By STEVE BITTER
To commemorate nearly 40 years of coaching success, BYU renamed the track and field complex after legendary Cougar track and field coach Clarence Robison on Saturday.
When Clarence first took the opening job in 1949, one might have wondered if 55 years later his name would still be the franchise of BYU track and field. It certainly is. In a collegiate and professional career and legacy spanning over a half-century, Clarence put the BYU track and field on the map and in the spotlight of collegiate track and field.
When he passed on the coaching baton in 1988, it stayed in the Robison family. His son, Mark, was off and running in the coaches seat. As far as tradition is concerned, grandson Nathan occupies the third leg as BYU’s top distance runner. When Nathan graduates, he will join the throngs of track athletes to have reaped the benefits of the Robison harvest.
Before Clarence led as a coach, he followed as an athlete. He had run for a few years as a Cougar before military service in World War II interrupted his collegiate career. After the last shot sounded on the battlefield, Clarence later heard the starting gun of the Olympic trials.
“As a runner I made the 1948 Olympic team in the 5,000-meters,” Clarence said. “That was a highlight as an athlete. I didn’t make the finals in the Olympic Games. I hadn’t really run 5,000-meters that much. I felt fortunate to make the team, but I didn’t make the finals.”
The track program hadn’t seen any success until Clarence was named head coach. Prior to that, the basketball coach filled the role, balancing both programs. Unfortunately, much of the weight was on basketball’s side of the scale. In the beginning, Clarence filled the seat alone, coaching all events. Two assistant coaches would not come until later.
“There had not been a lot of importance attached to it,” Clarence said. “We were struggling and were not recognized as being a track power or having much success.”
Despite the solo act, Clarence spared no time in distilling a winning attitude in his athletes.
“It was only just two or three years until we started winning,” Clarence said. “We had a lot of years of success, particularly in the conference. We went through a period of 20 years where we probably ranked in the top 10 teams in the NCAA, on average.”
Clarence’s shining moment as a coach came in 1970 when BYU captured its first national title in outdoors competition, tying with Kansas and Oregon.
“As a coach, it was a highlight,” Clarence said.
At the end of his illustrious career, he had produced one national championship, 20 conference championships, more than 100 All-Americans, 20 national champions and 26 Olympians. He is also a member of the Utah Sports Hall of Fame and the BYU Hall of Fame.
Clarence’s son, Mark, and his grandson, Nathan, now carry the torch of success that burns Cougar blue. On Saturday, Nathan took first in the 1,500-meter run the same day his grandfather was honored. As an athlete, Nathan feels he has been greatly impacted by the name of his grandfather. Much of Nathan’s admiration comes from how his grandfather lived his LDS beliefs while competing and coaching, and the positive impact it had on others.
Nathan is quick to remember an experience his grandfather had in Denmark in 1949. Clarence was running on the U.S. Track Team and had been touring Europe for the summer. On the Sunday before his race, he was directed to a local LDS chapel, where meetings were already in progress. One of the missionaries recognized him from BYU. Knowing he was to compete the following night, the mission president asked if he would say a few words. Not long into his remarks, a young Danish boy stood and asked if he was able to beat their Danish champion in the mile, who had already run five seconds faster than Clarence that season. Hesitation followed.
“Of course he can,” the missionary said. “He lives the Word of Wisdom and the Danish champion doesn’t.”
During his warm-up the next night, Clarence noticed a large group of teens and two missionaries making their way toward the track. After his stretching turned into a private prayer, Clarence won the race after a six-yard deficit with a lap left turned into a 50-yard win at the finish line.
Nathan now attempts to lead on the track by following his grandfather’s example.
“I was raised in a strong LDS family,” Clarence said. “I never smoked or drank or anything. I never tasted tea or coffee in my entire life. As an athlete, running for BYU, it was an understanding that that was the way you lived. It still is the way I feel.”
“It taught me it wasn’t enough to do well in something,” Nathan said. “It was more important to be living the gospel. I learned that just because you’re doing the right thing doesn’t always mean you won. That story made me – when I was young – want to live the Word of Wisdom.”
Soon before Nathan returned from his mission in Portugal, Clarence was suffering from serious health problems and it was unsure if he would live to see his grandson again. Nearly six months after he had returned and claimed his spot on the team, Nathan ran in a 1,500-meter race where his father and grandfather were present. After running a solid time, he went to give his grandfather a hug. When Nathan saw the tears in his grandfather’s eyes, he said he felt the legacy and tradition of his family for the first impressionable time in his life.
From the time Mark graduated until he returned to take up an assistant coaching job under his father, he was a high school head coach in Idaho Falls, Idaho. After returning to BYU to work with his father and later take the job himself, Mark understands now how his relationship with his father has helped him continue the coaching legacy.
“[Clarence] was a real people’s person,” Mark said. “He was a coach’s coach. He was very personable and I try to work on that and work with other people.”
“I was greatly pleased when my son was called to be the head track coach,” Clarence said. “That kept me involved emotionally and close to the team.”
Mark still frequently calls Clarence with the results of a meet, especially when the results involve Nathan and other sons of former athletes. When Nathan broke four minutes in the mile during this year’s indoor season, his wife was the first to know. His grandfather would also know shortly after.
“I can certainly appreciate how fast you have to run to break the four-minute barrier,” Clarence said. “That’s something that I didn’t ever do. I found out just hours after it happened by telephone.”
Hundreds of athletes came and went through the program Clarence built. One in particular didn’t stay away from Provo for too long. Head distance coach Ed Eyestone ran for Clarence in the early to mid ’80s. Under Clarence’s program, Eyestone earned 10 All-American awards and four NCAA Championships, after which he competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics as a U.S. marathoner. Eyestone remembers running for Clarence in a similar way that Nathan might run for Mark.
“He didn’t have to motivate by hollering and screaming,” Eyestone said. “He motivated because he was a great man and you wanted to run the best for him. It was like wanting to do well for your dad.”
Despite the similarities, Mark has probably never been one to yell at Nathan during a cross-country race for having a side cramp in the manner that Clarence did to Eyestone. Suffering the pain and agony that occasionally comes with running, Clarence pulled up alongside Eyestone in a golf cart and was quick to give a few fiery words of inspiration. The actual quote, word for word, is still left somewhere on the course.
As BYU’s current top distance runner, Nathan works closely with Eyestone. Standing on the outside looking into the Robison family circle, Eyestone occasionally sips from the cup of tradition.
“It’s fun for me to see the joy in his eyes when Nathan runs well,” Eyestone said. “You can just tell that he’s proud of his grandson. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to see him that happy about how his grandson is running. It’s a great motivator for me as a coach.”
With 40 years for other people to brag about, Clarence reminded many others of an ancient figure in history who spent about the same time leading his own team.
“He was considered kind of the patriarch of track and field of the whole United States for a time because he had been here for so long,” Eyestone said. “Some people called him the Moses of the track world because he had that thick white hair and he was a very respected man.”
The track and field complex is now named after Clarence Robison, who was thought to be a distance shadow of the biblical figure Moses, all of which had or have grey hair. If what it takes for something to bear your name is the required hairdo and a record book of which you are author and publisher (or maybe two stone tablets), then Clarence can rest easy. Not too easy, however. He still has one last request for any visitor or athlete that may step foot onto the track that bears his name.
“I hope they would associate that there is a standard of performance that they would keep alive at BYU,” Clarence said. “There has been a history of success and we expect them to be above average. Not that there is anything I’ve done that sets a standard. I would just like them to know that, in my mind, it’s an honor to run on the BYU track team.”