THE LADIES ARE TIGERS WITHOUT MAJOR STARS LSU HAS RULED NCAA WOMEN'S TRACK FOR 10 YEARS

June 01, 1997

Even after a decade of dominance, LSU seems an unlikely home for
a women's track and field dynasty. South Louisiana is smitten
with college football, and attendance at meets in LSU's
5,680-seat Bernie Moore Track Stadium averages less than 1,000.
Last spring, after the Lady Tigers won the NCAA outdoor title
for the 10th consecutive time--a streak unmatched by any other
Division I women's team in any sport--they arrived home in Baton
Rouge to find an empty airport. And two years ago the LSU
athletic department was sued by five female students for
dragging its feet in adding women's soccer and softball as
varsity sports; a U.S. district judge found LSU in violation of
Title IX.

"We have two strikes against us," says Eureka Hall, a junior
sprinter from Phoenix. "We run track, and we are women." Hall's
attitude sums up the LSU dynasty, which could have ended because
of any number of factors over the years: the loss of seemingly
irreplaceable sprinters; a tumultuous coaching change eight
seasons ago; rival teams that appeared to be faster and
stronger. Instead, LSU kept winning--and shrugging off its
doubters.

In addition to their 10 outdoor titles the Lady Tigers have won
eight NCAA indoor championships, including the last five. Only
the Arkansas men's track team, which won 12 NCAA indoor titles
from 1984 to '95, has a longer Division I streak. LSU will try
to make it 11 at the NCAA outdoor championships June 4-7 in
Bloomington, Ind.

"There are days when you are running and you feel so sick you
are out there throwing up," says LaTarsha Stroman, a senior LSU
quarter miler from El Paso. "But we say, 'Come on, this is for
number 11.'" That LSU ever became competitive in women's track
is itself a surprise. In the early 1980s, when UCLA ruled the
sport, the Lady Tigers lacked proper field equipment and a
weight room. Their program was so moribund that in 1984, after
Dan Pfaff left Texas-El Paso to become an assistant at LSU, he
sat in the bleachers of the track stadium, thought about how far
the program had to go and was, he recalls, "in shock. I
wondered, Why did I come here?"

Things soon changed. Pfaff, fellow assistant Loren Seagrave and
coach Billy Maxwell began signing athletic sleepers when no star
recruits would consider LSU. In 1984 the Lady Tigers finished
68th at the NCAA outdoor meet. The next year they finished in a
tie for second with Florida State. Two years later LSU won the
first of its 10 straight titles. In 1988 Maxwell left for Texas,
and Pat Henry, who had coached Blinn (Texas) Junior College to
the NJCAA indoor and outdoor titles the year before, was hired
as coach of both the men's and women's teams at LSU. Then
everything nearly fell apart.

In 1989 Seagrave was fired amid allegations that he had had an
affair with one of his athletes the previous summer. Some in the
track community felt the decision was unjust, but many supported
it, believing Seagrave had always pushed the limits when it came
to relationships with athletes and to NCAA rules. The LSU
administration wished the spotlight would stay on the Lady
Tigers' glorious streak, but shortly after Seagrave was fired,
he sued athletic director Joe Dean and the university for
wrongful dismissal and defamation of character. The suit is
still pending, and the 45-year-old Seagrave, who is a co-owner
of an athletic consulting firm in Atlanta, is seeking damages of
$6 million.

The Seagrave fiasco could have returned the Lady Tigers to their
humble origins, but instead Henry held a fractured program
together and nursed it back to health, keeping the athletes
focused on their work. At the 1989 outdoors, LSU competed with a
vengeance. Led by Dawn Sowell, who won the 100 and 200 meters
and ran second for the winning 4x100-meter relay team, LSU
scored 86 points. Runner-up UCLA had 47.

The 45-year-old Henry, who also directed the LSU men to outdoor
titles in 1989 and '90, is a tireless worker with a coaching
pedigree. His grandfather Gwinn Henry won the 100-yard dash in
then record time at the 1911 National AAU Championships and
later coached college football at Kansas, Missouri and New
Mexico. Gwinn Bub Henry, Pat's father, was assistant track coach
at New Mexico in the 1960s.

Henry is quiet and unfailingly collected in public. What is he
like with the team? "He is quiet and monotone," says D'Andre
Hill, who ran for LSU from 1993 to '96 and is one of the best
sprinters in school history. "After four years, we knew his
motivational speech by heart: 'Everybody needs to have a good
day, all on the same day....'"

An excellent recruiter, Henry has stayed ahead of powerhouses
such as Florida and UCLA by focusing on sprinters. (The heat and
humidity in Baton Rouge scare away many distance runners.) But
LSU teams are rarely one-dimensional. They have included
champion heptathletes, jumpers and middle-distance runners. LSU
has never had a sprinter as famous as Gail Devers or Gwen
Torrence, but the list of former Lady Tigers sprinters is full
of stars: Sheila Echols, Esther Jones, Dawn Bowles, Cheryl
Taplin, Sowell and Hill.

Henry has also hired good assistants. In 1995 three of his
coaches left--including Pfaff, who went to Texas, and Myrtle
Chester Ferguson, now head coach at Tennessee--but the program
is still cruising. "Pat Henry has the incredible ability to let
his assistants coach," says Pfaff. "That sounds simple, but it's
not."

The Lady Tigers have also shown a knack for peaking at the right
time and for getting lucky breaks. While they have won some
titles with ease--in the 1993 outdoors, for example, they scored
93 points to beat second-place Wisconsin by 49--there have been
many years when LSU wasn't even favored. In 1987, when the
championships were held at LSU, Alabama won the 4x400-meter
relay only to be disqualified. A win would have given Alabama
the title; instead, LSU won its first championship. At the 1992
outdoors, LSU trailed Florida going into the final day. Then
Inger Miller of USC withdrew from the 100 and the 200, and
Chryste Gaines of Stanford pulled out of the 200, both with bum
hamstrings. Their absence opened the door for the Lady Tigers to
score more points and overtake Florida, which had beaten LSU by
22 points in the SEC Championships three weeks earlier.

This year, as in the past, there has been talk that the Lady
Tigers are too young, that they have lost too many key athletes.
Hill, last year's champion in the 100 meters, is gone, as are
200-meter champ Zundra Feagin and Kim Carson, a hurdler. In
March, at the NCAA indoors in Indianapolis, some observers
penciled in LSU for a fifth-place finish. Instead, Texas and
Florida stumbled. LSU, led by its sprinters and by triple jumper
Suzette Lee (who beat her own NCAA record), won again.

"This was a special one because this is a special group," Henry
says. "They didn't listen to what people said, they just did it."

Since then the Lady Tigers have continued to win. At the Penn
Relays in April, LSU's 4x200-meter relay team of Hall, Peta-Gaye
Dowdie, Stroman and Astia Walker clocked 1:31.27, eclipsing the
previous NCAA record--held by LSU. This Lady Tigers squad has
jelled much as the others. Upperclassmen have replaced the
departed sprinters, and newcomers have contributed from the
start. Dowdie and SaDonna Thornton, who ran with her in the
4x100-meter relay at Penn, are both true freshmen.

"The thinking hasn't changed," Hill says. "People say, 'The
experience isn't there,' or 'The streak won't continue.' It's no
different from what we felt. And we still won."

Steve Harrison lives in Florida and covers college basketball
and football for "The Sporting News."

COLOR PHOTO: JENNIFER ABELSON Lee, here in 1996, beat her own triple-jump record at the NCAA indoor championships in March. [Suzette Lee performing triple-jump] COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Henry has been the stabilizing force for the Lady Tigers. [Pat Henry]

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