If you’re a member of the University of Portland men’s track and field or cross country teams, you’re guided by a coach who has led the program to 22 NCAA Cross Country Championship appearances, 50 All-American honors, 10 Top 10 finishes at the national meet and 34 West Coast Conference cross country titles. You’re also coached by a man deeply interested in your holistic success. Rob Conner — or “RC,” as his athletes call him — the UP men’s track and cross country head coach of the last 34 seasons, is this figure, who preaches a philosophy of balance and growth that has skyrocketed the program to new heights in the collegiate running world.
Conner got his start at the university in 1982 where he was not yet head coach, but a member of the men’s track and cross country team. After assistant and head coaching jobs at several different universities, he wound up back in Portland eight years later to take the head coaching position for both the men’s and women’s track and field and cross country teams.
During his 34 seasons as head coach, Conner has seen the program undergo huge shifts, namely in success and notoriety. Conner took a program he described as, “pretty average,” during his time running, to a household name in the collegiate running world. Coming in as the new head coach, his biggest goal was to qualify for nationals in cross country, and just three years later, the team did just that after winning their regional competition. That year however, the team placed 12th at nationals — a devastating blow to the new success of the small program.
“That year, we had only 12 guys on the team and we had five seniors,” Conner said. “We got 12th place and thought we were a failure. The team was so mad nobody talked to each other the whole way home. When we got back I was like, ‘Dang, five seniors. We may never ever make it back to nationals.’”
By the 2000s, the men’s cross country team was qualifying almost every year.
After all that success — namely 10 Top 10 national finishes — Conner finds himself still competitive and unsatisfied with objectively impressive results. After a 16th place finish at nationals a few years back, Conner again felt like a failure and reasons that his perspective on success has shifted quite a bit.
“16th place is still pretty good,” Conner said. “It's the Sweet 16. Most people hang banners for that—not us. Perspective has changed too in not just wanting to be there but to compete.”
Another huge change Conner has overseen as head coach has been a major upgrade to the caliber at which the program is recruiting. The team has gone from a solely Oregonian makeup to recruiting from nearly every European country. They’ve also received transfers from major universities like Princeton University, the University of North Carolina, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Oregon.
Conner assigns the success in recruiting to the unique things the program has to offer. While the University of Portland isn’t a big name brand school, the niche that the cross country and track and field programs fill is attractive to the right kind of athlete for the program.
“Our guy is a really excellent student but wants to have a more personal experience in college,” Conner said. “Some kids just want to go to a big school for that sweatshirt and notoriety and that’s not what we provide.”
Success in recruiting is also attributed to Conner’s willingness to give athletes a chance to grow.
“We can’t coach nobody,” Conner said. “Let’s give everybody a chance to see what they can put into it and get out. Somebody’s got to return [the athlete’s] email and that’s what we should be doing as coaches.”
Conner himself is also a big draw to the program for prospective Pilots. Redshirt junior Matt Strangio toured top programs like the University of Oregon and Stanford University and ultimately went with the University of Portland, in part due to Conner.
“RC stood out the most from all the coaches,” Strangio said. “I didn’t think anyone else was better when I signed.”
Once prospective Pilots arrive in Portland, they’re coached by the very same person Conner was during recruiting. Conner’s coaching philosophy hinges on growth for athletes in their sport rather than wins.
“My real goal is to provide an opportunity for everyone on the team to work hard and see what they can achieve,” Conner said. “It’s a different kind of philosophy. [Other coaches say] we gotta win. I’m more like, ‘Hey, we got to worry about the process.’”
Ian Solof, head coach for the women’s track and field and cross country programs who was coached as a student athlete by Conner, agrees that Conner’s coaching philosophy sets him apart.
“He’s always been athlete focused,” Solof said. “They’re at the center of his coaching philosophy. I think that’s what makes him a special coach.”
Solof also credits Conner with creating a dynamic where respect is balanced with an excellent rapport between coach and athlete.
“It’s a great balance of taking the pressure off the athletes. But everyone wants to do well, everyone still wants to compete and it's within this really positive atmosphere,” Solof said.
For all his care to create the right environment for athletic success, a central factor of Conner’s coaching is his interest in everything his athletes do outside of their sport.
“We want [the athletes] to be good citizens here at the university and be leaders and people the professors know and like having in class,” Conner said. “Those factors are all equally important.”
Conner’s athletes feel and appreciate the interest from him.
“He’s someone who’s super invested in everything everyone does,” Strangio said. “He not only encourages other things [besides running] but is interested in them and we really appreciate that.”
For Strangio, that interest meant a request from Conner for cool photos from Strangio’s Canadian backpacking trip over the summer.
Conner’s philosophy of balance between athletics and life is modeled by himself, a person with diverse interests apart from running. One such interest is his commitment to veganism. Within the team, a favorite “RC” anecdote is an instance where Conner gathered mushrooms and stinging nettles out of the forest while the team was on a trail run and then cooked them for dinner that same night. For those that know Conner, this is standard behavior.
“We love RC because he is RC,” Strangio said. “He’ll be himself at practice, which we really like.”
This coaching philosophy of balance and growth combined with interest in the lives of his athletes rewards Conner with connection for years after athletes have left his care.
When speaking about the connections he’s built with and between former athletes, Conner’s face lights up. Former members of the men’s track and field and cross country teams still host get-togethers in Portland amongst themselves decades after graduating and Conner happily joins.
“[Former athletes] are like ‘coach, we’re meeting, you want to come over?’” Conner said. “And I’m like, ‘Hell yeah I’ll come over and see you guys and hear about your families and your jobs. That’s really extra special.”
Maggie Dapp is the sports editor at The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.