Track coach John Copeland has been training athletes in the A-10 division since 1949. Photo by Grace DeSanti.

37 Years Later, Rhody Track Titan continues to Succeed

In the high-pressure, individuality-driven sports culture of today, John Copeland, head coach of cross country and track and field at the University of Rhode Island, has had an illustrious career by doing things his way.

Copeland’s time at URI began back in 1982 after coaching high school track and later collegiate track at the University of Connecticut and the University of New Hampshire. He has received 31 different Coach of the Year awards across seven competitions in both indoor and outdoor track during his 48 year career, and his athletes have set over 135 school records at URI. 

In the history of New England Track and Field, these achievements put Copeland up there with the very best. However, he said that there is no secret potion for this success.

“You have to know what your priorities are in order to be successful as a coach,” he said. “I always make sure the runner is my number one priority. After that, family, then academics. Track and Field comes after those. When you make the kid the first priority, they tend to succeed.”

Since 1982, Copeland has trained the Ram’s only NCAA Division I qualifiers since 1949, and 34 URI athletes have become A-10 champions.

For Copeland, the success is not why he has continued to come back all these years. He finds more happiness in the bonds he creates with his players.

“The best thing for me is watching the competitions,” he said. “It is really fun to see kids have breakthroughs throughout a season. I’m not necessarily talking about the best kids either. When a kid is satisfied with their improvement, nothing makes me happier.” 

While the culture of sports today is very much geared toward individual success and improving your ability, Copeland sees much more value in making an impact on the player’s life.

“Now, I don’t remember which competition my teams ran the best at,” Copeland said. “I do remember though, one of my former runners texted me one year on Father’s day. His father died when he was younger and I must have played a role in his life. That is a moment he and I have never forgotten.”

While Copeland’s success and impact have been able to transcend decades, many aspects of track and field have changed, including the players and their mindset toward the sport. 

”The players have certainly changed over the years,” he said. “There’s so much pressure to be the very best that that is all the runners are focused on every day at practice.”

The players and their personalities may change, but Copeland remains steadfast, continuing to churn out success.