Later this summer, Mark Robison will retire as assistant head track and field coach at BYU after 38 years on the job. His retirement will mark the end of an era: For the first time in 74 years, a member of the Robison family won’t be on the BYU track and field coaching staff.
Robison’s father, Clarence — whose name is emblazoned on BYU’s world-class track and field facility — coached BYU for 40 years, from 1949 to 1988. On the BYU website, he is called the “Founding Father of BYU Track and Field.” Clarence and Mark coached together for several years until the elder Robison retired, and Mark carried on from there.
Robison will coach the Cougars through next week’s NCAA Track and Field Championships, work a couple of weekend camps, and then he will clean out his office, which is filled with memorabilia and seven decades’ worth of Track & Field News magazines.
“It’s hard when you get to the end,” says Robison, a chronically pleasant and affable man.
You can’t really talk about Mark and his career without talking about where it all began: his father. Clarence competed in the 5,000-meter run at the 1948 Olympic Games, racing the legendary Paavo Nurmi, and a year later he became the head coach at BYU. He was pretty much a one-man coaching staff for 10 years, overseeing athletes in all events. He learned from his own experience.
During his competitive days, it was believed that if an athlete ran a total distance that exceeded his event distance, he would damage his heart. So a miler could not run more than 1,600 meters total in a given workout, including warmup. Today’s milers might log 50 miles a week on the road and run another 3,000 to 4,000 meters in a single track workout. Robison realized the training beliefs of his day were nonsense and coached accordingly.
Before LaVell Edwards raised BYU’s football program to national prominence, Robison did the same for the track program. BYU tied for the 1970 NCAA team championship — the first for any BYU team — and by the time Clarence retired he had coached 26 Olympians and 118 All-Americans.
Clarence and his wife Monita raised nine children (six sons, three daughters) in Provo and life evolved around track. Vacations consisted of track meets. House guests were BYU track athletes who came from all over the world.
“(Track) was always part of our lives,” recalls Mark. “We had all these foreign athletes coming to the house. They came over for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was a lot of fun. We learned about new cultures and religious backgrounds and what it was like in their countries. I have fond memories about being around these athletes.”
As Mark tells it, Clarence never pressured his children to pursue track and most did not. Mark and Natalie competed in the distance- and middle-distance events for BYU. None of the children except Mark would become coaches; instead, they became geologists, engineers, sculptors and oral surgeons.
After running for BYU for a year, Mark served a two-year church mission and then rejoined the team. After completing his undergrad degree, he became the head track coach at Idaho Falls High and four years later returned home to get his master’s degree while working as a graduate assistant coach at BYU.
“It was great,” says Mark. “I got to hang out with dad. Everyone knew him. It felt like he was royalty. He was as big as the sport. Everyone loved and respected him. I ran for him for a couple of years and coached with him three years. Before my mission I was going to be a wildlife biologist, but when I returned home I knew I was going to go into coaching. I had one of the experts in track and field to talk to and learn from.”
Upon his retirement, Clarence was succeeded by Willard Hirschi, and when Hirschi retired, Mark Robison was promoted from assistant coach to head coach. After BYU joined the Mountain West Conference, Robison’s teams won 11 of 12 indoor championships and all 12 outdoor championships, and then the entire men’s and women’s programs were restructured and he became an event coach, working mostly with high jumpers, pole vaulters and the multievent athletes.
The Robison family track tradition continued. Mark and his wife Jayelynn, who passed away from cancer three years ago, raised six children, and they all pursued high school track, with three of them competing for BYU. Nathan went on to become an outstanding miler at BYU, placing second in both the indoor and outdoor NCAA championships and sixth in the U.S. Olympic Trials. He also became a sub four-minute miler, running 3:59.99 (he likes to call himself the slowest sub four miler in history).
Three of Mark’s sons became high school track coaches but all eventually drifted to other endeavors. “I tried like crazy to talk them out of (coaching),” says Mark. “If you can’t get in the college ranks, it’s hard to make a living.” Aaron has maintained his ties to the sport; he is assistant director of the famed Penn Relays in Philadelphia.
Robison, who has coached every event in the sport during his career, has seen a lot of changes over the years — the influx of older, world-class foreign athletes, the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs, the arrival of the high-tech shoes, which have radically altered performances, and the more positive effect of the internet. Prior to the internet, Robison recorded Olympic and world championship events on TV to study the techniques of the world’s best athletes. Today, there is an endless amount of information on the internet about such things.
What’s next for Robison after so many decades immersed in his sport? He hasn’t quite figured that out yet, but he knows there will be some travel and fly-fishing in the mix. He says he will avoid doing anything that requires a time commitment that prevents him from doing what he wants to do.
“I’m very grateful for everything,” he says. “My own success was because I had kids who trusted me. My goal wasn’t accolades; it was to develop kids and have them understand who they are and learn skills that will help them be better men and women, better fathers, mothers, leaders, sons and daughters. It’s been quite a journey.”