Bobby Van Allen’s career may never have been if the architect of Johns Hopkins’ successful cross country and track and field programs had followed his original plan.
After graduating in 1998 from Maryland with a bachelor’s in kinesiology, Van Allen intended to attend physical therapy school at Maryland-Eastern Shore. But fate — or more specifically, former Blue Jays coach Brian King and former athletic director Tom Calder — intervened, leaving Van Allen wondering what might have been.
“I deferred for one year and thought, ‘OK, I’ll just do this coaching job for a year and see how it goes,’” he recalled. “But I fell in love with it and decided that I wanted to see how this played out and how far we could take this program.”
Van Allen has guided the Blue Jays to unanticipated heights. Since 2012, the women’s cross country program has captured seven NCAA Division III championships — tied with SUNY-Cortland for the most in the sport’s history. Men’s cross country has competed in eight national meets, women’s track and field has won 12 straight Centennial Conference outdoor and 11 consecutive indoor crowns, and men’s track has collected nine conference indoor championships in a row and seven of the last eight outdoor titles.
The women’s cross country team is currently ranked No. 4 in the latest U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll, while the men are No. 7. Johns Hopkins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wartburg are the only two schools in the nation with both teams ranked in the top 7.
On Sept. 17, Van Allen headed the nine-member Class of 2020 that was inducted into the university’s athletic Hall of Fame. Laura Paulsen, a 2010 graduate who earned four All-American accolades in cross country, indoor track in the mile and distance medley relay and outdoor track in the 5,000 meters, said the honor is well-deserved.
“He’s won practically every national cross country championship for the women since 2012,” said Paulsen, a 33-year-old chief of staff for pelvic health for a medical device company living in Nashville, Tennessee. “That’s insane.”
Van Allen’s foray into running began during the Catonsville native’s freshman year at Centennial High in Ellicott City, but that was serendipitous, too. A broken right shoulder suffered while playing football during gym class forced him to abandon trying out for the baseball team. So he turned to track and field and eventually gave up football for cross country.
After graduating in 1994, Van Allen enrolled at Maryland and participated in the same two sports. After earning his degree in the fall of 1998, he was asked by then-cross country coach Dan Rincon to serve as a volunteer coach.
The next winter, King contacted Rincon in search of a coach to mentor the women’s distance runners at Johns Hopkins. Rincon recommended Van Allen.
The next summer, King stepped down as coach, and Calder offered the women’s track and field head coaching position to Van Allen, who then took over the men’s and women’s cross country teams in 2000 and the men’s track squad in 2002. To supplement the part-time job, Van Allen taught biology and health at Seton Keough and then physics at Western Tech until his fourth year with the Blue Jays when Calder promoted him to a full-time role.
“I was just kind of looking for something to stay connected to the sport that I loved until I started [physical therapy] school,” Van Allen said. “But after I got started, I just couldn’t imagine not doing it anymore. I just really loved making that connection with the athletes, and being able to provide structure and support and everything that an athlete needs to be successful was very fulfilling and very satisfying. I didn’t know if I could make a career out of it, but between getting teaching jobs and bartending for 15 years, I did anything possible to make ends meet so that I could continue the passion that I had for coaching.”
In 2001, Heather Blair, a soccer player, qualified for the national indoor meet in the 1,500. But the turning point for the Johns Hopkins programs began when Paulsen, a Lutherville native and 2006 Bryn Mawr graduate, committed to Van Allen over several Ivy League schools.
“I remember I had a conversation with Bobby in my living room, and he was just really nice,” she said. “Kind of young, kind of laid-back, but really excited about the future. It was like, ‘Would you rather be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond?’ and I went for the former. Bobby said, ‘If you come here, I don’t have all the resources of a D-I, but I’ll be your coach, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Paulsen, who qualified for all four NCAA cross country championships during her time with the Blue Jays, admitted there were times when she doubted her own qualifications. That’s when Van Allen came to the rescue.
“I used to get into my head a little bit when we would go to nationals and think, ‘Oh my God, I’m the only one here, and I’m not as fit as them,’ or whatever, and Bobby would do such a great job of looking at you and saying, ‘I believe in you. You can do it. Just go out there and run,’” said Paulsen, who earned a berth in the 2024 U.S. Olympic trials in the marathon after competing in the event at the 2016 and 2020 trials.
Paulsen’s sentiment was backed by Hannah Oneda, a former Westminster resident and 2012 Winters Mill graduate who also chose Johns Hopkins over a few Ivy League schools. Oneda, a 28-year-old freelance videographer living in Baltimore, said she was impressed by Van Allen’s view of her as a student-athlete.
“I wanted to go abroad or have the ability to go, and Bobby was the only coach who almost right away said, ‘You’re a student first here. If you want to go abroad, you can absolutely do that. I want you to have the best experience possible,’” said Oneda, who spent the winter of her junior year in Nepal. “When I talked to other coaches, they were basically like, ‘None of our athletes do that. They don’t even miss one season.’”
Oneda helped the Blue Jays capture their first women’s national title in any sport in 2012 — a remarkable turnaround after the previous squad had finished 14th. The cross country team then repeated as champion in 2013 and 2014 before falling short in 2015. Even then, Oneda said Van Allen was a source of encouragement.
Van Allen is quick to assert that another coach could have done what he has done at Johns Hopkins. But he acknowledged that after some initial reservations about becoming a coach, he can’t envision any other career.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I’m very passionate about the sport, about coaching. And now I’m raising my family here. So I’m not looking to pick them up and move them anywhere. Hopkins has really supported me throughout this process, and I plan on staying here and coaching here. I think I’m going to be coaching for many more years to come.”