Sad music from a Stradivarius

Record sprinter Tommie Smith proved too delicate an instrument for the hard task he and his coach set for him in the NCAA championships
June 26, 1966

Year after year the NCAA Track and Field Championships present a contrast in big men vs. big teams. In most respects the 45th annual renewal, held last week on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, was no exception. On hand was Randy Matson, the world record holder in the shotput and a Texas A&M junior who was competing in this meet for the first time. On hand was Gerry Lindgren, the wispy distance runner from Washington State, another athlete of international reputation who was also competing in the NCAA for the first time. On hand, too, was a 15-man aggregation from UCLA in Los Angeles, determined to win the team title.

There was one other big man last week, but he differed from Matson and Lindgren in an important respect: he came from a team with title hopes. He was a tall, long-legged sprinter from San Jose State named Tommie Smith. Four times in the last six weeks he had broken world records. Now, far from the bright days and fast tracks of California, he was going to show the rest of the world why those who claimed he was the most exciting sprinter ever to hurtle through a stretched-out piece of yarn were right. And he might upset UCLA.

True to form, Matson produced a meet record in the shot (67 feet 1½ inches) and another in the discus (197 feet). True to form, Lindgren won both the three-and six-mile runs easily. And, true to form, the pale-blue uniforms of UCLA were everywhere, but generally in front as its wearers compiled 81 points and won by a record margin of 48 over second-place Brigham Young.

But at the end there was one form that was having no part of the familiar hand-pumping and congratulations that are so much a part of track. It belonged to Tommie Smith, who lay in pain in a medical tent behind the stands, staring gloomily through dark glasses at the canvas ceiling. In the final of the 440-relay an overworked hamstring had blown out, and Smith, who should have been the biggest man in the meet, was still waiting for the recognition that could someday be his.

Smith, unfortunately, was the victim of team competition, which is the essence of the NCAA meet. He was scheduled to step out on Indiana's new, all-weather Grasstex composition track and, in a virtual one-man attack on UCLA, run seven times. He was also to broad-jump into Indiana's heavy sand pit on two consecutive days. But if he had known what was in the mind of UCLA Coach Jim Bush, he might not even have tried. Before the meet began Bush had said: "If we just get average performances from everybody, we should win by 20 to 25 points."

Bush has brought to track coaching the same clean-cut, well-pressed executive image that Darrell Royal has inspired among college football coaches. His blond hair is trimmed to a neat crew cut, his manner is friendly but firm and even his most bullish statements are based on research that would please Merrill Lynch and the rest of the firm.

Smith's coach at San Jose, Bud Winter, belongs to an older, more rumpled era, and he is a man who believes that no malapropism is too good for the star member of his team. "It will take a miracle to beat UCLA," he said, "but Tommie has got so much he may be a revolution in sprint form. This spring he looked so good just running relays that he got standing innovations."

Between standing innovations Smith set world records: 19.5 for the 200-meter and 220-yard dashes down a straight-away, 20.0 for the same distances running through a curve. He is all leg and very little torso. When he runs, his knees come up so high that if he were not moving forward at such a terrific clip an observer might think he was bounding up a steep flight of stairs. His only problem is his slow start. He reminds you of those first few seconds of a rocket's takeoff. You do not believe that he will ever get started, but once he does he is all excitement, floating into top speed at precisely the moment his opponents are running out of old-fashioned steam.

He was pure excitement in the early moments of the meet in Bloomington. On Thursday he qualified easily for the broad-jump finals the next afternoon and won his heat in the 100 in 9.3, tying the meet record.

"We're not too pertinent in the broad jump or in our starts," explained Coach Winter. "If he practiced those things too much he could get hurt. After all, you don't want to drive nails with a Stradivarius. Right?"

Right! Especially when the Stradivarius can produce such beautiful music at 220 yards. In his first heat of the 220 Smith won so decisively the race was laughable. Rising off the pad in his usual dawdling fashion, he had picked up speed and drawn even with the rest of the field of seven as it swept out of the turn. Then Tommie simply lifted his knees into overdrive and roared down the track. His winning margin was 10 yards, and his winning time of 20.2, though aided by a slightly stronger than legal tail wind, was as fast as Henry Carr's recognized world standard.

"I think I got smoke in my eyes," said Oklahoma State's Mickey Miller, who finished an amazed third in the heat. "He went by me so fast I figured I must be doing about 25 seconds."

But that was the last of the brilliant Tommie Smith. Beginning to hurt in the broad jump—which he had not even tried in practice at any time before this meet—he took third behind blond Rainer Stenius of Finland and Los Angeles State. And despite a closing rush in the 100-yard final, he just failed to catch Nebraska's peppery and competitive Charley Greene, one of the few athletes at Bloomington successfully to defend a title. By the end of Friday, Smith's knees ached and his legs felt lifeless and tired.

He made his final appearance on Saturday. Briefly he was sensational, and then there were questions in everybody's mind as to whether somebody wasn't trying to drive nails with a violin. Sprinting toward the tape as anchor man in the 440-yard relay, Smith's smooth stride suddenly broke. He hopped on one foot, appeared to decide to quit, then saw the finish only 35 yards ahead and painfully made his way to the end, in third place. What 8,000 spectators had come to see—Smith in the 220 final, where he might break a record—never got on the program. He gimped off to a trainer's table, and the rest of the day belonged to Randy Matson and Gerry Lindgren and UCLA.

PHOTOSTRETCHED OUT IN PAIN IN MEDICAL TENT, SMITH IS CONSOLED BY COACH WINTER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)