At 8:24 last Saturday night, a tall, lithe Negro from San Jose State College named Dennis Johnson jogged easily in the dim light behind a wire fence set at the head of the 220-yard straightaway in Fresno (Calif.) State College's Ratcliffe Stadium. When Starter Tom Moore called to the eight finalists in the West Coast Relays 100-yard dash, "Runners to your blocks," Johnson took off his sweat suit, stepped through a door in the fence and walked slowly to the starting line. The man who many now think may be the fastest runner in the world was the slowest to get ready.
Moore called the runners to a set position and Johnson, whose reluctance to rise to the same set as other runners has made him as controversial as he is fast (SI, May 8), for once came up quickly—perhaps too quickly, for he broke and was charged with a false start. Moore called Johnson back, and this time Jim Bates of the University of Southern California broke. Johnson, who wasn't going to get caught again, remained anchored at his blocks. The third try was a success. Coming to a set more slowly than the others, Johnson was last to get off. Immediately he started to make up ground. At 40 yards he was even with the leader, Doug Smith of Occidental. At 60 he had the lead. Striding gracefully and looking remarkably relaxed, he crossed the finish line a yard ahead of Smith to win his 11th straight race this year. His time was 9.4, his third 9.4 of the spring. He has also run three 100s in 9.5, four in 9.3 (tying the world record held by nine others) and, with an eight-mph wind behind him, one in 9.2. Once again San Jose State, noted for its speed
men, was out in front in the dashes.
Noted? Well, yes, although for many Americans, San Jose State is merely a vaguely recollected name, a memory of an Olympic year and a disappointing sprinter named Ray Norton. In point of fact, San Jose State is neither small (14,000 students and growing frantically) nor insignificant. Athletically, it has one of the best track teams in the country and the best sprint coach, Lloyd C. (Bud) Winter. But in some ways it is a wonder the college has a team at all. The track budget is $3,800, from one-fifth to one-tenth the size of budgets at other schools. The facilities would discredit the average high school: the track is often as hard and baked as a sandlot infield: the locker rooms, built in the 1920s, have been condemned several times; the permanent stands consist of a half dozen rows of splintery, sun-bleached wood, plus a few well-warmed and precarious seats on the tin roof of the locker rooms. Yet San Jose has turned out some notable track men: Pole Vaulter George Mattos, High Jumper Herm Wyatt. Javelin Thrower Bob Likens, Sprinter Norton and now Dennis Johnson.
A team with promise
May 21, 1961
This season San Jose has developed such strength in some events that Winter considers his team a real contender in the NCAA championships next month. Pole vaulters Dick Kimmell and Dick Gear have cleared 15 feet, Kimmell for the first time Saturday with a leap of 15 feet 1½ inches. Willie Williams, the only man to beat Johnson this season, has run a 46.3 quarter mile leg in a mile relay. Ron Clark has covered two miles in 8:55. Both Dan Studney and Harry Edwards have scaled the discus over 173 feet, and Studney holds a 244 feet 4 inches mark in the javelin. Gene Zubrinsky has high jumped 6 feet 10, although he is just as likely to go 6 feet 2.
Winter's finest performers, are the 100-yard-dash men. Besides Johnson and Williams, he has Bob Poynter, who has been clocked in 9.4 and may be second only to Johnson when he is in condition. Out of competition and recovering from a back injury is Jimmy Omagbemi, who ran for Nigeria in the last Olympics and who is, at 31, one of the oldest sprinters in the world. Omagbemi, a cheerful, cultured fellow, ran a blazing 20.5 220 in the 1960 Pacific AAU meet, and has twice run 9.4 hundreds; one of those, in 1959, beat Olympic Champion Armin Hary. "I gave Hary a little surprise package," says Omagbemi with a wide grin. "We were running in his home town in Germany and everybody was watching him. No one even looked at me until the finish, and there I was—first. He's been afraid of me ever since."
Winter's success with sprinters dates back to Hal Davis at Salinas (Kansas) Junior College. Winter himself, as a student at California, was an undistinguished dash man and a reserve end on the football team. He went to Salinas in the mid-'30s as journalism instructor, public relations man, track and football coach, and was well on his way to athletic obscurity when Davis arrived. Almost overnight Davis, Winter and Salinas became big names among track people. Davis ran the 100 in 9.4, the 220 in 20.4, and whipped the best sprinters of his time.
When Winter went to San Jose in 1942, the deal called for Davis to go with him. Davis, however, enrolled at California, where he ran against—and beat—his old coach's sprint men.
A recruiting zealot, soft-spoken but persuasive Bud Winter soon had a steady stream of fine track prospects flowing into San Jose State. Even Hary came under the Winter wing, for three hectic days. That was in August of 1959, when Hary and Dutch broad jumper Henk Visser came to San Jose for a look around. Winter had invited Visser who, Winter says, had in turn invited Hary. Winter, of course, knew of Hary, but he did not know of his educational philosophy. Visser and Hary apparently wanted treatment in the European manner—a big hotel, liberal charge privileges and no serious studies or outside work. San Jose's budget and principles could not tolerate this. Visser went off to Bakersfield Junior College and Hary went back to Germany, without even setting foot on Winter's track.
Before Johnson, Winter's finest runner at San Jose State was Norton. When he was running easily, there was no faster man in the world. But Norton often became tense. At such times he was just another very fast track man who could lose a race, as he did against Hary and four others in the 1960 Olympics. According to Winter, Norton was trying too hard, and that is the worst thing a runner can do.
Johnson has no such problem. The slender, muscular Jamaican seems certain to cut the 100-yard-dash record to 9.2, and he knows it. "I should break the record this year," says Johnson with no trace of boastfulness. "I'll do it the next time I get some real competition. I feel I can run 9.3 any time now. But to make 9.2 you have to fight the coaches and timers, and everything has to be just right."
Johnson's "fight" with coaches and timers began early this spring, when Occidental Coach Chuck Coker charged him with delaying his move to the set position, thereby getting a "rolling" start on competitors. Winter and Johnson denied the charge, pointing out that AAU rules specified an immediate but not an abrupt move to get set. Johnson got a bad start in the Mt. San Antonio Relays three weeks ago but still ran his unofficial 9.2. That quieted the controversy, but it still rankles Johnson. "It's so stupid," he says in staccato Jamaican English. "Rising slowly has very little to do with my style. It just keeps me relaxed by leaving me straining at set for less time than the others. The short piston arm stroke is what's important."
The piston stroke is one of the lessons Winter learned from Hary last summer while he was serving as an Olympic coach. "Hary did three things I think are important," Winter says. "First, he reversed the standard American arm action of short left, high right. He pumped his arms rapidly to help his getaway. Second, he kept his butt down in the set position, and went forward and up, not down and up as we do on the start. This gave him a faster and longer first step, and a short, driving second step. Third, he set his blocks about four inches farther back from the starting line, which helped keep him low." Since last fall Winter has pounded away at the new theory and all the San Jose sprinters have pared down their times, some by several tenths of a second.
Herb McKenley's pupil
Johnson, now 22 and a junior, has been running competitively since he was 12. His high school coach and hero was Herb McKenley, Jamaica's world-renowned quarter-miler. Under McKenley's coaching, Johnson learned how to run straight without bouncing around. He accepted an offer from track-conscious Bakersfield Junior College and entered there in 1959. He was so good that soon he was bombarded with offers, many more lucrative than San Jose's. But Johnson had read and followed Winter's sprinting theories and he decided to enroll. Winter's gentle kidding and protective counsel made an immediate hit with Johnson. Today the two smother each other with verbal posies. Johnson is happy at San Jose and has rejected offers to go elsewhere.
San Jose gives Johnson only modest financial support. The school pays his tuition (about $160 a semester) and has arranged a counseling job at the nearby Santa Clara Youth Village. He is given $50 a month in work aid, which is half the amount paid some senior members of the team. Johnson, his wife Yvonne and their baby daughter live frugally in a small, drab apartment near the campus. "We were in a hotel for weeks," says Johnson with some bitterness. "No one wanted to rent to Negroes, because 'the neighbors might object.' I hope we can find a better apartment this summer."
San Jose is regarded with suspicion by some of its West Coast rivals. "Winter plays down his recruiting activity," said a northwest college publicity man recently, "but he works hard as hell at it. You don't get guys from Jamaica and Nigeria by sitting back and waiting for them to come to you." A Los Angeles track authority charged: "The academic requirements are so low up there anyone can get in, and stay in. They get a lot of dummies no one else can keep."
To this characteristic bit of big-school backbiting. Winter replies with angry overstatement. "San Jose is one of the outstanding institutions in the country," he says. "We aim for solid, practical preparation of students, not high-level research work. We've seen boys turned down here get into other schools. Some of them have run against us this year. And we don't stress foreign athletes; they usually get in touch with us first."
The Winter coaching techniques bear strong overtones of science and pseudo-science. There are weight programs, special foods and vitamins and psychological warfare. Winter's desk drawers are loaded with such health goodies as phosphate salts and wheat-germ oil. In the school labs, nutrition experts weigh the usefulness of far-out diets, and try some out on the athletes. Winter's motto is "If it works use it." He is not particularly concerned what "it" is.
The most honored mystique in Winter's program is relaxation, mental and physical. "Watch my sprinters at the finish line," he says. "You don't see any contorted faces. The jaw and forearm are relaxed, the hands are loose." Winter helped develop and teach methods of relaxation to pilots during World War II, and he has become their faithful apostle. Usually the instruction is limited to trackside admonitions like "loose jaw, loose hands," but sometimes Winter turns on a full treatment that borders on hypnosis. "I sit the boy down alone somewhere and talk each muscle into relaxing. I start from the wrinkles in the forehead and work down through the eyes, the jaw, the shoulders, and so on. 'Calm' is my key word. 'You're calm now, calm.' " Whether it is hypnosis, induced sleepwalking or what, the method does seem to work and Johnson is Winter's best advertisement yet.