Brooks Johnson, storied track coach of students and Olympians, dies at 90 (2024)

Brooks Johnson, a onetime star sprinter who tied a 60-yard world record even as he began a coaching career that spanned six decades, from D.C. prep school runners to Olympic medalists, as one of the sport’s most storied trainers, died June 29 at his home in Windermere, Fla. He was 90.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, Elizabeth Riccardi.

Mr. Johnson’s influence on American track moved from the era of cinder tracks and stopwatches to the sweeping investigations of doping in the early 2000s. In the aftermath, Mr. Johnson was among the coaches tasked with rebuilding the sport’s image — even though his mercurial reputation made him a polarizing figure at times.

Mr. Johnson also represented a bridge to the civil rights battles of the 1960s and how some Black athletes and coaches took a stand, including participating in boycott movements and other actions.

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In June 1965, Mr. Johnson arranged a meeting with the headmaster of St. Albans School, an all-boys academy in Washington where Mr. Johnson had volunteered to assist the track coach. He was working as a community organizer in Washington after making headlines on sports pages for years in other cities — including tying the indoor 60-yard world record at 6.0 seconds in 1961 and helping coach an Olympic medal winner, Willie May, who took silver in the 110-meter hurdles in 1960 in Rome.

With the headmaster at St. Albans, Mr. Johnson questioned why the school was nearly all White in a city with a large Black population. The headmaster, Charles Martin, replied with a challenge: Come up with a solution and get back to me, he told Mr. Johnson, according to school accounts.

Mr. Johnson offered to stay. Beginning in the fall of 1965, he taught American history and anthropology, and later launched a program to recruit more minority students. He eventually became head coach of the track and field team, leading the squad until 1975 and then moving to college coaching in Florida and California.

Among the students who passed through Mr. Johnson’s team at St. Albans was discus thrower Al Gore. (“He wasn’t the greatest natural athlete,” Mr. Johnson once said of the future vice president, “but he was extremely coachable.”)

At St. Albans, Mr. Johnson’s coaching style also began to take shape: always demanding, sometimes browbeating and deeply idiosyncratic. He could tear into athletes with a blast of invectives and then, moments later, sit down to analyze performance details such as stride length and ground-contact time.

He had sprinters and hurdlers listen to jazz, seeking to infuse the music’s pulse and verve into their races. “I tell them this is a benevolent dictatorship,” Mr. Johnson said of his approach. “This is not a free-for-all.”

Some athletes couldn’t tolerate Mr. Johnson’s volatility. Many more, however, regarded him as innovative and indispensable as he helped mold hundreds of world-class runners for Olympic Games and championships.

When Mr. Johnson took on David Oliver, a former Howard University sprinter, he put him through a grueling initial workout. It was a kind of loyalty test by Mr. Johnson. “He threw up three times,” Mr. Johnson told The Washington Post, “and came back.”

He once sent Oliver to a museum in Paris to study Picasso’s paintings for how the artist increasingly streamlined his technique. Mr. Johnson’s message: Unnecessary movement slows you down. Oliver took the bronze medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Games.

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The margin of victory in sprints can be thousandths of a second, Mr. Johnson often noted.

“So success is determined by as objective a measure as you can get,” he said in a 2008 interview with the St. Petersburg Times. “It has nothing to do with degree of difficulty or whether the Russian judge and the French judge colluded or whatever. Plus, it’s the original sport.”

Left segregation

Brooks Thomas Johnson was born in Pahokee, Fla., on Feb. 28, 1934. His mother worked as a maid and nanny; his father owned a shoeshine stand.

When Brooks was 9, he moved to Plymouth, Mass., along with his mother and sister. His mother wanted the children to attend integrated schools, he said. His father stayed in Florida, unwilling to give up the business he started.

Mr. Johnson attended Tufts University outside Boston, becoming a standout sprinter. Ironically, he was too stubborn to take guidance from his coaches, he recalled. “I refused,” he said, “to be coached.”

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After receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science from Tufts in 1956, he did graduate work at the University of Chicago’s law school. He later said he left law studies because he saw few chances for Black lawyers to rise in private firms at the time.

He continued running with the Chicago Track Club and helped train May, the future Olympic medalist. Also in the club was the aspiring comedian Dick Gregory, a former middle-distance runner at Southern Illinois University.

In 1963, Gregory urged Black members of the U.S. track team to boycott an upcoming international event in the Soviet Union to protest American racial inequities. Mr. Johnson backed Gregory’s call, which foreshadowed wider appeals by Black leaders to boycott the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. (The boycott effort eventually lost momentum.)

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“If the kids in Birmingham can be set upon by dogs,” Mr. Johnson told the Associated Press, “then athletes can forgo the pleasures of such a trip. If only White athletes go, the U.S. will not be a power in athletics.”

Earlier in 1963, he participated in the Pan American Games, winning gold in the 4x100-meter relay with Ira Murchison, Ollan Cassell and Earl Young.

Mr. Johnson then took a job in Washington as a program officer for the Government Affairs Institute, a policy research group at Georgetown University. In 1964, at 30 years old, he sought one last shot at the Olympics. But on the way to one of the trials at Stanford University, he was involved in a car accident and missed the meet.

Looking ahead to the 1968 Games, he coached Esther Stroy, a D.C. teenager who was part of a neighborhood track club and made the U.S. Olympic team in the 400 meters. She finished fifth in the semifinals after a hamstring injury.

For the Amateur Athletic Union’s indoor championships in 1970, Mr. Johnson had trained a wooden-track specialist, Martin McGrady, for the 600-yard race against the 1968 Olympic 400-meter winner, Lee Evans. McGrady and Evans were shoulder to shoulder for much of the race. McGrady pulled ahead with a final kick, clocking a world record at 1:07.6. Mr. Johnson clicked down so hard on his stopwatch that he broke it.

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After St. Albans, Mr. Johnson — almost always wearing his trademark straw hat — became assistant track coach at the University of Florida from 1975 to 1979 and then took over as head coach at Stanford until 1992. He finished his collegiate coaching career with California Polytechnic State University from 1993 to 1996.

Mr. Johnson served on the U.S. coaching team in several Olympics, including as head of the women’s team for the 1984 Los Angeles Games and as relay coach in 2008. In 1996, he was hired by Disney to help build a sports training program at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Into his 80s, Mr. Johnson was still sought out by runners. In 2018, the 100-meter champion from the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Justin Gatlin, returned to Mr. Johnson after leaving his longtime coach, Dennis Mitchell, who faced doping allegations. (Gatlin had twice been barred from competition for use of banned substances.) In 2019, Gatlin was part of the winning team in the 4x100-meters relay at the World Athletics Championships in Qatar.

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A reporter once asked Mr. Johnson: What got you into coaching? “To be honest about it,” he replied, “I think it’s competing vicariously.”

His marriage to the former Deanne Carlsen ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 29 years, Elizabeth Riccardi, and their two sons.

Mr. Johnson defended his uncompromising style as part of the psychology of athletics at the highest levels.

“At the end of the day, there has to be a screw loose,” he once said. “There’s no well-adjusted athlete on the Olympic podium. Because if you are well-adjusted, you will not go to the extremes necessary to get there.”

Brooks Johnson, storied track coach of students and Olympians, dies at 90 (2024)

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