A former track athlete and longtime coach, Oji Perkins has Lanier's boys cross country program rising rapidly, with the Longhorns making their first appearance at the Class AAAA state championship meet Saturday in Carrollton.
Track and field and cross country have been a major factor for Oji Perkins for most of his life. After competing as a middle distance runner and hurdler in high school and college, he quickly turned to coaching after graduating. He eventually came to North Gwinnett, where he helped coach track and field and cross country before beginning the program at Lanier when the school opened in 2010. In three short years, his boys team, as well as the Longhorn girls, have qualified for the state meet. Perkins -- who lives in Buford with his fiance Lenika and sons, 11-year-old Nahil, a four-time Junior Olympic qualifier in the 400- and 800-meters, and 2-year-old Caden -- took time out during a recent practice to talk to Staff Writer David Friedlander about such subjects as his background in the sport, building a program from scratch and his unusual first name.
DF: For those who don't know, exactly how do you pronounce your first name?
OP: It's Oh-gee.
DF: Is that short for anything?
OP: No, it's just Oji. It means, 'the bearer of gifts.' It's Nigerian. We're all Caribbean, but a lot of the Caribbean names are African-based.
DF: So, you're from the Caribbean originally?
OP: I'm from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. I was there for about six years, but I grew up in Orlando, Fla. I went to Dr. Phillips High School.
DF: They have some big-time athletics down there.
OP: Yeah, especially basketball. I actually ran track with (current Cleveland Indians outfielder) Johnny Damon. Then I attended Bucknell University after I graduated (high school).
DF: How did you get into coaching?
OP: I started coaching right after college in ... Central Florida YMCA leagues in basketball, football, track and field. Then, I got hired as a (high school) football and track and field coach ... at Oak Ridge High School (in Orlando) ... in 2002, and I've been coaching ever since. We won three state titles there in girls track and field. What really motivated me was that even in college, I wanted to do something with coaching youth sports. I was like a sponge in college -- from my track coach to my football coach, I just tried to get as much information as possible.
DF: Your background as an athlete was in sprints and hurdles, how different is it for you to coach distances in general, and cross country in particular?
OP: It wasn't really too much of an adjustment. What you've got to realize is kids want to be coached. If you come into any program, whether it's basketball, volleyball, track and field or cross country, if you come into it with a plan, you stick to the plan and the kids buy into the plan, it's going to be successful. So, although I didn't run long distance, I did do a little bit of middle distance, and I knew enough about it so when I got involved. It's just going to seminars, doing your research on how to train kids for middle distance or long distance and sticking with a program that works. That's what we've been doing (at Lainer).
DF: What brought you up to metro Atlanta?
OP: Just following a relationship. I brought the family up here. We came up here after all the hurricanes (in 2005), there were like four or five of them, and it was like 'You know what? We just need to get out of this area.' I was sick of hurricanes and I'd been in Orlando 28 years. It was time for a change in scenery.
DF: So how did you get to North Gwinnett?
OP: I was hired as for my profession -- as a (Geometry) teacher. I got there, they saw my resume and they inquired whether I would like to help the (track and field) program out. Of course, I agreed.
DF: With Lanier having taken a good portion of its students from North Gwinnett's district, and with the success the Bulldogs have had in most athletics in recent years, did that help make building the Lanier program different form the average startup program?
OP: It's not like the average startup program. ... I would think it's more of the youth programs we have in the area -- youth track and field, youth football, youth baseball, etc. The Gwinnett youth leagues are doing a great job of building athletes and having them almost ready as soon as they step on to high school campuses.
DF: Is reaching the state meet in the third varsity season at Lanier quicker than even you could've hoped for?
OP: I told the kids when we first got here, we have a three-year program. Not to say we were going to shut it down in three years, but the first year, we just wanted to let people know who we are. We were the new kids on the block. The second year, we wanted to be competitive. We were wanted to get to a competitive level. And the third year, we wanted to really be able to compete on a high level, and that's ... try to win a region title or make it to state. And we've been able to hit our goals so far.DF: That's a pretty remarkable accomplishment considering how few runners I see out here on your boys team.
OP: We placed for state running only five guys. We didn't run seven. One of them called in because he was a little sick, and another one had an injury. So, we had to run only five guys. It was a little tough, but we got it done.
DF: What's been the most fun part about building a new program?
OP: What you just said. Building a program from scratch, that's like a personal dream of mine. I had an opportunity to stay at North Gwinnett, but when Lanier opened, and I knew I'd be able to be the cross country and track coach and build a program from scratch, that's always been a dream of mine.