As Villanova junior John Hunter warmed up to run the 1,200-meter leg in the college distance medley relay at the 87th Penn Relays last Friday afternoon, his gaze fell on a poster advertising an upcoming meet. It bore the picture of James (Jumbo) Elliott, the Wildcats' track coach for more than 46 years until his sudden death from a heart attack five weeks ago. "He came into my mind right then," said Hunter, a native of County Cork, in the Irish brogue that, thanks to Elliott, has been heard on the Villanova campus so often over the years. "I said a prayer to Mr. Elliott before I ran." Indeed, talk about the renowned track coach was so pervasive at the Relays that fans of the supernatural couldn't be blamed for casting hopeful glances at the southwest corner of Franklin Field, where Elliott annually held court in a manner that could only be described as a cross between curmudgeonly and saintly. And after Villanova provided some of the Relays' best moments, it was apparent that Jumbo once again had had a hand in the meet he loved more than all others.
Not that there wasn't enough earthly stuff going on in this, the world's largest track-and-field marketplace. (With some 14,000 athletes, meet director Jim Tuppeny admits the Relays are "almost at capacity.") One of the more corporeal happenings was SMU's 6'5", 235-pound Richard Olsen's breaking his own collegiate hammer record for the third time in a month. Then there were Carl and Carol Lewis, who earned the Warren Beatty-Shirley MacLaine brother-sister award for their charm and talent in winning the men's college (26'9") and high school girls' (20'9¼") long jumps. There was an unusual cameo appearance by high hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah who, when he found there was no race for him in his specialty, joined the 100-meter-dash field and finished third (10.69) behind Neville Hodge (10.50) and Steve Riddick. And there was an impressive showing by the University of Tennessee, which won three relays with the help of football players Willie Gault, Anthony Hancock and Mike Miller.
But most of all there was the great shadow of Elliott, who coached the Wildcats to 75 Penn Relays titles between 1955 and 1980. "There's really a loneliness and emptiness here today without Jumbo," said former Villanova runner and current indoor mile record-holder Eamonn Coghlan, who stopped by on Friday to turn in a 2:57.7 three-quarter-mile leg in the New York Athletic Club's win in the open distance medley. "I feel it especially when I look up in that section of the stands where he always was," said Sydney Maree, who would be the hero in both of the Wildcats' relay victories. "We can still hear him even though he's not with us." And Rodney Wilson, Villanova's outstanding sophomore high hurdler, took it one step further: He claimed he still holds conversations with Jumbo. It was shortly after Elliott's death on March 22 that Tuppeny, whose youngest daughter was Jumbo's godchild, thought of the only proper tribute to the memory of the man—to rename the Relays' mile run the Jumbo Elliott Mile. Elliott pushed out Ben Franklin for that honor, perhaps the best yardstick of his influence in the City of Brotherly Love.
While Villanova was unable to win the inaugural mile named for its late mentor—Tom Byers of Athletics West had that honor, with a 4:00.69 on a blustery Saturday afternoon—the Wildcats' gutty performance would have gratified Elliott. "It would've put so many people in an unhappy position if we'd lost," said Maree. "It would've shown Jumbo was gone, the tradition was gone, everything was gone. We wanted to win this to show that, even though Jumbo is gone, we'll try to keep up the spirit. We'll do as he always wanted us to do."
May 3, 1981
And what Elliott would have wanted Villanova to do, more than anything, was win Friday's college distance medley relay, an event in which the Wildcats had been triumphant for 15 years in a row. The prospects for perpetuating that incredible streak did not look good. Anchorman Maree hadn't been able to run in nine days because of a groin pull, and both Carlton Young (400-meter leg) and Marcus O'Sullivan (800) were fighting nagging injuries—Young, strained hamstrings, O'Sullivan, sore knees. It looked even worse at dawn on Friday, which found Maree in the bathroom, "falling off the bowl," dizzy and weak, possibly in reaction to two cortisone injections he'd received Thursday morning. But Maree's vital signs checked out in a 7 a.m. visit to a doctor, and after two 600-meter warm-ups at 10 a.m., he decided to compete in the afternoon race.
"As far as I was concerned on Thursday, I was going to anchor," said Hunter, who would've taken Maree's 1,600 spot. "Sydney sometimes is so injured he shouldn't be walking, yet he runs." And how he runs. Hunter handed Maree the baton in second place, 10 yards behind Frank O'Mara of Arkansas. But soon it became a race between Maree and Georgetown's John Gregorek, U.S. Olympian in the steeplechase, and then it became no race at all as Maree's devastating kick—53.8 over the last 400 of a 4:04.7 leg—put Gregorek away and kept Villanova's streak alive.
"If Sydney hadn't run today, I'd say we probably would've lost," said former Villanova runner Don Paige, the world's best half-miler in 1980, who works out with the Wildcats while studying for an MBA at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "It's mind over matter what Sydney did today." But could Maree come back to anchor Villanova's two relays the next day? "He'll be so sore, he might not be able to run," said Paige. "Oh, he'll be limping a little tonight, but he'll have a great race tomorrow," said Maree's wife, Lisa, a sophomore miler and half-miler on Villanova's women's team.
As it turned out, Lisa knew her man. In Saturday's 4 X 1,500 relay, Maree took the baton a full 30 yards behind the leader but caught the pack almost immediately, and then overtook O'Mara down the stretch to win by less than a yard after a 3:40.2 leg. "I usually give him the baton within 10 yards but that was a bloody big distance I left him with today," said Hunter, whose fine 3:43.8 third leg helped Maree get within his considerable striking distance. "I saw a 55-second split for Sydney's first quarter and I thought, 'Uh, oh, he's going to be too tired for the rest, but he held on," said Villanova's interim Coach Jack Pyrah, 15 years an assistant under Elliott. With one race left, however, Maree didn't know how much longer he could hold on. Nonetheless, he agreed to anchor the 4 X 800 relay. This time even more of his heroics couldn't do it. Maree ran a personal best of 1:48.0, but the Wildcats finished fourth, two seconds behind winner Georgetown.
It was fitting that the Relays' outstanding male college track performer award went to Maree, who can at last see the light at the end of a long tunnel of frustration. A black from South Africa, Maree's track career has been handicapped both at home, where blacks are second-class citizens, and elsewhere, where he was frequently, and ironically, barred from competing because of South Africa's apartheid policies. "You don't know how it feels," he said on Friday. "It's as if you committed the crime of the century and you can't figure out what you've done wrong."
But in February the International Amateur Athletic Federation declared Maree eligible for international meets because he had taken up permanent U.S. residence and married an American citizen. For the time being, at least, as he works toward his own U.S. citizenship, Maree is free to run where he wishes. Elliott frequently discouraged his athletes from getting married while in school, but in his case, Maree says, "He was 100% behind it." In fact, at his own suggestion, Jumbo drove the wedding limousine. Elliott and Maree had occasional problems early in Maree's Villanova career, both because of Maree's independent training ideas and the constant strain of his status, but they had grown quite close.
"Since he died I realize what he meant," said Maree. "He left me with so much. He had his beliefs and he was going to do it his way. He showed his toughness on the track, and he was that way in life, too. I feel sorry for people who never got the chance to work side-by-side with a guy like Jumbo."
It was a shame, many spectators suggested, that Jumbo couldn't have been there to share in Maree's outstanding day. But everyone in a Villanova uniform knew that wasn't the case.