Interview with Author Robert Coe

I thought that with the current issues raging across the country at our various institutions of higher learning, it would be interesting to discuss the developments with someone who experienced the most notable period of upheaval on campus. Please greet Robert Coe, author of Jock: a memoir of the counterculture.

Paul: Your book, unlike most in running, is a big sprawling work that puts running into the context of both the lives of the athletes and into larger interrelated communities. As a writer, I think it was an interesting decision to make. Why did you?

Robert: I realized there was no literature out there that placed not just running but major college athletics firmly in the context of the Sixties, in my case also bleeding into the early Seventies.

I wanted to write JOCK the way I did because somehow the idea had accrued that in the era of Muhammad Ali’s draft resistance and “Broadway Joe” Namath dating Janis Joplin and calling a Super Bowl victory and anti-Vietnam War disruptions shutting down 442 college campuses nationwide in 1970, including Stanford’s -- that somehow this volatile era barely touched college football and swimming and Track & Field and cross-country; that being a “Jock” somehow left you pure and unaffected, or maybe even back in the Fifties yourself. Much of Stanford Track & Field did remain mired in the Fifties, with Coach Payton Jordan running the program and requiring everyone to have short hair and proselytizing for his conservative version of the American Way and employing all kinds of outdated training methods in virtually every track and field event you could mention. (For distance runners it was “Intervals, Intervals, Intervals.”)

But our cross-country team was its own little counterculture. Not that all of us were stoners – in fact most of us weren’t – but we were running against the way things usually worked in college athletic programs. We were pretty much on our own, working under a great Coach, Marshall Clark, who understood Arthur Lydiard’s maxim “Train, Don’t Strain,” where the previous head of the program had lived more by the rostrum, “No pain, no gain.”

Many Stanford athletes, including players on our two winning Rose Bowl football teams (the first one led by Heisman Trophy Winner Jim Plunkett), understood that all of us were up to our eyeballs in what was happening in the world, whether we liked it or not. And anybody who didn’t think that way couldn’t have been paying much attention. Even Plunkett said it wasn’t an easy time to focus on a game.

Paul: You were around the running world about the time that the athletes began to rebel against the AAU. Was this an out-growth of the times, a milder version of the counter-culture, or simply people finally awakening to the unfairness of the AAU system?

I was more or less oblivious to the events going on at the level of the A.A.U. Our sport was a shadow of what it is today. When I set a new Stanford freshman school record in the Mile (4:09.5), I was unaware of any youth development programs anywhere in the country that I could have pursued in the summer, although I subsequently learned there were a few.

As far as rebellion goes: in my case I had many “culture wars” with Coach Jordan, the Head Coach of the record-setting 1968 Mexico City Olympic team, over-- get this – my hair. It’s all in the book. In the end I would usually follick-ly conform, but I never enjoyed these confrontations. Weirdly enough, I was one of Jordan’s favorites. He nicknamed me “The Baby-Faced Assassin.”

Paul: In your memoir, you compared the T&F team to 'labor'. This past year, the athletes at Northwestern sued to be able to form a union. They were rebuffed by the courts. What do you think of the current relationship of student/athlete to educational organization and how do you think it may have changed from your time at Stanford?

Robert: I used that term “labor” only once, referring to a terrible incident in which one of our teammates was struck in the temple by a thrown discus during an official team practice in the stadium. Discus throwers were allowed to throw on the football grass while their teammates warmed up in preparation for running, jumping, vaulting, etc. We were warned simply to “pay attention; be careful; watch out; keep your eyes open.” It was an accident waiting to happen, and when it finally did happen, with truly horrible results – our teammate permanently lost the sight in his right eye – I told people that “we” should never have allowed this practice to continue. We were “Labor.” We should have organized and as a team asked the Athletic Department to find another place for discus throwers to practice.

But to directly answer your question about today: I get a sense that there is a great deal of harmony now between athletic teams and the athletic department. I hear through the grapevine various grumblings about the basketball coach and football coach David Shaw’s conservative play-calling, but them’s peanuts. The success of the Stanford Athletic Department is incomparable to any in the history of college sports, and I think harmony is part of the reason why. The other part is the enormous financial resources at their disposal.

Paul: A portion of the Missouri football team went out on strike and refused to practice over issues of perceived racism at the university. They won. Could that have happened in 1968-1972 with the Stanford team? What would have been the reaction of the university and the public?

Robert: I knew Black football players who felt that “Indian” Coaches – we didn’t become the Cardinal until the fall after I graduated, meaning I and my classmates Black and White spent our whole careers on a team with a racial mascot -- treated them like machines, expecting them to return from injuries more quickly than white players did.

Two days before the Stanford-Michigan Bowl game, my friend, the workhorse fullback Hilary Shockley, quit the team, despite a personal appeal from Head Coach John Ralston. “Shocker,” who had played the whole season with painful bone chips in his ankle, reportedly told his Coach, in a word-play on our head trainer’s constant refrain– “You can’t make the club if you’re in the tub” --“You can’t hit the field until you’re healed.” (Shocker was a walk-on, like I was; he went on to Harvard Business School.)

There were many racially-tinged events during my era. My 1968 entering class of 1,447 students was (according to the school newspaper) 85% Caucasian, 6-7% “Oriental,” 5% “Negro,” and the rest Mexican-American, Filipino and “American Indian.” (The Daily failed to mention we were also about 2:1 male, and Title IX was still a pipedream.)

A year-old Black Student Union was demanding the formation of a Black Studies program and expanded admission and financial aid for minorities. My freshman English instructor had us read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, which he described as a work of “genius.” The racial pot wasn’t just bubbling, in other words; it was boiling.

The only incident of refusing practice I ever heard about came when players in the first Rose Bowl camp, Black and White, gathered in the locker room before one of their hated morning practices and decided that since they were going to be playing in a Rose Bowl Game in less than a week, by god they were going to have fun. So no more morning workouts! “Boy-cott Prac-tice, Boy-cott Prac-tice!” I don’t know if anybody actually chanted that, but a Sixties-style “People’s Revolt” had definitely reached a Rose Bowl football team. And I give it up to John Ralston: he gave in to their demands. He even arranged a field trip to Marineland.

Paul: The racing world is in big trouble as the doping scandals continue to widen in scope. How would a 1968 Robert Coe have reacted to the pressures of today's racing environment where the phrase “the winner is the guy with the best doctor” has gained currency? Would you have competed or called bullshit and walked away?

Robert: As I mentioned in JOCK, I was in an era that was almost pre-doping. PEDs were something new in the lexicon of sports. Olympic drug testing had been instituted for the first time in Mexico City, where Coach Jordan had been a vocal and sincere opponent of drug use: an honest-to-god believer in those “precious bodily fluids.” But testing methods were crude, and rumors of abuse by major U.S. stars were widespread, although without hard evidence to back them up.

To the best of my knowledge, Performance Enhancing Drugs never touched Stanford’s athletic programs at all while I was there. Stanford Quarter-Miler Jim Ward, Jordan’s 1968 Track Team Captain, would later claim that all six runners who finished ahead of him in the N.C.A.A. 440-Yard Championship Final in ‘67 were doping, and that his friends at U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. were given PEDs like candy from training room dispensaries. Maybe there were scenes at Stanford I didn’t know about (although I doubt it), but in an era that introduced a number of innovative approaches to training, encompassing not only drugs but also the human potential movement, I saw evidence of neither in Dave's Animal Kingdom. That was what I called Head Trainer Dave Blanchard’s Training Room. Except for the assistant trainer Scotty, who was a very cool guy, the Stanford Training Room was about as retrograde a scene as you could find on campus in my era. But to answer your last question: if doping had been around, I am quite certain I would not have done it. Yes, I definitely would have walked away. Not for health reasons, although those would have been reasons enough. Cheating violates everything I felt about our sport.

Paul: As we get older, I think we all become a little introspective. Some look back and decide it was all worth it, each bump and bruise. Others play a game of 'what-if'. Where do you land, in life and in running?

Robert: I write in the book that I simply closed the door on that chapter of my life. Injuries and illness kept me from becoming the runner I might have been. But then again, I quit at the age of twenty-two. Kenny Moore, the two-time Olympic Marathoner and Sports Illustrated track scribe for three decades, who I knew slightly back in the day, read JOCK, and among other things wrote me this: “You might not regret ending serious racing, but I do for you. I can clearly imagine you and me continuing our talk about the meanings and paradoxes of sporting effort, community and service, and me inviting you to train in Eugene after the '72 trials. Where I would have tried to shake you out of the provably erroneous assumption that four college years were all you were allowed for a career.”

From the current perspective of these many years, I think I would like to have seen what I could do. But forgive me if I quote from my book:

“My portrait hung in the Stanford locker room for nine years! I raced against Frank Shorter, Gerry Lindgren, Martin Liquori and Steve Prefontaine, and in meets with Bob Seagren, O.J. Simpson, Lee Evans, and John Carlos! I led Pre for 800 yards in the 1971 Pac-8 Conference Mile! Before the first race Jim Ryun contested as a Born-Again Christian, I was dragged off the track in the Devil-Take-the-Hindmost Mile! I could run a 50-second Quarter and also out-race long-distance All-Americans and Olympians, past, present and future! I logged thousands of miles with some truly great runners [including Don Kardong and Duncan Macdonald] and aspired alongside them to national championships! I competed for the London Track Club at the Crystal Palace and at the Oakland Coliseum and San Francisco’s Cow Palace for Stanford! I trained on trails in the Sierra Nevadas and on the track at Berlin’s Olympiastadion! I coursed through the cypresses of Point Lobos and risked my life running along the Rhine! I was a forest creature in Munich, a Yank between the hedgerows of the English countryside and on the cobblestones around Buckingham Palace, and a hippie running naked on the beaches of the Costa Blanca! When the great Australian Ron Clarke set his last world record [over three miles indoors], he flung his arms around my neck and said, ‘Thanks, mate!’ I was present at the births of West Coast cross country and the West Coast Offense! I had been there, and done that. But I also decided early on that my book would no more grovel over my victories than it would trade in my long-vanished defeats. What I wanted to do [with this book] was open a window on an era, and confirm that I felt like the Stanford All-American basketball star Nneka Ogwumike did when she addressed a crowd at Maples at the end of her final college season in 2012: “I wouldn’t have traded these four years for any other place with any other community, any other team, any other coach.”

Paul: What memories of running and racing at Stanford mean the most to you?

Robert: My teammates and our Coach; our long training runs and tough interval sessions; and our amazing competitions. I refer frequently to a line from Kipling: “The strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf.”

  1. What advice would you give a freshly minted high school graduate who's headed off to race in college.

Robert: All that really comes to mind are clichés, most of which contain a germ of truth. So here goes: stay hungry. Feed your passion. Keep an open mind and heart. And train, don’t strain!