Getting the right lane was the thing, man, and when Texas A&M drew No. 8, on the extreme outside, for the 880-yard relay final at the Drake Relays last Friday, everybody in Des Moines knew a world record was as good as run. The Aggies had the Mills brothers and that should have been more than enough, and now they had a jump on the clock on an extremely fast track, in ideal weather. In fact, everything except Coach Charlie Thomas holding the only stopwatch in town. Shoot, in a heat that morning A&M had decided not to push it and had sauntered around the Tartan track in 1:22.1—and that tied the world record. "And we weren't even trying," said Marvin Mills, the younger half of the brother act. "Heck, I wasn't running, I was just strutting. And brother Curtis was running around looking at the people in the stands and waving to his friends. And he's got a lot of friends."
All this stuff about the advantage of running outside wasn't discovered until a group of engineers with nothing better to do took out their slide rules and discovered that, on a quarter-mile track, while the guy in Lane 1 was running 440 yards, the guy in Lane 2 was running 443. And it got longer, three yards per lane, until the poor guy in Lane 8 was running 461. Ergo the stagger start. As the lanes move to the outside, each runner starts nearly three yards ahead of the man inside of him. In the 880 relay the stagger doubles, and that puts the runner in Lane 8 halfway into the turn, making the first and third legs straightaways, which is worth at least a second on the clock. Men run faster in straight lines than around curves. The world record for a 220 on a straightaway is 19.5; it's 20 flat around a bend. And so Friday there was A&M in Lane 8, ready to fly. Even the wind was cooperating. All day it had been blowing in gusts up to 12 knots. Now it dropped to near zero. Perfect. Then the esteemed officials of the Drake Relays almost blew it.
The horns of the public-address system came to life: "Kansas has scratched from the 880 relay. Edgar Musgrave, the clerk of the course, has decided that Texas A&M will move into Kansas' lane, Lane 2."
The Aggies were stunned. "No," said Donny Rogers, the freshman sprinter who would lead off, "I'm not moving." Then he decided to talk it over with Coach Thomas, who was acting as meet referee for university events. "I guess you can't do anything but move," said Thomas. Rogers picked up his starting blocks and went to Lane 2, from the middle of the turn to the start of it. "We're too tall to run well on curves," Rogers muttered. He's 6'3". Rockie Woods, the 9.3 sprinter who runs the second leg, is 6'3", an inch taller than Marvin Mills. The tallest is Curtis Mills, a tick shy of 6'4", who owns the world record (44.7) in the 440. He would run the anchor. Angrily.
"Well, we could have moved them to Lane 7," said Musgrave. And if there is a lane better than 8, it is 7. The danger of 8 is that it is against a wall. Fans have a habit of reaching out and grabbing at a runner. Too, fans use that lane as a trash can. But Lane 2?
"From time immemorial we have always exercised the prerogative of moving the farthest team to the vacant lane," said Musgrave. "It's in the interest of starting on time and finishing on time. We always are on time, and we're proud of it. It's a tradition here. We're running five minutes ahead of schedule. If we moved all teams one lane it would take 10 minutes. That would make us five minutes late."
And so, on time, the race began. Rogers ran the full curve in a blazing 20.9. "And you can't ask for a better start than that," chortled Thomas. Woods did his leg in 21.2 and then turned the baton over to Marvin. "It was a lousy hand-off," Woods said. "Marvin started off slow. I almost had to stop to hand it to him." No matter. Marvin, who has turned a 9.4 100, was blazing along at a 20.0 clip, and when he handed the baton to Curtis, A&M had made up all those three-plus-threes and was in the lead. And on the hand-off Marvin also spiked Curtis on the left calf, making his older brother no less unhappy.
"Well, Rockie had run up my back," said 18-year-old Marvin in defense.
"And you were on my back," said Curtis, who is 21.
Marvin laughed. "I wasn't on your back. I was on your leg."
Wounded or not, Curtis streaked off. "Man, everything had gone wrong, I thought. It was bad. Super bad. Instead of starting from where I was supposed to, I had got on Rockie's starting line. I took off. Then I stopped. Then I said, it's too late now. Then I took off again."
He ran his leg in 19.6, and as he flashed across the finish line he looked back at the big clock. It said 1:21.7. "Dammit," said Curtis, slamming the baton to the ground. Then he grinned sheepishly and hurried to retrieve it. "I don't know what I was thinking about," he said. "I saw the time, and I didn't think it was a record. Then I realized it was. But, darn it, if we had been able to stay in Lane 8 we would have knocked another second off."
That should have been more than enough for one day. But the Aggies weren't through yet. In the morning they had run a 440-relay heat in 40.2, breaking the Drake record. Now they would have to qualify for the mile-relay final. "And I don't know if I can," said Marvin. "I'm so tired I don't know if I can walk, much less run."
But they ran, and they qualified, and they were disqualified when officials spotted Harold McMahan, who led off, running out of his lane.
"It's funny," said Curtis, "Marvin and I were walking out of the stadium. We didn't know we had been disqualified. Then the guy on the public-address system whispers, 'Texas. A&M has been disqualified from the mile relay.' He really whispered it. I thought, heck, I didn't hear that? Then the guy whispers it again. I knew I had heard it then."
"Yeah," said Marvin, laughing, "and you know who disqualified us? Coach Thomas. As the referee, he had to sign the paper. He signed us out of a watch."
"It was two other officials who turned us in," said Curtis.
"As referee," said Marvin, "Coach Thomas should have fired them."
For Thomas, it was more than merely signing his team into disqualification. The other officials reported the infraction; then he had to decide whether or not a disqualification was warranted. If it had been any other team he most likely would have said forget it. McMahan had stumbled and taken four steps on the line before recovering his balance. That's just one more step than is allowed. "It shouldn't have been reported in the first place," snarled a Drake official. "One lousy step and we lose the best relay team in the country."
"Coach did what he had to do," said McMahan. "I'm not complaining. But that doesn't make me feel any less lousy. I just lost my balance. But if it had been anything but a Tartan track I wouldn't have been caught. On other surfaces the lines aren't clearly defined."
"It was a hard thing to do," said Thomas, "but it sure wasn't any harder than getting Curtis to go to a dentist on Thursday." That was the day A&M flew from Texas to Des Moines, and it was on the plane that the older Mills brother told Thomas he had one terrible double toothache. Both lower wisdom teeth were rotted almost to the gum line. They had been aching for more than a month, but Curtis hadn't said a word. "I was going to wait and have them pulled this summer," he told Thomas. "But I haven't been sleeping too good lately. In fact, I haven't been sleeping at all."
Thomas rushed his star to a dentist as soon as the plane landed. "We had the teeth temporarily filled," Thomas said. "We'll have them pulled right after the conference meet. You should have seen Curtis. The dentist gave him novocain, and when he came out with that needle Curtis' eyes got round as saucers. 'Coach,' he said, 'I won't mind waiting two more weeks.' I told the dentist to fill them, and then I ran."
On Saturday, Thomas wondered what else could go wrong. He soon found out. As a referee, he was up to his neck in two more wild disputes—and both involved his own team. The first came in the 440 relay final, with both the Aggies and Oklahoma State finishing in a meet-record 40 flat but with the Bulova Phototimer print showing A&M the winner by less than a foot.
"Foul," said Oklahoma State Coach Ralph Tate. "I sure don't think much of that Phototimer print. Look at it, Charlie. It was taken when they hit the tape, not when they broke it. Your kid [Woods] is still an, inch away, and my kid [Earl Harris] is less than 12 inches away. And he was coming. What do you think?"
Oh, no, Charlie Thomas thought. But he studied the print. Then he asked some other people to study it. Then he asked a whole lot of people to study it. "Well," he said finally, "I got to figure that Woods could have gone one inch before Harris ran 12. Texas A&M wins."
"Good call, coach," said Curtis Mills.
Then Texas A&M won the shuttle hurdles relay—and Thomas was on the spot again. The red flag was raised because an official spotted the Michigan State anchor man leaving early. However, the film showed that all four anchor men left early. About two hours later it was decided that the best action was inaction. Texas A&M was still the winner.
Later, after picking up a watch for the 440 relay, Curtis Mills stood around to see if the public-address system was going to whisper any more disasters. Deciding finally that it wasn't, he laughed and turned to leave. "Ha," he said, "did you see old Marvin move out quickly in the 440?" In the 440 Curtis runs the second leg, Marvin the third. "I told him that he hadn't been getting out too good lately. And I still hadn't forgotten that he spiked me yesterday. I told him that if he didn't move out today I was going to run right up his back. Six, maybe 12, spikes in his back. I wasn't going to say a word, just run up and—wham!—blood all over the place. Shoot, he was going so fast today I almost didn't get the baton to him."