Allen Johnson brings Olympic gold experience to North Carolina A&T track
The 1996 gold medalist replaced former Aggies coach Duane Ross in June and will lead Team USA sprints and hurdles at the World Athletics Championships
A combination of nerves and excitement is evident in Allen Johnson.
The three-time Olympian and 1996 gold medalist was named North Carolina A&T State’s director of track and field programs on June 17 and started his four-year contract on July 1. It’s Johnson’s first head-coaching job and, despite both his parents attending Howard University, his first coaching experience at a historically Black college and university (HBCU).
“I’m really, really excited about the unknown,” Johnson, 51, recently told Andscape. “Right now, I feel like I felt when I went to college.
“You know you do all these things to prepare — elementary school, junior high school, high school — and then you go off to college, and it’s like this whole new world opens up to you. I feel like right now, for me, I’ve been an assistant all this time, and now I’m going off into this whole new wide-open world of being a head coach.”
Johnson replaces Duane Ross, who left for the University of Tennessee after leading the Aggies to consecutive top-10 finishes in the NCAA championships for the past two seasons.
Johnson, a Washington native and University of North Carolina alum, brings more than 30 years of experience with him. Like Ross, Johnson also ran professionally, winning four world championship titles, three world indoor titles, four national indoor titles, seven national outdoor titles and maintaining a 14-year consecutive run among the top 10 in the world.
He began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant at the University of South Carolina after retiring in July 2010. After stints at the Air Force Academy and the University of Kentucky as a sprint and hurdles assistant, Johnson spent the last six seasons as sprint and hurdles coach at NC State. He will coach Team USA in the same role for the 2022 World Athletics Championships beginning Friday and running through July 24 in Eugene, Oregon.
North Carolina A&T director of intercollegiate athletics Earl M. Hilton III told Andscape Johnson topped a short list of candidates to replace Ross, saying, “His interaction with student-athletes. His character. His coaching resume. NCAA national champion. Multiple Olympian. Gold medalist. World champion. Professional track athlete.”
Johnson spoke with Andscape about his track and field experience, thoughts on his new journey at the largest HBCU in the nation and more.
Considering you grew up in Washington D.C., how does it feel to begin coaching at an HBCU? Do you have any previous relationships with HBCUs?
It’s going to be a brand-new experience for me. I don’t have any previous real experience.
Both of my parents attended Howard University, family members went to Howard. It was literally down the street from my grandmother’s house. Growing up and spending the summers at my grandmother’s in D.C., there was this program called National Youth Sports Program that I participated in at Howard; it was between 1980 and 1981. So, that’s pretty much the extent of my experience.
After coaching at the Air Force Academy, the University of Kentucky and NC State, what are some different things you expect to experience at A&T?
You know what, I don’t really have any expectations per se. I know a lot of people talk about homecoming here, but I’m just going to take it how it comes. I’m looking at this season as an opportunity to lead the track and field program and get the HBCU experience for the first time.
There was a gap between your retirement and later becoming a coach. What helped you realize you wanted to go from an athlete to a coach during that time?
I retired in 2010; I should’ve retired in 2008. That ’08 to ’10 was my, ‘Hey, you should hang it up.’ The devil was saying, ‘Keep going,’ while the angel was saying, ‘Hey, it’s time.’ Basically, what happened was I never wanted to be a college coach.
My whole time running, that was the one job that I said, ‘I don’t think I want to do that,’ but in the time towards the end of my career, I started working with some athletes in Columbia, South Carolina, where I lived and I really, really enjoyed it, and I found myself when I went to bed at night, looking forward to the next day of getting up and working with those athletes. I wasn’t getting paid to do it; I was doing it for free, and I really enjoyed it, and the opportunity presented itself at the Air Force Academy, so I jumped on it, and basically, 11 years later, here I am.
You spent 11 years as an assistant coach. Was this opportunity something you didn’t expect or had plans to receive?
A lot of it is timing. It was something that I always wanted to be within the first year of being an assistant coach at the Air Force Academy. I knew, or at least I thought I wanted to be a head coach. There are a lot of things in life that we ask for that we’ve never done before, and we think we’re prepared for it, but that was something that I wanted.
I wanted to be a head coach. And then, just in my journey was me trying to learn as much as I could, asking a lot of questions between the Air Force Academy, University of Kentucky, then at NC State, and then this opportunity presented itself, so I jumped on it.
Your daughter Tristine was also an assistant at NC State. What was it like working with her?
It was fun having her there. You know, because I got a chance to be around her in a working environment, and she helped me out a lot. So, instructing her was weird at first because when someone is your child, you have the father-daughter relationship, and then you have the coach and assistant coach relationship.
It was fun, though, and it was good too with her being young. She was closer to the age of the athletes, so she was able to help me relate to them a little better. I also had my wife, Torri, who was an assistant as well. Right now, my wife isn’t working. She’s at home with our 8-month-old daughter.
You and Coach Ross, along with many other coaches, competed in hurdles. What can you say about the trend there?
Hurdles is the best event. Hurdles has the smartest athletes in it. I think that any time you do an event like the hurdles, it’s extremely technical, so I think that we’re very cerebral.
We sit down, and we’re able to come up with plans and execute them, and just like the hurdles, you’re going to hit some of them, and that’s OK. When you hit, you stumble. You just put that behind you and get going to the next one because each hurdle is a part of the race. They’re not separate races.
When you were an athlete, what routine would you do before competing?
It depended on the year, but more so in the beginning of my career than towards the end. I distinctly remember back in 1994 when I first started; it was Outkast’s first album. I listened to that before every single race. I listened to that tape so much that to this day, when I hear those songs, it takes me back to the summer of 1994, being in Europe somewhere warming up.
I don’t really have any rituals now. I pretty much just get up and get ready to go and make sure that the athletes have everything that they need. I guess that’s my ritual. I’m sure being a head coach, the ritual will be even more different because I’m going to have so many more responsibilities.
As you’re watching track, who are the stars you’re watching, and what would it mean to have an A&T athlete or athletes compete in the Olympics?
Noah Lyles, Erriyon Knighton, Randolph Ross, Michael Norman and [Cambrea] Sturgis, I look at everybody. For me to be able to recruit an athlete, coach an athlete or even if I don’t directly coach them but have an athlete that comes into A&T and gets coached and go onto the Olympic Games, for a college coach, that’s awesome because typically collegiate is so difficult.
The standards are so high, and usually, athletes need to have that time to kind of develop even after college to make it. To have a collegiate athlete do that would be awesome.
Do you have a relationship with the Rosses?
Yeah, Coach Ross and I competed against each other in college. He was two years behind me, I was at the University of North Carolina, and he was at Clemson, so we battled at the ACC championships and nationals and then on the professional level as well. We both made the Olympic team together in 2004 to go to Athens. He finished second at the Olympic trials and I finished third.
We actually set a world record together on the shuttle hurdle relay back in 1998. It was myself, Coach Ross, Steve Brown and Terry Reese. I don’t think we still hold it, though, but at the time, that was the record.
If there were one thing you would want your athletes to learn after being coached by you, what would it be?
It would be something that my mother used to say to me all the time when I was growing up. That’s to — I don’t know if this is a word — but have sticktoitiveness, sticking to things. When you set a goal, and you start it, see it through. Understand that there are going to be hiccups and stumbles along the way, but that’s OK. That’s part of the process of getting to where you want to get to. Keep on fighting and keep on fighting.