Until the final hour last week's NCAA track and field championships at Eugene, Ore. were going according to plan. USC had the lead, with UTEP and UCLA in close pursuit and everyone else talking about individual performances. Of course, there were a few snags. It was discovered that the University of Oregon's steeplechase water jump was too shallow, that the long-jump pit was below the level of the takeoff board, that the hammer throw circle was too wide—by it, [5/16"]—and that the rim around the discus circle and the stop-board of the shotput circle were yellow instead of white. After the competition was well under way it was also noticed that the mile-relay stagger starts were laid out so that the runners in Lane 8 were traveling 22 yards farther than the ones in Lane 1. Still, it was a heck of a triangular meet.
Then, in a span of 15 minutes, defending champion UCLA unloaded its heaviest guns in rapid-fire bursts, and the meet became a rout. Trailing USC by 16 and UTEP by five, the Uclans picked up a first and a third in the 400-meter dash (16 points), a third in the high jump (six points) and a first, third and fourth in the triple jump (20 points).
"When UCLA gets rolling, it's brutal," said Wayne Vandenburg, the fast-talking UTEP coach. "If their quarter-milers aren't doing you in, their jumpers are."
Although outwardly optimistic to the end. Vandenburg was aware that UTEP was kaput when Steve Williams, an 18-year-old freshman phenom out of New York, limped home in a 400-meter heat on Thursday. "That was when I knew our chances for second place were a lot better than for first." said Vandenburg. "And our chances for third were even stronger than that."
A youngster to keep in mind. Williams has run a 9.3 100. a 20.3 220 and a 45.2 440, but a few weeks ago he injured his left leg in the Western Athletic Conference meet. Vandenburg brought him along anyway, but Eugene's no Lourdes. "With our depth," he said, "we lose a star and the lights go out. UCLA or USC loses one and they bring up another fast body."
But when USC lost a few bodies, it was lights out for them, too. First there was Bo Sterner, a Swede who had arrived in the U.S. only a few months ago and was a favorite in the decathlon. In the last event of the first day the 6'4" Sterner won his 400-meter heat in 50.5 but was disqualified for running on the line. His 783 points became zero.
"Nobody in Sweden told me you couldn't run on the line." Sterner said to USC Coach Vern Wolfe. "Here you can't run on the line?"
"No," said Wolfe. "That's the other guy's lane."
"Strange," said Sterner, who gave up in disgust during the 1,500, the final event. Wolfe claimed that without the disqualification. Sterner would have won, so instead of opening with 10 points USC began with zip. The shutout became no less painful when UCLA's Rory Kotinek took fifth to earn two points.
If things weren't going right for USC and UTEP on opening day, UCLA wasn't getting off unscathed either. Traditionally, no matter whom the Uclans run in a major sprint relay, the baton always winds up on the track before the finish line. In the previous three NCAA championships they dropped the stick, and they dropped it a few weeks ago in the Pac-8 meet. At UCLA the race is known as "Oops, aw hell!" After the Pac-8, Coach Jim Bush said he was going to put an end to the nonsense by not even entering a sprint relay team.
"In 1969 we had the best 400-meter relay team in the world and we dropped the baton," he said. "And we dropped it the next two years. That's a record. This time we'll forget about the relay and concentrate on the individual events. It tears me up just to think of taking our great sprinters to Eugene and winding up with nothing."
UCLA Athletic Director J. D. Morgan talked Bush into giving the team another chance. Explained Bush: "He said the kids wanted to run and that's what the meets are for, the kids. But my grandmother can pass better than they do. I'm not going to watch."
An eminently sensible decision. UCLA dropped the baton again. "I refuse to get mad," said Bush. "I just won't. I won't. I'm mad."
By Friday morning Bush was feeling calm enough to begin worrying about the 100-meter dash. He had Warren Edmonson, a gritty little senior who had never won a major race, and USC had Donald Quarrie, the world-class sprinter from Jamaica who had won a lot of them, as well as Willie Deckard. There was also Ivory Crockett from Southern Illinois, who had run a windy 9.9 in the trials, plus Cliff Branch of Colorado, who is bypassing the Olympic Trials for a shot at pro football. "If we are to be in it," Bush said, "Edmonson has got to win." By midmorning Bush couldn't stand the suspense. He went to Edmonson's room, waking up both the sprinter and John Smith, the 440-yard world-record holder. "Can you win?" Bush asked Edmonson. "You've got to."
"Stop worrying, coach," Edmonson said. "I'll win. I'm good." Then he rolled over and went back to sleep.
True to his promise, Edmonson won his semifinal. Quarrie came in fourth, good enough to qualify, but he got a leg cramp en route. Deckard finished fifth and was out. In the final Quarrie stopped five yards out of the blocks and Edmonson won in 10.1. "Foul!" screamed Bush and Oregon Coach Bill Bowerman. They claimed Quarrie hadn't made an honest effort and should not be allowed to compete in Saturday's 200-meter and sprint-relay finals.
Quarrie's USC teammates weren't too happy about his performance, either. "We're losing the track meet and Quarrie does that," said Deckard. "He could have tried, and if he got another cramp he could have stopped then."
"What do they want from me?" said Quarrie. "I only went into the blocks because the rules say I have to if I want to run in other events the next day. How do they expect me to run on one leg? UCLA is just trying to get me out of the meet. They know without me USC is dead."
"One leg or not he should have tried," said Deckard. "We might lose now. That gives UCLA 10 points and they've got those three good triple-jumpers. If I had been in Donald's place, I'd have tried. I run even if it hurts. Donald was brought up on that European way of training. He won't run when he's hurt."
The Bush-Bowerman protest was disallowed, but it didn't matter; Quarrie decided not to run anymore. USC scratched him from the 200-meter final, and replaced him with Edesel Garrison in the sprint relay.
"And Garrison doesn't want to run, either," said a USC teammate. "All he wants to do is play football."
"The team is getting disgusted with Garrison," said USC Pole Vaulter Scott Cryder. "In the Pac-8 mile relay the first three guys ran their hearts out and Garrison didn't even try. He said we were so far behind why strain."
The NCAA meet was Garrison's finale as a runner. Like Branch, he is bypassing the Olympics for a shot at pro ball. At least that was what he said last week.
With Garrison putting his heart into it, USC won the sprint relay. Then the Trojans got another lift when it was announced that because of the botched staggers, the teams that had been eliminated in the mile-relay heats would be allowed to compete in the final, which would be staged in two sections with placings determined by time. Running from Lane 8, USC earlier had finished last and been eliminated.
As it turned out, the ruling made no difference. UCLA had put on its spurt, leaving USC far behind. UTEP, meanwhile, was three points back of USC, mainly on account of the strong right arm of 6'5½", 275-pound Fred DeBernardi, who won both the shot and the discus.
Fittingly, UCLA's charge was led by John Smith, who won the 400 in a brilliant, front-running 44.5. And when his teammate, sophomore Benny Brown, finished third, a step ahead of Garrison, the rout was on. A few minutes later UCLA applied the finishing touches as James Butts (53'2¼"), Harry Freeman and Milan Tiff did their number in the triple jump and Dwight Stones did his in the high jump. After that there was nothing but the mile relay, and in recent years that event has belonged to UCLA.
"I'm tired," said Garrison, who runs anchor. "I'm not going to run. Get somebody else. My career has ended." With that, the word got out that USC was going to scratch. "Scratch, hell!" said Wolfe, arriving on the scene. "UTEP is in the race and we need the points to stay in second. We're going to run and that means Garrison, too. Let's go."
They went and got a point by finishing sixth, with Garrison turning in another heartfelt anchor. UTEP got a nonscoring seventh so USC held on to second, 49-45. "That really does it," said Garrison, walking barefooted. He held out his spikes. "Anybody want these? I won't need them anymore. I hurt all over. My head. My shoulders. My back. My arms. My legs. I couldn't eat this morning because I was afraid I'd throw up. And I won't be able to eat tonight because I will throw up. Run for fun, they say. Be an amateur. Well, this isn't fun. Not anymore."
As expected, UCLA, getting a 44.9 anchor from John Smith, won the mile relay, and that built its winning point total to 82. After the relay Smith shook hands with Garrison. They have been rivals on the track since their high school days in Los Angeles but off it they are friends. Smitty tried to think of something to say. Finally the UCLA senior shook his head and said, "Gosh, Edesel, it's been a long four years. Come on, Reggie, let's go home."
Reggie Echols, the football flanker who runs the opening quarter on the UCLA mile relay, nodded and the two headed for the parking lot. "Hey, John," said Echols, "you really smoked that last quarter. Didn't you know we already had the meet won?"
"I wasn't thinking about that," said Smith. "Did you see me pour it on the last 110 yards? All I could think of was how tired I was. Five tough quarters in three days. I wasn't thinking about winning, or a fast time. I just wanted to get it over with."
"I hear you," said Echols.