San Jose State Coach Bud Winter, the grand guru of sprinters, can expound for hours on such intricacies as just how tight shoelaces should be for the 100-yard dash or the wind resistance of a crew cut as opposed to a pompadour. Among those who have studied at his speed academy are Ray Norton, a 1960 Olympian, and Tommie Smith, current holder of eight world records. Obviously, then, when a human form flashes by leaving sonic booms in its wake, Winter takes notice. He saw Villanova's Larry James in one meet earlier this year, and that was enough.
"He has that gazellelike smoothness that Tommie has, kind of like pouring cream on a dance floor," Winter said. "Speed plus smoothness. Right away, at first glance, I could see he was a jewel."
Winter could hardly be blamed for rhapsodizing. While Villanova teams were winning an unprecedented five races at the Penn Relays, James, a quiet sophomore from White Plains, N. Y., ran a 440-yard anchor lap in 43.9, the fastest a human being had ever covered that distance. He also ran a 45.2 out of the blocks in a dual meet, won the NCAA indoor 440 and came within .6 second of the world record in the indoor 500. A jewel indeed, especially since he is a very promising triple-jumper and intermediate hurdler as well.
Last weekend Villanova sent James and nine other athletes to the West Coast Relays in Fresno, Calif., the track meet, the official program proudly claims, "where world records are broken." Well, so much for slogans. Not one world record fell, and that was not the only surprise for promoters and fans. Villanova's swift two-mile relay team, anchored by Dave Patrick, easily beat Kansas, anchored by the meet's biggest drawing card, Jim Ryun, and Larry James, the Mighty Burner, was defeated on the anchor leg of the mile relay by one of those star Bud Winter sprinting pupils from San Jose State.
James's conqueror was Lee Evans, one of the world's best quarter-milers in 1967 and one of the exponents, with Tommie Smith, of the Olympic boycott movement by Negroes. Evans had been pushed out of the spotlight a bit by an injury and by James's sudden success, so he was looking forward to the last lap of the mile relay Saturday night, the very last event of the two-day track-and-field carnival. The match-up was certain to present a contrast in styles. The slender James is every bit as creamy smooth as Winter described, whereas the hulking Evans runs as though he was trying to wiggle out of a tight corset.
But Winter cautioned, "Never bet against Evans, because he's there at the finish. The fact that he was twice national AAU champion shows he can stand the competition. Evans says he hopes he gets the baton a yard behind James. I don't know why he wants to be behind, but it's a good sign. He's a tiger from behind. Still, when you've got a guy like that in front of you...."
Evans did his first speed work of the season in the week preceding the meet and also did his homework on Villanova. "I read that James likes to catch up right away," said Lee. "I'm not that way. If I'm behind James, I'll pick up slowly. If I get the baton ahead of him and he passes me, I'll stay on him and try to outkick him."
Fifty minutes before the mile relay, Evans anchored San Jose's 880 relay team, watching Kansas anchorman Ben Olison over his shoulder and running just fast enough to win. Then he rested in the team bus until Winter called him 15 minutes before the big race to run a few warmup wind sprints. By race time the temperature on the floor of Ratcliffe Stadium had dropped to about 55° but the chilly wind had died down slightly. The seemingly everlasting pole-vault competition had finally ended when USC's Bob Seagren missed his third attempt at a world-record 17'8½". All 14,000 pairs of eyes were concentrating on the runners.
Villanova's Hardge Davis had a slight lead over San Jose's John Bambury at the end of the first leg. On the second, Villanova's Harold Nichter passed a California runner on the backstretch, San Jose's Paul Myers passed Nichter in the homestretch and an Arizona State man passed them both but fouled up the baton pass. Jeff Péo of San Jose led most of the third leg, but once again Arizona State took the lead at the last moment and once again had a bad exchange. These preliminary laps were important only in that they helped to determine who would be better off, Evans or James, after the final exchanges.
James got the better baton pass and jumped off three yards ahead, just about the way Evans had said he wanted it. They stayed that way until the last curve and into the homestretch, when Evans started to inch up on James. Evans, squirming and thrashing, finally caught him 50 yards from the tape. Keeping his knees churning high in time-honored Bud Winter fashion, he edged steadily ahead to win by five yards.
Winter, sitting directly even with the finish line and about 15 rows up, timed Evans' quarter in 44.4, half a second slower than James's 43.9 relay leg at the Penn Relays but still faster than the official world record. James was clocked in 45.5.
Jubilant teammates and fans hoisted Evans on their shoulders and carried him across the infield and back again. Relaxed now, he was smiling and waving. He said, "On the last curve I thought, 'Can I get him?' I was tired, and so was he. But then I caught him coming out of the curve. I didn't pass him just then, but I had confidence. I wanted this one bad."
The earlier two-mile relay victory made Villanova's trip worthwhile, but it was about the only thing that did. The team's plane from Los Angeles to Fresno was delayed more than an hour on Friday, and Dave Patrick, apparently apprehensive about his meeting with Ryun, could not sit still at the airport. If the flight had been delayed much longer, he might very well have tried to run all the way. Then, when Coach Jumbo Elliott tried to check in at the assigned motel, he found that Villanova had been canceled by mistake.
Finally Jumbo Jim was able to locate a motel down the freeway with enough vacancies, and the Wildcats found a home. He relaxed on his bed and discussed the two-mile relay. "I have the greatest respect for Ryun," he said. "I think he's the finest runner of the last couple of decades. I know that Dave is going to run a real good half. Ryun is capable of running a real good one, even a superior one. I just hope that Dave will have a pretty good lead."
Ryun and Patrick had met twice before but never outdoors. A year ago they raced in the NCAA indoor 880, after Jim already had run qualifying heats for the mile and 880. Patrick had run only the qualifying half, and a slower one than Ryun's, at that, so he played it smart, set a fast pace and beat Ryun in world-record time. This year, in an indoor mile in New York, Ryun won handily. They could have met again in the NCAA 880 in Detroit, but Ryun elected to go in the mile and two-mile and won both.
"There were people who criticized me for not running in the half against Dave, because he had beaten me in that event the year before," said Ryun. "But the mile-two-mile double in Detroit was much tougher than an 880-mile double."
Before the Fresno race Ryun was relaxed but cold. He enjoys relays and does not feel as much pressure as when he is running strictly as an individual. "I really don't know how fast I will have to run," he said. "If Dave is in the lead, it's not going to be like in the indoor half a year ago. I am a little more ahead in my season now. But in the half you have to run a very smart race at a 1:47 pace. There is just not much time. You can't make mistakes. If I catch him, it will be in a sprint at the finish. I can't let myself get so fatigued that I can't sprint at the end."
Unfortunately, by the time Ryun got the baton he would have had to have a jet engine to catch up. Villanova's first two men, Craig Nation and Andy O'Reilly, opened up five yards on Kansas. The third man, Ireland's Frank Murphy, ran a 1:49.8 to crush Kansas' Gene McClain and give the baton to Patrick with a 45-yard lead. Ryun blazed his final leg in 1:46.8, two seconds faster than Patrick, but only managed to close the gap to 30 yards. Villanova's time was an excellent 7:23.5, although still more than seven seconds off the world record.
"Ryun's time was tremendous in this wind," Patrick commented. "I didn't run all-out on the last lap. I wanted to save something in case Ryun got close. We had hoped to run a world record, but the wind ruined it."
After the meet Ryun flew to Lake Tahoe to inspect the high-altitude Olympic training facilities there. Before arriving in Fresno he had done the same thing at Flagstaff, Ariz., where he has an offer to be a newspaper photographer all summer while he trains for Mexico City. "I am not disappointed with my progress at all," he said. "I think all is going according to plan. I just began some speed work and it takes me about four months of speed work before I run very well. You cannot concentrate so much on it with all the meets going on.
"It's such a long season. There's another five months before Mexico."