Alex and Ora Conley were certain their son Michael, an Arkansas junior, was going to jump into the headlines at the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships last Friday and Saturday in Syracuse. So sure that on Thursday evening, despite a raging blizzard, they bundled themselves, their 26-year-old daughter, Sabrina, and their 12-year-old son, Steven, into the family Pontiac and set out on a 669-mile drive from Chicago to central New York State. Within hours their route was, in Alex' words, "a truck graveyard." By 1 a.m., Interstate 90 was impassable, and the Conleys decided to wait out the worst of the storm in a diner outside, Erie, Pa. But as Mike Conley would proudly say later, "They didn't turn back." Conleys, it seems, don't quit. On Friday evening, after 16 hours on the road, the foursome finally reached the Carrier Dome.
A total of 584 men and women athletes from 133 schools had come to compete in this, the first NCAA indoor meet ever held outside the Detroit area. Among them were such notables as Southern Methodist's Michael Carter, who would win his fourth indoor shotput title with a throw of 66'1½"; and Nebraska sophomore Angela Thacker, who would contribute 19½ points to the Huskers' 58-48 women's team championship over Tennessee, with a leg on a third-place 1,600-meter relay, a second-place finish in Nebraska's sweep of the 55-meter dash—which was won by Merlene Ottey, with Janet Burke third—and a victory over Houston's Carol Lewis (21'10¼" to 21'9¾") in the long jump. Yet the meet's dominant figure was Conley, that stringy and springy 21-year-old long and triple jumper with the baggy cotton sweats and the GO HOGS painter's cap.
Conley was attempting not only to win both horizontal jumps in Syracuse—a double achieved only once before in NCAA indoor competition, by Bob Beamon of Texas-El Paso in 1968—but also to help his Razorbacks earn their first outright NCAA team title ever in any sport—in differing end-of-season football polls in 1964, the Hogs shared the No. 1 spot with Alabama. Although he is overshadowed—make that eclipsed—in public recognition by Carl Lewis in the long jump and Willie Banks in the triple, Conley was just the man to pull off a second leap-year double. He was ranked No. 4 in the world last year in each of his events, after winning a bronze medal at the World Championships in the long jump and coming in fourth in the triple. If he failed at Syracuse, his team would surely fall to a challenge from Iowa State, Southern Illinois or defending champion SMU. "I like this kind of pressure," said Conley with his usual grin.
In December, while he was taking his Doberman for a walk, Conley had stepped in a hole and sprained his right arch. Because he was still favoring the foot during Friday night's long- and triple-jump qualifying, he ended up straining a tendon on the outside of his right ankle. Although he easily qualified for the finals, he knew that to make it through both events the next afternoon he would have to tape the foot, take as few jumps as possible and bear pain.
March 19, 1984
All of which he did. On his very first long jump on Saturday, Conley went 25'8", which was good enough to earn him his first national championship of the day. He jumped twice more, then passed on his last three tries as only Lester Benjamin of Georgia (25'7¾") came close to passing him. Arkansas had its first 10 points of the meet. Conley went off to rest and retape his foot. The triple jump would start in 90 minutes.
Arkansas coach John McDonnell says Conley's greatest assets are his competitive smarts and his even temperament, but Conley's raw athletic talent isn't bad either: As a high school senior he high-jumped 6' 8" and won four individual titles (long jump, triple jump and 100 and 200 meters) at the Illinois state championship meet. He also was an all-state point guard, with a vertical jump of 44 inches, and when he went to Arkansas he made the Razorback basketball varsity as a freshman walk-on. "Coach [Eddie] Sutton said that in two years I could probably be the team's sixth or seventh man," says Conley. "But there was no basketball scholarship available for me, so I had to go on a track scholarship. I'm still paying off the loan I needed to get through that first semester."
Playing basketball has helped Conley develop the ability to jump well off each foot, an essential in triple jumping. With personal bests of 27'2" (set last year when he placed second at the NCAA outdoor championships) and 56'6½" (set in winning this meet last season) in his specialties, he's better in the triple jump than in the long jump, but he's not going to drop either—not when he has a chance of winning Olympic medals in both this summer.
As Conley rested, McDonnell was trying to keep the rest of his young team relaxed. "I feel next year's our year," he had said earlier, in the brogue of his native County Mayo, Ireland. "Whatever we do here, fine." McDonnell is a gentle, almost priestly man who came to the U.S. in 1964 to run middle distances for Southwest Louisiana. Since becoming head coach at Arkansas seven years ago, he has attracted a succession of good British and Irish distance runners to Fayetteville. "The Irish kids love it down there," he said. "It's hilly, you know, the tail end of the Ozark Mountains. It's very much like Ireland." He had brought 13 qualifiers to Syracuse, two of them Irish, two English and only one a senior.
Having lost two of his likely top three NCAA finishers—at least 12 points—to injuries early in the winter, McDonnell especially wanted to avoid the frustration of a narrow team defeat. Iowa State, however, led by its own foreign contingent—two Britons, a Nigerian, a Kenyan and a Belgian—was threatening to pull ahead. The Cyclones aren't blessed with the best indoor track facilities: In winter they train on the concourse of Hilton Coliseum in Ames, using soda machines as distance markers and tucking cushiony inserts in their shoes to reduce the shock of running on concrete. But after a victory in the 800 by sophomore Gareth Brown of England—who came to Iowa State just a few months ago after answering a RUNNERS WANTED ad placed by coach Bill Bergan in a British track magazine—the Cyclones led the Razorbacks 32-28.
Then Conley came through. He popped a 55'8" triple on his second attempt, added two other lesser 55-footers and won by nine inches over Joseph Taiwo of Washington State. He thereby justified his family's journey, became the meet's leading point scorer (20), earned his second straight NCAA indoor triple-jump title and put his team up 38-32 with just one event, the 1,600-meter relay, remaining.
But while Iowa State had qualified for it, the Razorbacks hadn't. "If they get third place, we tie for the title," said Conley, standing nervously at trackside. "Better than third, they win; worse than third, we win." His face was bright with anticipation.
After just one leg of the race, Conley was gleeful. "Iowa State is out of it! Out of it! We win!" The Cyclones' leadoff runner, sophomore Elliott Hanna, had indeed fallen hopelessly behind. At the finish Iowa State was sixth. The Razorbacks were jubilant; even the British and Irish among them began doing pig cheers.
Then came a moment of fright. Three relay teams had been disqualified for lane violations and cutting off. "Which ones?" McDonnell asked anxiously. If all three had placed ahead of the Cyclones, the meet would end a tie.
But only two of the ousted relay teams (Southern Illinois and Alabama) had come in ahead of Iowa State. The Arkansas athletes, meet winners by 38-36, broke into a sooooo-eeey chant.
"It took 10 years off my life, you know," said McDonnell.
"This is what track and field is all about," said Conley with his biggest smile of the day.