For most of its 74 years the Penn Relays has been the nation's top speed carnival east of Indianapolis. With more than 6,000 athletes (from Harvard to Wissahickon High School of Ambler, Pa.) competing in 136 events, it is a foretaste of heaven for a track and field fan. In recent years, however, with relay carnivals sprouting up almost everywhere every weekend, the Penn Relays has come to be regarded more as a social than an athletic happening. Carloads of young people pile into Philadelphia from Washington, Baltimore, Newark and New Haven, more interested in where the parties are that night than who is running in the 440 relay.
But last weekend a group of trackmen from Villanova, which is 23 minutes away if you take the Penn Central's Paoli Local, brought back a lot of the old interest in the competition itself. The Villanovans decided to try for an unprecedented five relay titles in the two-day meet. This alone was enough to bring out a total of 37,800 people to Franklin Field, most of whom will remember the daytime action a lot longer than what took place after the sun set, because five relay titles is what Villanova won.
And although they were the drawing card and the stars, the Wildcats weren't the only hit of the show. A shy Toledo University senior named Aaron Hopkins leaped to the end of the pit in the triple jump to set a new NCAA record of 53'5¼", nine inches better than the old mark. Hopkins, who came to school on a basketball scholarship but who hasn't played since Toledo discovered that he was a better horizontal jumper than an up-and-down rebounder, had a previous best jump of only 51'4½", and that was wind-aided. He has never been in an international meet, though he did earn brief national recognition when he won the NCAA indoor long jump two years ago. His triple jump at Penn was the first NCAA track record ever for Toledo. If Hopkins keeps up his present rate of improvement the Glass Capital of the World will have a second claim to fame.
But back to the drawing card. Although no one at Villanova had announced officially that the Wildcats were going for the big five, when they did try it was about as surprising as H.H.H.'s announcement that he was going to run for president. Even so, winning five relays in one meet is like having five aces in your hand in a game of five-card stud: it isn't possible. Or, at least, that is what everyone said. But Jumbo Elliott, the always-smiling Villanova coach, had a supercard up his sleeve. In fact, he had three—Larry James, Frank Murphy and Dave Patrick.
May 5, 1968
James, the slim sprinter from White Plains, N.Y., who was only No. 2 on his high school's mile-relay team, recorded the fastest 440 ever run when he anchored the mile-relay team to a 3:06.1 with a startling 43.9 leg. The mile relay was the final event of the marathon two-day meet and, although James had run three 440s in the previous 24 hours, he had saved sufficient energy for the grand finale. When he received the baton he was five yards behind Rice's Dale Bernauer, a fine quarter-miler, but that didn't seem to have much effect on James. "He's the mighty burner!" a teammate shouted. "Watch him cook."
A graceful, floating runner whose feet never seem to touch the ground, James caught Bernauer, flowed past him on the backstretch and went on to win by 12 yards. His time is not a world record, since it was made on a relay leg, but it was almost a full second faster than Tommie Smith's 44.8 world mark. After the race James was mobbed by teammates, friends and well-wishers, and by the time he made it into the locker room he confessed, "I'm not used to this. This fame is all new to me."
Villanova scored the first of its five wins on Friday in the distance medley (880-440-1,320-mile), thanks chiefly to a 2:53 in the 1,320 leg by Frank Murphy. The U.S. record for this rarely run distance is 2:54.8, by Jim Grelle in 1964. Elliott recruited the quiet, dark-haired runner unseen from Ireland after his former pupil, Ron Delany, had recommended him highly.
"I figured Murphy would have a good three quarters," said Elliott after the race; "but I never felt he'd run a 2:53. That's fantastic. That establishes him as a really sound 1,500-meter runner."
Murphy was also awed by his time. "A three quarters like that means I'm capable of running a 3:57 mile. For this time of year that's pretty good, and I'm not even in peak shape. If I continue to progress, next month I should be capable of 3:55 or maybe 3:54."
And yet, after everything was over, the biggest man for Villanova was still Dave Patrick. Last year in this same meet Patrick was to run three races. He did well in the first two, but in the third, the anchor leg of the two-mile relay, he collapsed with exhaustion at the finish and ended up second.
"I was dead," he said of that race. "The last thing I remember was diving at the finish line."
This year he had to run not three but four races—a mile and three 880s—and the Wildcats could not win unless he did well in all. After the first day, in which he anchored the distance medley to its win and anchored the sprint medley (440-220-220-880) in its qualifying heat, he proclaimed, "It's entirely different this year. I feel that I'm in as good shape as I've ever been at this stage of the season. And there's that extra incentive—five relay wins.
"It's not the kind of thing you talk about," he said, as he continued talking about it. "You try to keep it in back of your mind. We all do. But I haven't been this psyched up since I raced Jim Ryun at the NCAAs last year."
Twenty-two hours later he stood in front of his locker with a big I-told-you-so smile on his face. He had just finished anchoring the Wildcats to their victory in the two-mile relay in a superb 7:21.8, and earlier he had run a winning anchor leg in the sprint-medley finals.
"It feels good," he said.
"Could you run one more race?" he was asked. "Sure," he replied, "if I had to. If we win the five it will show people what kind of team we have. We enter five. We win five."
So, as the sun finally set over historic Franklin Field and the party seekers left to go seek their parties, Jumbo Elliott stood outside the Villanova locker room, smiling. He said that he thought James was one of the top three quarter-milers in the nation, along with Lee Evans and Vince Matthews. He said he thought his squad was deeper this year. As he was saying all the things winning coaches say, Frank Murphy came up to him with the silver tray that had been given to him as the Most Valuable Performer in the meet (besides the 1,320, he also anchored the four-mile relay team and ran a leg on the two-mile relay). Murphy said to Elliott, "I think Larry should get this."
"You want to give it to him?" smiled Elliott.
"No," said Murphy. "I think I'll keep it."
It's a shame that there weren't three MVP awards, because James, Patrick and Murphy each deserved one. And anytime you can get a fifth ace out of a deck you deserve a trophy, too. So make that four trophies, one for Jumbo.
The Midwest and the West had their speed carnivals, too. In Des Moines, the Saturday afternoon portion of the Drake Relays had been sold out for two days and, according to Correspondent Bob Asbille, scalpers were getting $10 for $4.50 tickets. The reason? Jim Ryun.
Last year Ryun went under four minutes twice in relay legs and anchored Kansas to a world-record 9:33.8 in the distance medley. Fans were anxious for more of the same this year, but they were disappointed. Ryun, clocking no dazzling times, ran only to help Kansas win. His slow—for him—4:07 anchor in the distance medley miffed the spectators, and his decision not to run in the finals of the sprint medley crushed them.
By ordinary standards Ryun had an excellent two days. He ran a 1:48.6 anchor 880 on Friday to qualify Kansas for the Saturday sprint-medley finals, and on the same day he did a 1:48.2 half to pull his two-mile team to victory. "I hadn't expected to go that fast," he said later, "but when that fellow passed me it really teed me off. How fast did I go? 1:48? I'll settle for that."
Saturday, when the P.A. system announced that Ryun was "next up to anchor the distance medley," the fans started buzzing. "Go under 3:55, Jim," yelled one man. Ryun was cheered lustily through the first lap, but by the half mile the yelling had subsided. Ryun got serious only in the last 125 yards when he moved out to win easily. Later, when Kansas scratched from the sprint medley, Coach Bob Timmons explained, "Jim is too tired. He isn't feeling up to par."
"I'm mentally tired," said Ryun. "I can't get psyched up."
The huzzahs at Drake went mainly to Van Nelson of St. Cloud State, who won the three- and six-mile races for the third straight year. He did 13:17.4 in the three on Friday, going under the 13:18 Olympic qualifying time, and on Saturday he ran 28:22.2 in the six.
At the Mt. San Antonio Relays in Walnut, Calif., the U.S. Army team from Fort MacArthur was confident of breaking the distance-medley record. Then, reports Correspondent Anita Verschoth, the anchor man, Miler Bob Day, became ill 20 minutes before the race. Coach Ralph Higgins, hurriedly looking around for a substitute, found Half-miler Darnell Mitchell, whose own race was still three hours off, resting in the team bus. Higgins, keeping Bob Tobler in the leadoff quarter mile, put Mitchell in the half-mile leg, moved Tom Von Ruden from the half to the three quarters and shifted Preston Davis from the three quarters to the anchor mile. His makeshift team won by more than 60 yards in 9:33.4 and broke Kansas' year-old record by .4 second as Davis did his mile in 3:59.9, the first time he had ever gone under four minutes.
"I really wanted to stay away from the mile," Davis said afterward. "It's too far. I got trapped into running a few miles indoors, and all of a sudden everybody wants me to be a miler. The secret is, I'm really in shape. I'm training hard for the Olympics and I'm no longer going to night clubs every night like I did last year."