists meet regularly with athletes and that sports psychologists are also available. He also said the coaching staff was sensitive to athletes developing eating disorders.
Whether it is these issues, or a general disappointment in recent results — Oregon’s Men finished 25th and the Women 11th in the recent NCAA Championships held in Eugene — the non-renewal of Johnson’s contract seems a tacit admission of problems in the program and leaves Oregon Track and Field in at least a temporary state of limbo. The University has said it will conduct a national search and named current Associate Head Coach Helen Lehman-Winters as the interim Head Coach. If the University values continuity, Lehman-Winters could presumably be a candidate for the permanent job. She just completed her fourth season at Oregon, working with the women’s distance runners. She has coached two individual NCAA Champions, and two of her athletes qualified for the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. The elevation of Lehman-Winters and her potential retention of some or all of the Assistants would provide some continuity to the program regardless of whether she is the best possible candidate for the job. It would also return some emphasis to Oregon’s distance program, for which the University has been known for decades.
Another option in a truly national search could lead the University to other parts of the country. In recent years, programs in the southern United States such as Florida, Georgia, and Texas A&M have been winning NCAA team titles and it may be that Oregon will look to an up-and-coming Coach from that part of the country, perhaps with an eye toward recruiting in this athlete-heavy area. As with other programs, recruiting to Eugene can be a challenge, but one previous Coaches have shown can be overcome.
Oregon’s Track and Field and Cross-Country Programs have long been among the top college destinations for outstanding athletes, some of whom have been or become world-class talents. The combined programs – Men’s and Women’s indoor and outdoor track and field and cross-country – have won 32 NCAA Championship Team titles. In addition, the Ducks programs have won 76 Team Conference Championships. At least one Oregon athlete, including alumni, has participated in every Summer Olympic Games since 1908 and Ducks have won 25 Olympic medals in Track and Field including 10 Gold Medals. Most recently English Gardner and Phyllis Francis won Gold in the Women’s 4x100 Relay, Ashton Eaton won the Men’s Decathlon and Matthew Centrowitz, Jr won the Men’s 1500 Meters in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Eaton tied the Olympic record in the Decathlon with 8,893 points.