It could be the hot, dry desert climate or an inspiring coach with the uninspiring name of Hubert, but quite suddenly the tan adobe campus of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque finds itself with one of the strongest—possibly the strongest—college track teams in the U.S. Earlier this spring the Lobos chewed Southern California to little bits, 98‚Öì to 46‚Öî. This was only USC's second dual-meet defeat in 20 years. Last week, to the astonishment of absolutely no one, U. of N.M. rolled up 79 points on the home track and finished 14 points ahead of Brigham Young to take the third annual Western Athletic Conference championship.
These league championships are rapidly becoming the real backbone of U.S. college track competition, and the WAC, because of the presence of New Mexico and Brigham Young, not to mention Arizona and Arizona State, most likely is the best of all. Last year in Salt Lake City the WAC championship produced winning performances that bettered those of the track-happy Big Six (USC, UCLA, California, Stanford, Washington State and Washington) in 10 of 15 mutually held events. This year the WAC is stronger. BYU has beaten California, Oregon (the 1964 NCAA champion), UCLA and, three weeks ago, won the Fresno relays over San Jose State, USC and New Mexico. Second to New Mexico in its own conference, BYU is the third best college team in the U.S.
New Mexico has risen to its present track eminence with a speed as breathtaking as Albuquerque's 5,000-foot elevation. Only seven years ago, competing for the university's track team was a fun thing roughly equivalent to swimming in the muddy Rio Grande, which oozes sluggishly through the western edge of town. The university could not even attract good local high school performers, most of whom sought more challenging careers in neighboring states. Now no self-respecting Albuquerque track star, and there are plenty of them, would even consider straying out of town. On the contrary, boys who can run fast, throw far and jump high are pouring in from such distant places as Plainville, Conn., Newville, Ala. and East Chicago, Ind.
As recently as 1958 New Mexico rated it a banner year when it piled up 23½ points in the Skyline Conference meet and was able to win the state AAU championship by 11‚Öì points over Albuquerque's Highland High School. Actually, the close win over Highland was not the disgrace it seemed. Highland High was loaded, and the man responsible for its riches was stocky Hubert (Hugh) Hackett, a former Air Force pilot from Wisconsin who had been stationed at Albuquerque's Kirtland Field during World War II and had returned in peacetime because he had fallen in love with the city and its sunny climate. Hackett, who had broadjumped, run the 440 and played football at Illinois Normal before the war, finished his last year of school at New Mexico, earned an M.A. in school administration and then took over at Highland High as head football coach. Before he knew it, he was in track up to his closely chopped haircut.
"The reason I started track," says Hackett, "was to develop the boys for football. Then I just got completely wrapped up in it."
It was not long before the entire town was equally enchanted. Hackett's teams won seven straight state championships. There was only one trouble: few of his prize athletes were enrolling at the U. of N.M. There was one obvious solution, and the university jumped at it. Following the 1958 season it hired Hackett, and the boom years were on.
"The first thing I did," says Hackett, "was bring my high school track team with me." This was not all that happened. The athletic department got behind him to the tune of six athletic scholarships (they now give him 16) and the chamber of commerce backed that with a recruiting campaign. The first big prize was Dick Howard, a Californian who went on to finish third in the 400-meter hurdles in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Then Hackett recruited Adolph Plummer, who in 1963 set a world record at 440 yards.
The word about a good track coach and a perfect climate was getting around. By 1961 the team was strong enough to record a historic first in the school's track history: it topped Brigham Young in a dual meet 83-48. By 1963 the Lobos were beating the likes of Kansas in dual meets, and last year they won the WAC title. This year's varsity includes nine exceptional freshmen (in the WAC, freshmen can compete against upper-classmen), giving it the strongest first-year squad in the U.S.
Albuquerque, very much in stride, may be the country's No. 1 track town. The city was host to the 1963 NCAA championships and last week it was announced that Albuquerque had wrested the 1966 National AAU indoor championships from Madison Square Garden.
Unlike most successful coaches, Hackett is a reserved, modest man who is a teacher first and a recruiter, say, eighth. "Hugh doesn't have a salesman's flamboyant personality," says Hackett's young assistant, Wayne Vandenburg, who does. "What he has got is great insight and uncanny hunches about things. He's the kind of coach who can take a good high jumper and turn him into a great quarter-miler."
The most striking example of Hackett's touch is a tall, slender recruit from East Chicago, Ind., Clarence Robinson. As a high school hurdler and football halfback, Robinson showed only moderate speed. His sole scholarship offer came from Scottsbluff (junior) College in Nebraska, so it was not difficult for him to decide to go a bit farther west to New Mexico. Hackett discovered that Robinson had great spring and started him on the broad jump and the hop, step and jump. At the recent Drake Relays, Robinson, now a junior, broad jumped 26 feet 9¼ inches, the best college jump this year. Then last week in the WAC conference meet he hopped, stepped and jumped 52 feet 8¼ inches, a collegiate record. With a little luck he could win both these events in next month's NCAA championships.
This rare double could give New Mexico 20 points toward an NCAA title, but it is more likely the team will win that next year rather than in 1965. The varsity's freshman stars are not eligible to compete in the NCAA and, while the team's overall depth gives it impressive point power in dual and conference meets, the Lobos, except for Robinson and possibly Sprinter Bernie Rivers, do not have sufficient first-place potential to win the nationals.
"The future is one thing we're not worried about," says Vandenburg. "We're looking for a weight man, a hurdler and a couple more distance runners, but we don't have to look very hard. We've got more talent coming in than we know what to do with."
The dry wind that blows across the mesa may become a gale.