April 2, 2007
By Ken Goe
The University of Portland men's distance running team was en route to a recent training session at Forest Park when coach Rob Conner got into an impromptu debate with sophomore Jeff Gill over genetically modified food.
Gill, passionate about ending malnutrition in Africa, argued in favor of golden rice. Scientists have enhanced golden rice nutritionally by altering its genetic structure in hopes of alleviating hunger and vitamin A deficiency in the developing world.
A vegan, Conner was horrified at the thought of people tinkering genetically with a food staple.
The debate continued on the bus back to campus, but Conner wasn't through. He followed up with a teamwide e-mail addressing what he believes are the health risks of what he referred to as "Frankenfoods."
Gill wouldn't give in, a trait Conner respects. The UP coach has fashioned a distance powerhouse at the small Catholic school in North Portland by recruiting smart, motivated athletes, and insisting they learn to think for themselves.
Heaven knows, the 44-year-old Conner is a freethinker. There aren't many college coaches with more quirks, from his Harley motorcycle, to his 1958 psychedelic Volkswagen bus, to his large collection of 1980s-vintage fliers from the head-banging rock band Metallica, to his fixation with the professional wrestlers who strutted at the Portland Sports Arena in the 1960s and '70s.
"I'm normal on one side, weird on the other," Conner said laughing.
In the UP athletic department offices in the Chiles Center, they've seen all sides. So have the Pilots' men's and women's basketball teams, as Conner regularly drives the bus that ferries them to and from the airport.
"Predicting Rob's state of mind from the one day to the next isn't a game I want to get into," athletic director Larry Williams said.
The great Frankenfood debate ended several weeks later, when Gill arrived at Conner's office bearing a thick sandwich stuffed with roast beef and cheese. Conner looked at the sandwich, sniffed with mock disdain, and shifted the discussion to running.
Conner's wife, Gwen, met him when he was an assistant coach at Mankato State in Minnesota. It was not love at first sight.
"Rob has to grow on you," she said.
For instance, there is his taste in music, which encompasses not only Metallica, but other 1980s metal bands such as Slayer and Ratt. He has an extensive collection of Metallica fliers, which the band used to promote its gigs in 1982-85 before signing with a major label. "One-of-a-kind items," Conner said.
After a prolonged family discussion, Conner said he got Gwen's reluctant go-ahead to display the fliers in their home, but only in the basement family room, being remodeled to accommodate the collection.
The Volkswagen van, 40-year-old paint job and all, is parked out front. It looks like something you might have seen at a Grateful Dead concert.
Conner picked it up for $2,000 at the Portland Swap Meet. At the time, it hadn't been driven since 1968. Conner took it to a shop and got it running. But don't think of the van as dependable transportation.
"Style over substance," Conner said recently. "It's sitting dead on the driveway right now."
That led to another family discussion.
"He was so worried somebody would break into it," Gwen said. "The first morning, he was looking at it out the front window and he said, 'It looks like somebody might have graffitied it.' I said, 'How would you know?' I'm hoping somebody steals it."
Conner bought the Harley new in the mid-1990s, scratching a childhood itch. But, he discovered after the arrival of Lacey, now 8, and Avery, 5, that a motorcycle isn't optimal family transportation.
So Conner's hog stays mostly in the garage.
It's hard to know what will happen to his collection of wrestling fliers. Conner grew up in Olympia, watching Dutch Savage, "Moondog" Mayne, Tough Tony Borne, Bull Ramos, Jimmy Snuka and Playboy Buddy Rose on the televised Portland Wrestling matches.
These days, he peruses eBay and snaps up fliers when he finds them.
Many hang upstairs in the Conners' television room. But the TV is going downstairs as part of the remodel, and Rob Conner isn't convinced a Portland Wrestling/Metallica combination would work.
"You want to have a theme," he said.
Conner laughs easily while talking about his collection compulsion, which began as a child with baseball cards and at times included electric business signs, ashtrays and memorabilia relating to former NFL quarterback Roman Gabriel.
But he can be serious, too. Gwen fell in love with a man who looked her in the eye and listened carefully to every word she said.
Recently, she watched him emerge from a New Seasons market with the family groceries and spot a homeless man. Conner made a detour to the man, stopped briefly, then resumed his course, less one organic apple.
Conner's conversion to veganism addressed a cholesterol problem, but also fit neatly into a value system that embraces an environmentally conscious lifestyle.
"Rob is a very holistic person," his wife said.
Gill, the sophomore runner, isn't on the varsity cross country team and was so depressed about his running and some personal problems that he thought seriously at one point of transferring. He hadn't discussed it with Conner, and was surprised when the coach called him in to talk.
To Gill's surprise, the conversation focused mostly on what Conner might possibly do to help him. When Gill left Conner's office, he no longer had any intention of transferring.
"He convinced me I was valued here," Gill said.
There isn't space in Portland's display case for all the hardware Conner's teams have won. A recent visit to Conner's office revealed the 2006 West Coast Conference cross country championship trophy in a jumble on the floor with a half-dozen others.
The Pilots are so dominant in the WCC that Conner, Portland's coach since 1990, stopped bringing his best runners to the conference meet. Last fall, Portland's "B" team not only won the WCC cross country title -- the Pilots' 28th in a row -- but also placed four runners in the top five.
Portland's best runners stay focused on the NCAA West Regional and national cross country meets. Under Conner, the Pilots have placed in the top four in the West Regional meet 10 times and in the top 12 at the NCAA meet four times.
It's remarkable considering they go toe-to-toe with traditional powers such as Oregon, Washington, Washington State, Arkansas, Colorado, UCLA and Arizona State. All are bigger schools with big budgets.
The Pilots operate on a shoestring. Conner, a former UP runner, primarily recruits in the Northwest and Northern California, looking for self-motivated athletes with undeveloped potential who also qualify for academic scholarships.
That allows Conner effectively to double his scholarship money and, perhaps, is one reason Portland's team grade-point average of 3.363 was the best of any Division I men's track program in the nation last year.
He recruits only distance runners, because the school doesn't have a 400-meter track, then insists they learn to push themselves.
"We run cross country and spring cross country," Conner said. "To me, track season develops what is coming in the fall. And don't say we don't have a facility. When somebody says, 'Where is your facility?' I say, 'It's just across the river in Forest Park.' There are 75 miles worth of dirt roads and trails."
The Pilots fare well in the spring track season too. Junior John Moore was an All-American in the 10,000 meters as recently as two years ago at the NCAA track and field championships.
In all, Conner-coached UP runners have achieved All-America status 19 times. Pete Julian, Joe Driscoll and Uli Steidl, who developed under Conner, have gone on to successful running careers after college.
As it turns out, quirks and all, the Portland coach knows exactly what he's doing.
Oregon State coach Kelly Sullivan trained Conner at Clackamas Community College in the 1980s before Conner moved on to run for the Pilots. Sullivan has watched Conner turn the sleepy, Catholic liberal arts school into one of the country's best distance programs.
"Rob walked in and built a power," Sullivan said. "He has made Portland like Gonzaga in basketball."