SWAC track meet begins Friday in New Orleans
“I expect to win. They know that, and I know that. They know that I’m a winner, and that I expect to win.” Brian Johnson, Southern track coach and 2008 Olympic long jumper
Less than 24 hours before his Southern track and field teams were to get under way at the Southwestern Athletic Conference outdoor championships, Brian Johnson laid out the road map.
His men can win it all, Johnson said. The ladies aren’t on that level yet, but they’ll get there. In the meantime, they’ll compete.
“My guys have a really good shot. ... we’re going to put up a strong, strong showing this weekend,” the second-year coach said.
“I think we’ll be fine. I can’t wait to hoist that trophy up. So that’s my goal, as well as my boys’ goal. My ladies have a little bit of work to do.”
As he surveyed the field, listing all the great athletes and teams who get under way Friday at Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans, Johnson took the occasional pause. He had to clear his throat, over and over. He had a cold. Great timing.
But Johnson vowed to keep charging ahead. On the biggest weekend of the year, who had time to slow down for a cough and some sniffles?
Of course, since Johnson took over the men’s and women’s programs two years ago, he has gotten used to getting past one obstacle or another.
As longtime and iconic coach Johnny Thomas suffered through a long illness — he died of prostate cancer in 2009 — the SU track and field program was in flux.
Tinnequo Lightfoot-Ross served as interim coach for about a year, then resigned, clearing the way for Johnson to take over in summer 2010.
Only a few months earlier, at the SWAC outdoor championships, the SU men and women both finished eighth.
Johnson — an SU alum and Thomas’ most accomplished athlete, an NCAA indoor champion in the long jump and a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2008 — realized he had quite a rebuilding job ahead of him.
He spent the first year figuring out how to recruit. He came to realize that his best chance was to sell himself.
If Johnson mentioned that he’s a former Olympian, that got him in the door with lots of recruits and their parents.
“You know what? I probably had to turn over about 30 rocks before I really got to the point I needed,” Johnson said. “It’s all about getting the high school coaches to trust you.”
With an influx of newcomers this season, the men have high hopes, and Johnson’s goal for this weekend is simple.
“I expect to win. They know that, and I know that,” he said. “They know that I’m a winner, and that I expect to win.”
Southern, particularly strong in field events, expects to be in the lead after the first day. Dwayne Houston, a right tackle on loan from the football team, finished second in the shot put at last year’s SWAC meet. Johnson said he should easily finish second again, and freshman Reggie Redding has a chance to finish third.
As Johnson sees it, the biggest hold-up on the men’s side is Southern’s sprinters.
“We have some good sprinters. We just don’t have enough,” he said.
SU has a handful of contenders in the 400 meters, but also suffered a setback when Anthony Collins, the best sprinter on the team, pulled a hamstring. He will sit out this week’s championship.
As for the women, well, they’re not ready to contend for a title. Not yet.
Johnson said he loves the next group of incoming freshmen; coupled with the few veterans on hand, the SU women could contend for the SWAC championship in 2013.
At the moment, Tulane transfer Tiffany George is poised to win the 100 meters, and possibly the 200. A few others should compete in the 400.
But injuries have hampered the team, and Johnson plans to bring only 15 women to New Orleans. Right now, the roster is just too thin.
“We’re going to compete, and our guys are going to contend for the championship,” Johnson said.
“But next year, if we can stay injury-free, I think we can win it all on both sides.”