College Track: Coaching seems natural next step for John Crain

John Crain of North Central leads on his way to winning the men's 1500 meter race during the CCIW outdoor conference track meet in May. | Jon Cunningham/For Sun-Times Media
John Crain of North Central leads on his way to winning the men's 1500 meter race during the CCIW outdoor conference track meet in May. | Jon Cunningham/For Sun-Times Media

When John Crain wrapped up his legendary cross country and track career at North Central College this spring, he expressed a desire to get into coaching.

Running for the legendary Al Carius is a good place to find some connections.

Dozens of Carius’ former runners have gone into the coaching ranks through the decades.

“I had always thought about going into coaching,” Crain said. “It was something on my mind. I expressed my interest to the coaches about becoming a collegiate coach, and they thought that was a great idea. NCC has been known to create a lot of college coaches.”

So when NCC alum Jim VanHootegem took over the program at the University of Oklahoma, he became Crain’s top connection.

Recently, Crain was named a Sooners’ graduate assistant.

“We feel very comfortable with anybody that wants to get into coaching,” Carius said. “Johnny expressed this and we were looking at what would be a nice fit. Jim got the job at Oklahoma, so we had that contact. I feel so very proud of these guys. He’s up to it. In my opinion, he has the right stuff inside of him and the credentials and experience to be a highly successful coach.”

In his short time in Norman, Okla., Crain has already noticed the difference between Division III and the big-money world of Division I athletics.

“It’s a much different world,” Crain said. “There’s a different emphasis. It was more about academics in Division III. It almost seems like they’re professional athletes here. We didn’t get any of that, the gear, the academic tutors, just the money in the program. I remember feeling so lucky that we could get coach buses at NCC, and we got like two shirts a year. This is at a whole other level.”

He also noticed that even though North Central is a Division III school, the Cardinals’ success has not gone unnoticed nationally.

“It gives me some credibility,” Crain said. “North Central carries more weight than Al or (head track and field coach Frank Gramarosso) give it sometimes. Being able to say you’re associated with one of the top programs in Division III, that’s something special.”

North Central’s cross country and track and field programs have long been the gold standard in Division III, but despite the history that preceded him, Crain became a legend in his own right.

He won four national championships and was named an All-American 10 times. The four people who rank ahead of him in those categories are all North Central College Athletic Hall of Famers.

“When Johnny first game to North Central from Dunlap, he was a middle distance runner,” Carius said. “One of our other coaches thought that he shouldn’t even run cross country. With what we do here, you have to be very patient. Your time will come. He blossomed into one of the best we’ve ever had.”

Despite all of the accolades, Crain was always team-first. Talking about himself was not his forte.

“I never set out to be one of the greats,” Crain said. “I just focused on attempting to get better, year after year. I never would have guessed that I did the things I did. I think everything started paying off. It’s kind of a dream come true.”

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