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Coach Phil Olson '86 earned a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology at SFA. Photo courtesy of Western Athletic Conference.

SFA head track and field coach Phil Olson '86 retires after a successful 35-year coaching career

Story by Nathan Wicker '19

Phil Olson stood in the background, beaming with pride as he watched the SFA women's track and field team gleefully gather to hoist the 2022 Western Athletic Conference Outdoor Championship trophy — the 40th conference championship of his illustrious coaching career.

If it were up to Olson, a self-proclaimed introvert and what he considers an "assistant coach in a head coach's position," he wouldn't draw attention away from the team that finished the competition with 160 points, which included first-place finishes from stalwart team members Nissi Kabongo, Seri Geisler and Erica Ellis.

But this championship meant a little more to Olson and the track and field program than usual. Similar to the exuberance he felt after winning the first conference title in 2003, he felt an equal, if not greater, joy with this one — his last championship.

"It's always about the last one," Olson said. "Our team winning the 2022 WAC Outdoor Championship and knowing I was going to retire within two months' time was special."

Olson, a Fort Worth native, received a bachelor's degree in kinesiology from SFA in 1986. He initially took the helm of the SFA men's track and field program in 2000 after assistant coaching stints at Clemson University and the University of Virginia. A year into his SFA tenure, under the tutelage of then-Athletic Director Steve McCarty, the men's and women's head coaching positions were combined.

Olson stepped into a program that he believed "had some good qualities." It was a program held together with a few national-level student-athletes but a far cry from the one that now continually contends for conference championships.

"It takes years to really figure out what your niche is — figure out what you're good at and not so good at — and try to expand on the negatives and continually build on the positives. It's one of those things that comes with time," Olson said.

Influenced primarily from biblical Scriptures and his personal relationship with Jesus, Olson developed his coaching philosophy over time. He also brought in personnel with a winning mindset and ability to compete at a championship level.

The results speak for themselves:

  • 40 team conference championships
  • 29 Southland Conference Coach of the Year awards
  • one WAC Coach of the Year Award
  • one NCAA South Central Region Coach of the Year Award
  • one NCAA National Champion
  • two NCAA Top 25 finishes
  • 37 NCAA All-Americans
  • and 226 individual Southland Conference champions.

Olson was at the forefront of the track and field program's most successful and iconic moments: pole vaulter Branson Ellis' 2022 NCAA National Championship; the 2010 women's team scoring the most points ever in an outdoor competition with over 200; and the "miracle in Hammond" in 2015, where SFA's men's and women's track and field teams won the indoor and outdoor championships when the odds were stacked against them.

Along with teaching them how to be the best in the sport, Olson believed, when student-athletes stepped onto campus, it was his responsibility to prepare them to be the best they could be in life beyond the track.

"Coach Olson is the true definition of a servant leader," said Kabongo, a high jumper and hurdler. "His faith in the Lord and his integrity have inspired me greatly as a young woman and as an athlete, and I couldn't be more thankful I was able to compete under his leadership."

As Olson prepared for his career's bell lap — the conclusion of a 35-year coaching career — he looked forward to entering a transformative period of improving his mental and physical health and spending time with his wife, Donna, and children, Addie and Tobie.

And as he reflected on the legacy he leaves behind with the track and field program, he said one thing will always remain the same in his eyes: it was never about him.

"It's not about me, and it's never been about me," Olson said. "It's about the young men and women we've had here, our coaches and our administration. For me, it's to show that, through hard work, you can accomplish just about anything. With dedication to your sport, dedication to academics, and just dedicating yourself to being the best person you know how to be, then you can be successful."