Thoughts On Culture : Portland Pilots XC 2018

Rob Conner. Long time University of Portland Men’s Cross Country/Track & Field Head Coach

Rob Conner. Long time University of Portland Men’s Cross Country/Track & Field Head Coach

During the 2018 NCAA cross-country season my mentor and friend, Rob Conner, head coach of the University of Portland Men’s Cross Country/Track & Field program gave me an all access pass to the inner workings of his program. I went to practice daily, observed meets, and chatted with him and his staff frequently. My observation was in the spirit of better understanding the impact leadership, interpersonal relationships, and environmental dynamics — or in short “culture” — had on a nationally ranked team during the ups and downs of a competitive season.

Portland Pilots XC 2018 posts are my reflections on what I observed on The Bluff during that season.

"My own definition of leadership is this: the capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character which inspires confidence." — Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery

Many in competitive running circles wonder how Rob Conner’s cross country teams have enjoyed impressive and consistent success over his 30 year tenure at the University of Portland.

UP is a small institution tucked away near the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. It rests in the quiet neighborhood of St. Johns and though campus is technically in a city, it fosters a small college town vibe.

Rob's budget is unimpressive. His staff small. His on-campus facilities limited. Despite significant disadvantages to other programs, UP is a steady top-10 nationally ranked program and always in the hunt for a podium finish at the NCAA XC Championships.

Here’s how Rob does it — he fully embodies General Montgomery’s definition of leadership.

Years ago, he was playfully given the nickname “The Dean of West Coast Cross Country” by a former University of Oregon coach (a nod to the 24 West Coast conference straight XC titles UP won, most times with a B squad). The moniker fits him like a glove. 

Rob truly love cross country. 

He’s most excited on days when promise is in the air — right before the team returns from summer break, when recruits are on campus, moments before an important workout, or heading into big cross country meets. 

Everyday at practice he is campaigning and rallying his guys to bring their best effort as they collectively prepare to make a run to the national meet. Every runner on the roster matters and is empowered to make a lasting contribution.

Rob’s deep passion for cross country as team concept is infectious. He recruits “team guys” who are bought into a we-first, not me-first, concept. Prima donnas need not apply to the Men’s UP XC team.

Portland Men’s XC is a classic underdog program: less resources, staff, bells and whistles than others are not seen as a disadvantage but an asset. It forces clarity about what really matters — the young men who make up the team. Rob offers a common purpose for the top runner to 29th to rally around, “We’re going to work hard. We’re going to do it together. If we can do that, we can compete with — and beat — the big boys.”

Rob is a natural people person. Ten years ago, as a young coach, I was on the UPXC staff. He taught me to be more outgoing, positive, and upbeat with others. His character is electric and unique yet stable and well grounded.

Being razor sharp on what matters — the well being and experience had by the young men on the team, training at a nationally competitive level, and doing it together — offers his athlete confidence, purpose, and clarity. All are hallmarks of winning leadership.

Here the fascinating part: R.C. does all of this naturally. Leading young men is in his DNA.

He reads but a handful of books a year, few, if any, on leadership. He doesn’t go to clinics or conferences. They tend to be in the offseason and he’d rather spend his little free time with family and friends. 

What he’s interested in and understands best is people. He has an innate interest in who people are, what they know, have done, and want to do. He asks questions, listens and sincerely cares. He’s learned by osmosis all the winning traits of leadership simply by his love for and interaction with a wide breadth of diverse people over the decades.

Rob’s inspired character is what makes UPXC so special. His longevity and domain knowledge of the program is what unties alums throughout the decades. The fact he hasn’t depart for greener pastures is a testament to his commitment to UP and the university’s appreciation of him and the cross country program.

As long as a first class leader like Rob captains the Pilots, UP will have the ultimate competitive advantage — a culture driven by a clear purpose and strengthened by his gratitude for the people who call him “coach.”

Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. | @jmarpdx

Jonathan Marcus