As the 100-meter-dash finalists went to the blocks in LSU's palpably humid Bernie Moore Stadium last Friday night, it was obvious that the 1981 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships had, in no time at all, really cranked up. On this, the first night of finals, perennial team champion Texas-El Paso already had fallen an alarming 31 points behind Southern Methodist and faced the possibility of finishing third in the five-day meet (the first two days are devoted solely to the decathlon) behind SMU and either Arizona State or Tennessee. Olympic decathlete Tito Steiner of Brigham Young and Argentina had broken his own collegiate record by scoring 8,279 points, and a superb field of 400-meter runners had sifted itself out in the heats preceding what promised to be an exciting final the next evening. And within the hour, UTEP's Suleiman Nyambui, an eight-time NCAA track champion, would be running the first half of a 10,000-5,000 double that, if he were successful in either race, would enable him to surpass Jesse Owens and Gerry Lindgren for total NCAA track and field titles.
And then there was Houston's remarkable Carl Lewis, now lining up in Lane 6. Lewis, who was bidding to become the first since Owens to win both a track and a field event at the NCAA outdoor meet, had already finished first in two 100-meter heats and with a 27'¾" leap—made indoors because of rain—had taken his second straight outdoor long-jump title. He had so dominated the event that, despite passing up six of nine possible attempts, he had the three best jumps of the meet and had won by more than a foot. Lewis might have leaped even farther, but as his father. Bill, who had been up all Thursday night before traveling from Willingboro, N.J. to Baton Rouge, pointed out, "There's just no more pit."
Bill's wife, Evelyn, was more concerned about the 100. "The long jump is natural to Carl," she said. "Those sprinters are much...closer to him." She wasn't referring to the fact that Mel Lattany of Georgia, the runner two lanes to Carl's left, had spent part of Friday afternoon with her son studying the Bible. Rather, it was that Lattany had a 10.04 to his credit this spring, only .04 off Lewis' personal best, and had looked particularly strong in the heats.
Squeezed between Lattany and Lewis was another threat—Tennessee's massive (6'2", 205 pounds) Jeff Phillips, who everyone thought was a white football player, but, in fact, is neither. Phillips, seemingly the only Vol runner not on the school's football team, invariably is asked at meets, by some irreverent soul, how a white sprinter can be so fast; to which he patiently answers that his mother is white, but his father is black. Two of his siblings share his straight hair and fair complexion, while the other four are curly-haired and dark-skinned. "I've never considered it a problem," he says. Then, grinning, he reveals, "Reggie Towns, our hurdler, has nicknamed me 'Checkerboard.' " On the track, Phillips had beaten Lewis in 10.1 at a dual meet in March, and had run the fastest semifinal time of the NCAA meet, 10.11.
June 14, 1981
With the gun, Lattany shot out to a half-meter lead over Lewis, and fell into his distinctive sprinting style: head jerking forward and back like a time-lapse film study of a turtle poking in and out of his shell. "I knew he'd won," said Lewis later, speaking of Lattany's early lead. "It just seemed too much." But by 50 meters, Lewis and Phillips had drawn even with Lattany. Both had gone past Herschel Walker in such a whir that they caused the Georgia tailback to lose his form and eventually finish seventh (in 10.30) in the nine-man field. "They went by, but they didn't get lost," he said later.
Into the last five meters, Phillips and Lewis were still side by side, by now clear of Lattany. But just as he had done two weeks earlier at the Tom Black Classic in Knoxville, Lewis caught the tape first, on a better lean. Immediately, his arms shot up in jubilation—at the victory, and at what he knew would be an extraordinary time. "I felt strained in the last five meters," Lewis said. "I'd never felt that before."
The times confirmed it: Lattany third in 10.06, Phillips second, in 10.00, and Lewis, the winner, in 9.99—.04 off Jim Hines' 1968 world record of 9.95. But the wind, which in May had deprived Lewis of recognition for the second-best long jump ever, 28'3¾", had been 2.54 meters per second, .54 above the legal limit. Again an exceptional performance by Lewis would be disallowed for record purposes.
Not that Lewis seemed disturbed by the news. "Winning that 100 was probably the biggest thrill of my life," he said, though with Houston a nascent national power in track and field, Lewis next year may find himself with an even more rewarding challenge: scoring points in the 100, 200, long jump and 400 relay to help the Cougars win the team title. In Baton Rouge, had Lewis been his own team, his two firsts, worth 20 points, would have ranked him seventh in the team standings.
As always, the favorite team going into this year's NCAA meet was Coach Ted Banks' UTEP Miners, winners of 14 of the last 23 NCAA track and cross-country titles. But for once the African-dominated team looked vulnerable—as well as venerable, with many of its foreign-born athletes in their mid-20s. Banks' own premeet dopesheet forecast a blanket finish: UTEP 63, Southern Methodist 62 and Arizona State 60. The way ASU Coach Len Miller had it figured, his sprinter-rich squad would defeat the Miners 68-66, with SMU third at 63. "But what UTEP has is potential," said Miller. "They could score 90."
In Friday's 10,000, the Miners cashed in some of that potential, taking first, second, third and fifth to swoop to within five points of SMU. Banks had said that his team needed at least 35 points in the distance events; with only the 10,000 run, it already had 26.
To no one's surprise, the winner of that race was Nyambui, an Olympic silver medalist from Tanzania, who seemed less concerned about team points than about having some fun. Midway through the 10,000, after a brief chat in Swahili with teammate Mike Musyoki, he addressed New York Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, who was struggling noticeably to keep up with them. "Excuse us, Salazar," he said. "Don't worry. We are not talking about you." When he arrived at the press tent after the race, Nyambui found reporters clustered around bare-chested Gidamis Shahanga, the fifth-place finisher. "Why are you interviewing this man without any clothes on?" he demanded. "I see many American movies, and they always show people in Africa without clotheses. Now you talk to this man. Why?"
Actually, considering the weather in Baton Rouge, the people with the least clotheses were the most sensible. Evening temperatures hovered around 80°, and the humidity never was less than 72%. Salazar, who finished fourth, collapsed from heat exhaustion after the 10,000, even though he had frequently added 20 minutes of sauna-sitting to his training during the spring in anticipation of the climate in Baton Rouge. Other athletes had also tried to prepare for the suffocating conditions. UCLA's Andre Phillips, who won the 400-meter hurdles, had taken to riding an exercise bicycle inside a sauna. Runners from several other schools had performed their workouts in rubberized sweat suits. And both the UTEP and Arizona State squads had intentionally practiced during the heat of the day. Someone at ASU had even invented a special drink—a mixture of bananas and apple juice—to replenish body salts and minerals. "It doesn't have a name yet," said Miller, "but if we do as well as we hope, it's sure going to push up banana sales."
The dampness, which occasionally turned to wetness (the National Weather Service in Baton Rouge measured .58 inches of rain on Friday and Saturday, but several athletes measured that much in their shoes following the worst of the storms on Saturday) made for some unusual performances, too. Winning hammer thrower Richard Olsen of SMU (237') suffered from the dread "slippery glove syndrome" and caromed his first four attempts off the hammer cage. Teammate Michael Carter won the shot-put (68'10¾") despite the bane of his event: a slippery neck. Though he solved that problem by loading up with chalk under the chin, the 6'2", 265-pound Carter said the humidity still made him feel "very heavy."
Going into Saturday's 14 finals, Olsen, Carter and the rest of the SMU contingent were hoping to avoid any further slippage of their 32-27 lead over UTEP. Mustang Coach Ted McLaughlin, a steely-eyed Rhode Islander who was an assistant at El Paso from 1975 to 1979, had brought perhaps the only type of team that could upset the Miners—one of Banksian design (with a full share of foreigners, though its strength is more in field events than distance running). Thus, the Mustangs were arousing the sort of jingoistic passions normally generated only by Banks' teams. "Last year there was no way we could compete with UTEP," said UCLA Coach Jim Bush, dean of the track-and-field xenophobes. "Now we can't compete with SMU. All that's left is third."
Although his Villanova team was well out of the point race, senior Sydney Maree celebrated his final race for the Wildcats by winning the 1,500 in 3:35.30. It was a personal best for Maree, and a very personal achievement; for the final lap and a half no one was within 10 yards of him. "I talked to some of the guys before the beginning of the race and told them I was going to take it out fast," said Maree, whose first two splits were :57 and 1:55. "It would have been to my advantage for someone to come with me and push me, but no one came."
For a brief while on Saturday it looked as if SMU wouldn't be pushing UTEP, either. Texas-El Paso picked up 10 points in a blazing 400-meter final contested by a lineup that included, among others, 1979 World Cup champion Kasheef Hassan of the Sudan and Oregon State, and U.S. Olympian Walter McCoy of Florida State. The winner, UTEP sophomore Bert Cameron of Jamaica, who might well have won the 1980 Olympic 400 title if he hadn't pulled a hamstring three weeks before the Games, finished in 44.58, making him the seventh-fastest 400 runner in history. But then Sammy Koskei of Kenya, SMU's top runner and considered the meet's closest, this side of Nyambui, to a track sure thing, breezed to an 800-meter win as expected. The two points won by UTEP's Peter Lemashon in the race had been less predictable.
Nyambui and Musyoki kept the Miners on a roll by going 1-3 in the 5,000. For Nyambui, it was his second straight 5,000-10,000 outdoor double; only Washington State's Lindgren had ever managed the distance double twice, and he did it three times between 1966 and '68. Instead of 35 distance-race points, Banks' Miners had gotten 42.
Five more points, from freshman high jumper Milt Ottey of Toronto, gave UTEP a 60-42 lead with only three events to be decided: the 1,600-meter relay, the discus and the triple jump. If all went perfectly for SMU, the Mustangs would add 29 points to their total and El Paso just eight, yielding a 71-68 final and a new NCAA champion. Otherwise, forget it.
When Mike Carter threw the discus 203'3"—nearly six feet farther than he ever had before—and teammate Robert Weir produced a 194'6" toss, Southern Methodist chalked up second-and sixth-place finishes in the event, good for nine points. UTEP 60, SMU 51—and with the 4X400 relay, which would include Koskei, coming up next, the Mustangs seemed poised to pull off the upset.
All at once, however, the dream ended for McLaughlin's squad. The Mustangs were in fifth place in the relay when Koskei took the baton for the third leg. Then, at the end of the backstretch, Koskei suddenly straightened up and left the track with an apparent hamstring pull.
The triple jump wound up with an ironic twist. UTEP's Steve Hanna, who had figured to finish second at best, won the competition with a leap of 55'11", while the favorite, British Olympian Keith Connor of SMU, had done only 54'6½" for third place. This is the same Keith Connor who spent his first 1½ college years at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Hanna, from Nassau in the Bahamas, met up with 400-meter champion Cameron just outside the track and slapped hands with him. "Roommate, we did it!" cried Hanna, who later explained that he had been inspired to jump well by a TV preview of the Belmont Stakes he had seen Saturday afternoon. "It was like the NCAA championships," he said. "They gave each horse a little introduction, and then they focused on the champion."
Though Banks had his 15th NCAA and third consecutive outdoor championship, he was wrung out. Aside from the challenge from Southern Methodist, he had been keeping an eye on Tennessee, whose sprint-hurdle-relay strength ultimately gave the Vols 50 points and third place behind the Miners (70 points) and SMU (57). Even the flight in from Texas on Wednesday had given the Miners a scare when an engine developed oil problems.
"Each year is different," said the haggard Banks. "Different ups, different downs, different joys." And next year? "Please," he said, "let us savor this one for a few days."