Typical goals for 32-year-olds include getting a good job, paying off student loans and starting a family. In her 32nd year, Felicia Johnston will look for her sixth women’s golf conference title and her fifth Coach of the Year award.
For Johnston, whose Vikings wrapped up their third consecutive season as Big Sky champions by competing in the NCAA West Regional over the weekend, the rise to the top has been quick.
Only nine years removed from being a student golfer at Oregon State, Johnston has established herself as Big Sky coaching royalty by turning the team into perennial title favorites.
So what is the key to Johnston’s success?
Maybe it’s her age. At 31, Johnston is the youngest head coach at PSU.
“Having been through it myself makes it easier for me to already know what they’re going to go through – whether it’s being homesick or boyfriend problems – whatever it may be, I will have gone through it,” Johnston said. “Part of it for me is making sure that they have the best experience possible as a collegiate athlete.”
“I’ve taken what I learned in college, or maybe didn’t learn so well, and tried to help them and maybe improve their collegiate experience,” she said.
“She’s just like one of us,” freshman Haley Brown said. “I think Felicia hit 20 and never got any older.”
Her knowledge of what it is to be 20 manifests itself in many ways, including a rule preventing teammates from rooming together to keep them from getting sick of each other and encourage socializing.
According to Brown, Johnston’s approach seems to work. “We always have a blast.”
Having a blast has translated into a tightly knit team and three consecutive titles.
“She’s been around winning and with each year she knows what to do different and what to improve on,” said senior Jeana Lee, one of two graduating seniors who have watched Johnston develop during her four years at PSU. Lee credits Johnston with helping her take more than six strokes off her scoring average during her time at PSU.
Lee and Brown both identified Johnston’s listening skills as another possible reason for her coaching success.
“She listens to us and sees what’s going on,” Brown said. “She’s not afraid to help, but she knows when to stay back and let us do our own thing.”
“They always know that the door is open and whatever problem they have, no matter how big it is they can come to me with it and I won’t judge them either way,” Johnston said.
Johnston refused to brag or revel about past successes and instead focused on improving upon them in the future, which she insists will be at Portland State.
“Yeah, there are a bunch of high-profile jobs out there,” she said, “but it’s not Portland.”
And perhaps the best way to understand why Johnston is so successful is to examine why she is so sure her future will be in Portland.
After three successful years as the head coach at Northern Arizona, Johnston returned to Oregon in 2001 when her husband accepted a job in Lake Oswego. He had given up his career as a golf pro to move with her to Arizona in 1998 and now she is repaying the favor.
“Everything worked out how it was supposed to be. I kind of believe that everything in life happens for a reason,” she said. “It was my turn to give back after he allowed me to follow my dream.”
By instilling that same sense of respect and responsibility in the players she coaches, Johnston has created a tradition where winning and being a good person are equally important. Luckily for PSU, both are in abundance.