If you should take one step into the tiny Adelphi University gym and someone should grab you and hold you back, don't fight it. You are being saved from a high-speed collision with a member of the world's best indoor mile-relay team, who will momentarily whip past within an inch of your nose as he threads his way through basketballers, gymnasts and dance majors. You might also watch your step in the hallways of Adelphi's business building, where the track team has also been known to work out.
Adelphi is a privately financed, scantily endowed, mostly liberal-arts school in Garden City, N.Y. It has 3,400 full-time day students, including Clyde McPherson, Dennis Walker, Keith Davis and Larry Ross, who hold the world indoor mile-relay record for an 11-lap track: 3:12.2. What it does not have is much in the way of a track facility.
Last Friday Adelphi handily won the mile relay in the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden, with Kerry Streets and Ray Lee running in place of Davis and Ross. For the first time in three weeks Adelphi failed to break the world record. For one, the track was slower; for another, so are Streets and Lee. Streets has a 49.3 indoor leg to his credit while Lee has a 49.8 lead-off split. By comparison, McPherson, the anchor man, has run a 47.2 (and a 46.2 personal best out of the blocks outdoors), Walker a 47.5 leg, Davis a 49.2 and Ross a 47.9.
All this at a school that can afford to offer only three track scholarships, and those merely covering tuition. At a school whose track coach was previously rifle and handball coach at Jamaica High School in Queens. At a school whose best winter workout track is an asphalt oval owned by an adjoining private high school, which insists that Adelphi runners stay off the inside lane lest they wear it out. At a school which people persist in pronouncing "Adelphia."
The explanation lies in Coach Ron Bazil's extraordinary recruiting approach and in his follow-through. Bazil, 34, is dapper, ebullient and, like his top six quarter-milers, black. When he came to Adelphi six years ago he set out to develop a mile-relay team, figuring that this event would attract the most attention and provide the nucleus of a top track team. (So far, only the nucleus exists. Adelphi can't cover enough events to win a dual meet.) Bazil was starting from scratch, but he knew he could provide black kids with the most valuable thing he got out of running the sprints at Springfield College: "That piece of paper," as he puts it.
Walker, now a junior, recalls that when he was recruited, he "didn't know what Adelphi was. I was thinking big, about big schools. But there was Bazil at my house. He says, 'At Adelphi, you will get your diploma.'
"I thought, 'Get my diploma! This is a jive cat.' I thought he was going to offer me a free ride, and he's offering me a diploma!"
But Walker's parents knew what Bazil was offering. If you ask an Adelphi runner why he elected to go there, he is likely to say, "Mr. B. convinced my mother." If you ask Bazil what he tells prospects' mothers, he says, "I tell 'em I'm going to take care of their boys. I tell 'em their boys are going to get that diploma. Because they know that with that piece of paper the boys can be making as much at 21 as they are now."
Bazil says there is no problem finding track talent in the New York area and nearby. McPherson is from Brooklyn, Walker and Lee from Queens, Davis and Ross from Jersey City and Streets from Philadelphia. Bazil concentrates on prospects who can make it academically, and then assures their parents that he will see to it that they do make it.
No coach at Adelphi earns more than $3,000 for coaching, which means that each of them must hold down more than one job. Bazil's primary position is that of associate dean of students, so he has educational as well as coaching inclinations. When his trackmen have to write a paper or catch up in a course, he always excuses them from practice. He keeps tabs on their work. "And once," he says, "I hit one of the biggest members of the team in the chest with my fist when he didn't go to class."
As for campus affairs, Bazil says he tells his runners that, "It doesn't behoove them, as men, to sit on the fringes and be parasitic." McPherson is chairman of the executive board of Adelphi's Black Student Union, and Walker is treasurer. McPherson was president of the Adelphi Athletic Association. Last spring, when a faculty committee was considering abolishing intercollegiate sports in view of Adelphi's economic straits, McPherson appeared before the committee in sweat pants, T shirt and track shoes to say, "If you have a family and you don't have enough food to feed the family, you don't throw out one of the kids and then say you have enough food."
McPherson also makes some of his own clothes. "People say that makes me a 'seamster,' " he says. "Whatever happened to the word 'tailor'?" He is a sociology major, with a 3.2 average. Walker has a 2.9 average as a history major. They both want to go to law school. Each member of the team is moving steadily toward a degree.
Three years ago Adelphi had trouble getting into big meets. Now it is sought after. The only problem the mile-relay runners are likely to have during the rest of the indoor season is living up to the expectations they raised by lowering the record from 3:14.1 to 3:13.7 on Jan. 14 and 3:12.2 on Jan. 21.
In last year's NCAA outdoor championships, the Adelphi mile-relay team finished second to UCLA—paced by John Smith, the world-record holder (44.5) in the 440, and Wayne Collett—and might conceivably have won had it not been inhibited by the incongruity of it all.
"I came up behind John Smith," says Walker, "and I thought, 'This is John Smith!' Then he gave me a look and he had me. But that was enough to show me they can be beat. I used to think of runners like that as being up there and I'm down here. Now I know we're all just runners."
Whether they work out in the L.A. sun or in the Adelphi business building.