During the running of a mile relay at Walnut, Calif. the other day an Arizona State man was bumped as he was attempting to hand off the baton. He spiked his teammate, who then had to run 440 yards with a ripped shoe and a wound that later required three stitches. But so fast is Arizona State that it still set a collegiate record in the race.
At about the same time in Des Moines, Texas Southern University runners were setting two meet records while winning the mile and three other events, but were disappointed—in previous meets this year they always have swept all six.
And in the east that day New York University was upsetting Abilene Christian's excellent team, which had won the Texas Relays. These are four of the truly great college relay teams in the country. There are five others that may be of the same caliber: Oregon State, the University of Southern California, Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma State. What the nine add up to in the forthcoming relay carnivals and the national championships is an unprecedented season for relay running. Starting with the Coliseum Relays in Los Angeles on May 18, various combinations of these teams are going to be facing each other week after week; the winner may well prove the race goes not to the swift but to the smart.
"The problem," according to Phog Allen, who founded the Kansas Relays before he became a famous basketball coach, "is that the baton puts teamwork into foot racing." To a sport normally limited to a runner contending alone against himself, the clock and the field, it brings strategy, psychology and team play. It is a large order to make a team out of four men who, by the fact that they have decided to compete in track, have indicated that they are individualists.
The coaches of two of the top mile relay teams have approached this problem as individualistically as their athletes approach running. The fastest team so far is Arizona State, coached by a pleasant, chunky man with a thick head of black hair who is called Baldy. He is Senon Castillo, the coach at Arizona State. Once, when he was young, he had a small bald spot on the top of his head for a few weeks; a tall friend named him Baldy and the nickname has remained, though the spot has not.
Castillo, a superficially uncomplicated man, maintains that the way to build the fastest mile relay team in U.S. history is to get the four fastest quarter-milers in the country and turn them loose. He professes to see no legerdemain in this event. But talk to him for a while and you find that what he says and what he does are not necessarily the same.
"A perfectly run relay should provide four individual lap winners," says Castillo, rather obviously. When his team set the intercollegiate record at Mount San Antonio, in 3:07.5, that's what it did. Unless the passes are slower than those of a broken-armed quarterback, the team with the four fastest quarter-milers certainly will win.
When he talks about particulars, however, Castillo concedes that there is more to the mile relay than corralling the four best 440 men. For instance, he uses his slowest man on the first lap—a notion at variance with other coaches who have good mile relay teams.
"But Mike Barrick is a steady runner," Castillo says. "He gets you off to a good start. For the second lap (where most coaches use their slowest man, on the theory that he can't lose enough to hurt you this early in the race and may have been handed a comforting lead by your fast leadoff man) I use Henry Carr. He's a sprinter building up to the 440. He puts the pressure on quickly in the first 100 yards, and keeps it on."
Castillo likes a man in the No. 3 spot who can hold his own. (And one who apparently can run while spiked, which is what Ron Freeman did.) This is the kind of man most coaches want in the No. 2 position. For the anchor lap Castillo joins most coaches in simply using his fastest runner. For him, this is Ulis Williams, a dazzling quarter-miler who has run 46 flat out of the blocks. No U.S. runner has done better this year.
On times run so far, the toughest competition for Arizona State in the Coliseum Relays will come from Texas Southern. Stan Wright, who coaches the all-Negro Texas team, is almost as relaxed as Castillo in his approach, although he has suffered from tension recently because he has to buy a steak dinner for his relay teams each time they set a record. They have set 15 so far this season.
Unlike Castillo, Wright looks for precise characteristics in each runner on the team—both physical and psychological. "I figure my first runner has to be a boy who can meet a challenge," Stan says. "I use my third fastest runner here. He's got to have experience—and, naturally, he's got to have a good start.
"My No. 2 boy has got to be able to drive hard in the back stretch," Stan says, "though he may be the slowest of the four members of the team. I like to open a lead right there—on the second leg in the back stretch. Then I run my fastest quarter-milers on the third and fourth legs. They must be boys who have the psychological ability to run well when they are behind, just in case something has gone wrong on either one of the first two legs."
Wright is now using his fastest man, Ray Saddler, on the third leg of the relay, for two reasons.
You must look back
"Saddler can take a pass and he can hand off well," Wright says. "We use a visual pass in the mile relay, with the outgoing runner looking back at the man coming in. In the sprints we use a blind pass. The man getting the baton takes off, never looking back, because he assumes that the man bringing him the stick is going to catch him. But in the mile relay, at the end of a hard lap, a runner may be staggering all over the track and weak. So you've got to look back to find him." Saddler has run very few quarter miles this year that were not parts of relays. Many track experts think he may be the fastest of all the quarter-milers. He's a slim, oily-smooth runner with beautiful style, an ideal third man in Wright's conception of the mile relay team.
"My fourth boy, Lester Milburn, I've got to admire," Wright says. "He may not be the fastest, but he's got that faculty of seeming to run faster than he can when he has to. He won't let anyone pass him. And he comes from behind real well."
Wright has one final bit of strategy-he wants his runners to sprint immediately after taking the baton. "Say you have a five-yard lead. So you get five more right there before you hit the first turn," he says. "Most runners pace themselves right away; we sprint, open the lead, then they have to fight to catch us. It gives us an edge."
Although Arizona State and TSU will most likely be the first and second teams in the Coliseum Relays, others must be considered. Abilene Christian, USC and Oregon State can all run around 3:10 in the mile event. Whether any of them can stay close to Texas Southern and Arizona State, and perhaps find a telling bit of strategy of their own, is problematical. It seems sure, however, that the winner of the mile relay at the Coliseum will set a new record. In this day of slick passes and superspeed it takes a record time to win a relay.