As track meets go the 52nd annual NCAA Championships at Baton Rouge last week was certain to generate a bunch of new records. Not so much for athletic excellence, you understand, but in such categories as soggy T shirts, fevered brows and a dire shortage of Ultra Ban 5,000. But for Dave Wottle, the defending champion in the mile run, and UCLA, the defending champion in everything, it was strictly a case of no sweat.
Wottle, the Olympic 800-meter gold medalist from Bowling Green, left Bernie Moore Stadium Saturday afternoon with a win and a personal record in the mile. UCLA also ran well but mostly jumped to a third straight team title with 56 points as USC, which was considered to have a chance of dethroning the Bruins, wilted in the heat and wound up with nine points, its fewest ever.
Oregon, another contender, finished second with 31 points as Steve Prefontaine became the first to win an NCAA track event four years in succession. Pre took the three-mile by 50 yards in 13:05.3, the best time in the world this year. Following his victory lap he toned down his earlier criticism of LSU as the meet site (SI, May 28) by praising the crowd, facilities, organization, scenery—everything but the 90° temperature and 93% humidity. As indeed he should have. Climate notwithstanding, it may have been the best NCAA meet ever.
Even before the first trial heat on Thursday night, a few hours after a driving rainstorm had sent nearly all of Baton Rouge in search of an ark and two of every species, the mile field loomed as the classiest of the meet. Eight competitors had broken four minutes and five had faster times than Wottle's seasonal low of 3:58.6. The best of the bunch was Michigan State's Ken Popejoy, a bright, delightfully enthusiastic 120-pound whippet who on May 5 had run 3:57 to begin a string of four straight sub-four races on successive weekends. The other contenders did in fact come in pairs. North Carolina entered Reggie McAfee (3:57.8), the first black native American to crack four minutes, and Tony Waldrop (3:58.4), a half-miler who had run the longer distance just four times in his life. From the West Coast, by way of Ethiopia and Norway respectively, came Oregon State's Hailu Ebba and Oregon's Knut Kvalheim, each with a 3:57.9 best achieved when Ebba nipped Kvalheim in the Pacific Eight Conference meet.
June 17, 1973
Neither Popejoy's string of fine races, however, nor his victory over Wottle in the Vons Classic in L.A. on May 27 changed his opinion of who was the favorite. Wottle was the man, and as for tactics, the best way to beat him and his devastating kick was by staying ahead, preferably on a fast early pace. Most of the runners were hoping for that kind of pace. The trouble was no one seemed particularly interested in setting it.
"I have a feeling it's going to end up as a kicking race," Popejoy said. "I know I don't want to lead something that prestigious. I would hope the race goes out fast because both Dave and I are capable of a good time. The trouble with leading is that you don't know where your competition is in relation to you. You can go out and lead and get forced into a pace. You can blow your whole race plan that way. It's going to come down to the end."
Ebba won his heat in 4:04, hanging a 1:54.3 second 880 on a slow opening half. "On Saturday everybody is a kicker," he said, "so I expect someone to set a fast pace to take away our kicks. It could be real fast."
Would you set it, Hailu?
"Aw, never," he laughed. "I'll only set the pace for the last 220."
"It's going to be a very technical race," Kvalheim said after narrowly beating McAfee in their heat. "I could see six or seven guys winning it. Popejoy and Wottle are both kickers and McAfee didn't seem all that fast tonight. I might take a fast pace, but I want to see what it looks like first."
The only note of mild dissent was offered by McAfee, who said, "I can't look at it as a one-guy thing. Everyone is of the same caliber and it's going to be up to the guy who races. The pace is going to be slow and Wottle will try to win it with the kick."
Wottle himself was mildly worried about the weather, along with a select circle of 9,000 or so, since Saturday's finals would be contested in the middle of the sultry afternoon rather than in the evening cool which blessed the trials.
"I think the heat will be a factor," he said. "We haven't had this kind of hot weather in Bowling Green. It's kind of stupid that they run it in the afternoon, but they have to because of TV pressure. I feel that the race will be a fast one. Nobody wants to set the pace, but I have a feeling that someone is going to go out. I think one runner will feel he has to do it. It's going to go to the guy who runs the smartest race."
The way the race was run should have been a special vindication for Wottle, who has often been accused of stupid tactics. On Saturday no one ran the mile with more moxie than he did, but then it was relatively easy, since the fast early pace was nonexistent.
Almost by default, the race did get a leader in Paul Cummings of Brigham Young, but he sapped nobody in taking the field through a 61.2 first quarter and a timid 2:04.4 half. After three laps Missouri's Charles McMullen was up front but not for long. Wottle kicked with 220 yards to go, and it was all over 100 yards later when he powered by Ebba on the turn and held off Waldrop through the stretch. With a 53.2 last lap Wottle won in 3:57.1, a half-second better than Marty Liquori's meet record.
The state of Louisiana had never been graced by a sub-four mile, and Saturday's was a dazzler, eight men breaking four minutes. Waldrop, who had said, "I think I'm not really good enough to run the mile with these guys," had a 52.8 last lap and finished second in 3:57.3. "I wasn't in the right position," he said afterward, "but I didn't think Wottle could be beaten anyway. All I've been thinking about for days is this race. Now I'm glad it's over. I knew nothing about running in a crowd on the backstretch. On the last lap I was still in eighth place. I was just thinking, 'I'm going to be second.' It was impossible to catch Wottle."
After Waldrop came McAfee and Ebba, both in 3:57.8; Popejoy was fifth with blistered feet in 3:58.5 and San Jose State's unheralded freshman, Mark Schilling, came in sixth in 3:58.6. Kvalheim's 3:58.9 was good for a nonscoring seventh place and McMullen was caught in 3:59.6. It was the second time in history that eight milers in the same race finished under four minutes; it was the first time this season that Wottle wore the hat he made famous at Munich.
"I knew I had control of the race when I went around Hailu on the turn with 120 yards to go," he said. "They all relied on their kicks. Everyone figured, 'I'll have as good a chance as anyone with my kick.' "
Popejoy broke four minutes for the first time a year ago this June, when he first met Wottle, decided to imitate everything he did and carried out that intention to the point of substituting greasy food for his usual prerace meal. "I don't think anyone can beat Dave Wottle from behind," Popejoy said the day before the mile. "If he is leading with 220 yards to go, I don't think he can be beaten. He's the one person in the country who comes closest to carrying the kind of mystique that Jim Ryun had." After the race no one could argue the point.
Louisiana sports fans admittedly have had few occasions to witness track of the sort they saw in the NCAA, but that deprivation hardly kept them from grooving over eight meet records, UCLA tenacity, Prefontaine, Rod Milburn and a mile-relay leg by Maurice Peoples of Arizona State. Peoples stunned a few folks earlier in the afternoon when he beat UCLA's Benny Brown in the 440 in 45 flat. In the mile relay Peoples ran the fastest anchor leg ever, a 43.4, to almost pull the Sun Devils into second place over Texas. UCLA won the race for the fifth straight year, in 3:04.3.
The Bruins' team championship might have seemed as inexorable as Wottle's, but UCLA did have its moments of adversity. On Thursday, Fran√ßois Tracanelli failed to qualify for the pole vault finals when he missed three times at 16'3". On Saturday triple jumper Harry Freeman severely injured his right leg and had to be carried from the field. However, other Bruins rose to the challenge. Finn Bendixen, celebrating a week wherein he also earned Phi Beta Kappa honors, won the long jump with a leap of 25'10½" while USC's Randy Williams, the Olympic champion, was pushed back to fourth by gusty winds and step problems. In the triple jump Milan Tiff of UCLA had a meet record leap of 54'2¾".
For USC Coach Vern Wolfe, watching his team's performance "was like reading a horror novel." Jerry Wilson failed to advance beyond his heat in the high hurdles; Donald Quarrie finished seventh in the 100 and scratched from the 220 because of heat prostration and the Trojans' 440 relay team dropped the baton on its first exchange.
Although Milburn attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, the meet marked his first performance on the LSU track, and it was a memorable one. In three high-hurdle races he consecutively lowered the stadium record to 13.4, 13.3 and, in the final, 13.1—the only occasion that time has been run with a legal wind. Milburn has exceeded it, of course, with his world record of 13 flat.
No one, however, got more sustained applause than Prefontaine, who astounded the fans as he virtually predicted he would after Thursday's trial. "You may see some strange things on Saturday," he said slyly. "Why should I tell everybody what I'm going to put in the cake? They'll find out. I could throw a two-minute half into the middle, run my last mile in four minutes or do the last quarter in 51 seconds. I may even wake up on Saturday and not feel good and get 57th. There will be 15 good runners and it will be an interesting race."
In point of fact there was Pre and there were some runners who were merely good, a difference that was not lost on the crowd. Prefontaine toured his last mile in 4:15 after establishing a stadium record for two miles en route. He probably also set another record on his victory lap, which got a standing ovation. "They say the South is a bit behind the West in track and field," Pre said, "but if the crowds are like this. I must say they are catching up fast. I rate Eugene No. 1, Berkeley No. 2 and Baton Rouge No. 3."
LSU merits a big hand too, the competition going off without a single mix-up. This was a result of the university involving its entire athletic department in the meet, recruiting outside help for tasks where experience was limited and working hard. Obviously, nothing beats the sweat of honest toil.