The announcement from Jack (Legs) O'Reilly all but crackled through Detroit's Cobo Arena last Saturday afternoon: "Believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, if Villanova wins this final event, it will take the NCAA indoor track championships by one point."
Was this the same Villanova team that had begun this last day of competition in 25th place? At that point, it seemed certain that the University of Texas at El Paso, the pre-meet favorite, could not help but win its fifth title in six years. But suddenly UTEP was like a small boy on a carousel who has grabbed the gold ring but neglected to hold on to his horse.
Among UTEP partisans there was a feeling of helplessness. The final event was the mile relay and the Miners were not entered. All they could do was pace the floor as an energized Villanova relay team beat Maryland and snatched away the gold ring.
UTEP Coach Ted Banks was furious. "The mental edge given Villanova by that announcement was immeasurable," he said. "It should not have been made."
March 19, 1979
But where had all the Villanova points come from in the first place? Even Banks didn't seem sure. He had been smiling as the day's competition began, and the capacity crowd of 9,500 had been filled with anticipation, but mostly for great individual performances. So what if the team championship was all but wrapped up? UTEP's Suleiman Nyambui, who has run an 8:17.9 indoor two mile, the second fastest in history, had yet to compete. He would win that event and perhaps double in the mile. And certainly it would be gratifying to see Villanova's Don Paige provide his team, which had faltered badly on Friday, with a few minutes of glory over 1,000 yards. In addition Maryland's Renaldo Nehemiah could be counted on to break some kind of record in the 60-yard hurdles.
Nehemiah was introduced by Legs O'Reilly as "our great hope for Moscow," and, as expected, he proceeded to break his NCAA record of 7.16 three times, first with a 7.08 in a preliminary heat, then with a 6.98 in a quarterfinal and next with a winning 6.90 in the final, just .02 off his world record. Nehemiah admitted Moscow was on his mind, but that his long-range goal is to become a pro football quarterback.
UTEP started off its scoring on the final day with four points from Jerome Deal's fourth-place finish in the 60-yard dash. That event was won for the second year in a row by Texas A&M's Curtis Dickey in 6.15. Thus as Nyambui got ready for the two mile the Miners led Villanova 31-2.
As usual, Nyambui, a 22-to-28-year-old UTEP freshman from Tanzania, stood at the start wearing his deceptively sleepy expression, and, as usual, he started out way back in the pack. He hung there effortlessly on the 11-laps-to-the-mile track as if on automatic pilot, before moving into third place with three laps to go. Then, as he entered the last turn, Nyambui waved to his friends at trackside, flashed his gap-toothed grin and left almost all the other runners gasping far to the rear. His time of 8:37.87 was undistinguished, but it meant 10 more points for his team, and perhaps he had been saving himself for the mile.
Villanova trailed 41-2 as the 600-yard run began, but Banks was taking nothing for granted. He bundled up Nyambui and walked him down a hall like a fine but tired thoroughbred while he whispered to his charge, "Let's get your body temperature down."
There were two sections of four runners each in the 600, first place to be decided on time. Villanova sophomore Anthony Tufariello was content with an early second place, but as the gun lap began he surged past Miami of Ohio freshman Darrell Sargent and won by eight yards in 1:09.4, just .01 of a second under the NCAA record. Villanova was now merely 29 points down.
Then the Wildcats took third in the distance medley and it was 41-18 UTEP, and the peerless Paige, who was undefeated indoors this season and last, was waiting in the wings. He had trained little in recent weeks, a strained ankle ligament having hobbled him, and he had been taking Datril for a throat infection. But after a glass of beer he had gone to bed early Friday night, promising, "I'll be ready tomorrow."
Virginia's Greg Canty bolted to the front at the start of the 1,000 as Paige expected him to. Tom Mortimer of Northeastern was second, but Paige was concerned only with Canty. With less than two laps to go, the Villanova senior made a move, but Canty held him off until the turn before the gun lap. Then Paige swung wide and picked up speed. When he came out of the turn he shot by Canty, and with 90 yards to go he felt confident enough to glance back. Canty was 10 to 15 yards to the rear.
"I knew I had him then," Paige said later, "and I decided to go for time. I wanted to give it my best shot." He did, or close to it, his 2:07.27 breaking by .02 the NCAA record held by Mark Belger. It was now 41-28, but only three events remained, and the next was the two-mile relay, in which Villanova had no entry. UTEP did.
There were seven four-man teams scheduled to fight for points and running room on the steeply banked, four-lane track. Entering a turn on the third leg, UTEP's Jan Boogman and Notre Dame's Chuck Aragon suddenly found themselves occupying the same section of track at the same time, which is to say one fouled the other. Jim Dunaway of Track and Field News said, "I saw the Notre Dame guy run into the UTEP guy as if he wasn't there. I said to the press box, 'Notre Dame is disqualified.' " Other observers agreed. UTEP finished second, but the meet referee said that Boogman had fouled Aragon, and disqualified the UTEP team, costing it eight points.
So with two events to go, UTEP still led 41-28 and it was Nyambui's turn again. But Villanova had two good milers in the race—Sydney Maree, with a best time of 3:57.1, and Amos Korir, with a 3:59.3. Korir took the lead from the start and held it for a half mile. Maree was third, and Nyambui, of course, was last. Was he tired, or was he just Nyambui? At the half Maree had the lead, but at the three-quarter mark, Nyambui started moving up. By the time he approached the turn before the gun lap, Nyambui was 10 yards in front of Maree, and wildly flapping his arm at his admirers in the arena's uppermost tiers.
Nyambui won in a meet-record 3:57.89 to give UTEP a total of 51 points, but Maree and Korir finished second and third, and their 14 points gave Villanova a total of 42 with the mile relay remaining. The Villanova relay team knew nothing of UTEP's disqualification in the two-mile relay until seconds before its big final race. When he got the news, Wildcat anchor man Tim Dale began totaling the points. Just about the time that Dale realized what a Wildcat win would do, Legs O'Reilly informed the crowd.
The mile relay was run in two sections of four teams each; Villanova was in the second flight. Kansas won the first section, in 3:16.07, but Villanova had an adrenaline advantage. Tufariello, running the third leg, was five yards out in front when he took the baton from Derrek Harbour and more than 20 when he gave it to Tim Dale, who finished in 3:15, with Maryland a distant second. Dale, Tufariello, Harbour and Keith Brown, who ran the lead-off leg, didn't wait for any announcement to go berserk. As Paige said, "We knew we had won right away. Lots of coaches had stopwatches and they all said we did."
Villanova hadn't won the NCAA indoor title since 1971. Last year it missed by nine points when in another fateful mile relay the Wildcats failed to reach the finals because a runner passed the baton out of the designated zone. Said Villanova's 63-year-old coach, Jumbo Elliott, "You win some, you lose some."
Ted Banks, who is 43, wasn't so philosophical. UTEP's next meet is scheduled for this weekend, outdoors at El Paso. "We may cancel it," Banks said. "We need to air out this whole thing and start all over."