TRACK TOWN STORY BY CHRIS HANSEN
For years, Eugene Oregon has continued to earn its nickname as “Track Town U.S.A.” thanks to athletes from the past and athletes that uphold the legacy in the present.
in Lananna was a young distance runner at C.W. Post College on Long Island, New York, during the early 1970s. He found himself a little out of place: On the other side of the continent, a track-and-field renaissance was in full swing. Led by mythical University of Oregon head coach Bill Bowerman, iconoclastic runner Steve Prefontaine and a handful of others, a small college town gained a national identity as the running capital of the world. “I was absolutely aware of it,” Lananna remembers. “In particular, distance running was synonymous with Eugene, Oregon. Prefontaine was a benchmark, but there were others, many others, who set that resounding theme that Eugene was Track Town.” Lananna, now in his second season as Oregon’s associate athletic director and director of track and field, is the current caretaker of the Ducks’ men’s program. It’s a program that for decades competed—even in dual meets—before sold-out crowds at historic Hayward Field, a venue that once regularly hosted the sport’s biggest events. “People had their own stopwatches in the stands,” recalls Geoff Hollister, a distance runner under Bowerman through 1966. “And as much as they liked sprint events, they didn’t really get warmed up until you could go two laps or more.” The Ducks won four NCAA men’s track and field titles between 1962 and 1970. The three subsequent Olympic Track & Field Trials—1972, 1976 and 1980—were all held at Hayward Field. Also during this time, Eugene was home to the birth of the national jogging craze. And Bowerman, with his famous waffle-iron shoe soles, joined Phil Knight, another of his former athletes, to found the revolutionary athletic-shoe company Nike. Then there was Prefontaine, who from his freshman track season of 1970 to his shocking death in 1975 captivated the city, the state and the nation with his end-
With the Olympic Trials returning to Eugene in 2012, Hayward Field will again be on the national stage.
less pursuit of greatness. “For spectators in the stands,” Hollister says, “that was one of the greatest times in the history of track and field.”
Bowerman’s “Men of Oregon” Bowerman’s 24-year-run as head coach at Oregon began in 1949. His athletes set 13 world and 22 American records and won 24 individual NCAA titles. Bowerman trained more sub-fourminute milers than anyone at the time, and though he had coached such Olympic distance runners in the mid-1950s as Jim Bailey and Bill Dellinger—who would later replace Bowerman as Oregon coach in 1973—as well as 1960 Olympic 400-meter gold medalist Otis Davis, it wasn’t until 1962 that Bowerman’s “Men of Oregon” really broke through on a national level. During the ‘62 regular season, the Ducks became the first team in 17 years to hand mighty Southern Cal a dual-meet loss—ending a span of 129 straight victories for the Trojans. Oregon then capped its season by winning its first NCAA title—at Hayward Field, no less—behind the individual championship performances of Harry Jerome, one-time world-record holder in the 100 meters; Dyrol Burleson, the great collegiate
miler and two-time Olympian; and hurdler Jerry Tarr. “That ‘62 team is looked upon as one of the greatest track teams ever,” Hollister said. “It was so balanced and the Eugene community really embraced that.” Though USC would return to national glory with an NCAA championship in 1963 (the Ducks placed third), Bowerman quickly restocked his roster. In 1964, with the national meet back at Hayward, the Ducks won their second title behind 13 all-American performances, including individual titles by Jerome in the 100 and Les Tipton in the javelin. Oregon cemented its status as a dynasty a season later when it split the 1965 NCAA crown with USC.
Jogging and the Birth of Nike Bowerman also brought mass appeal to running when, on a trip to New Zealand, he learned about jogging from that country’s renowned Olympic track coach, Arthur Lydiard. Returning to Eugene, convinced that jogging could provide life-long conditioning, Bowerman started a weekly jogging class. A couple dozen students showed up for the first one; that number doubled the second week. In another two weeks, several
thousand people packed Hayward Field, and Bowerman eventually told everyone to go home and run with friends. Joggers soon became part of the scenery throughout the parks and on the streets of Eugene. By 1966, tired of the constant inquiries and interview requests to discuss the local jogging craze, Bowerman wrote a 127-page book titled Jogging. It sold one million copies. “A lot of it had to do with the success of the guys on the track,” says Hollister, who helped coach the local running classes. “But Bill also didn’t leave too much out of the picture. He really thought of everything.” An inventor and innovator, Bowerman developed a method of recycling old athletic shoes into surfaces for tracks. He was always looking for ways to make his runners lighter and faster. Inevitably, that’s why he ended up pouring liquid urethane into his wife’s waffle iron one Sunday morning in 1972, thus creating the model sole for Nike’s breakthrough shoe. “I don’t know if we’re ever going to see another Bowerman,” muses Hollister, one of Nike’s original employees. Bowerman, who died on Christmas Eve 1999 at age 88, retired from college coaching in 1973 to concentrate on raising money for a renovation of aging Hayward Field. Before he left, however, he won another national title in 1970, was head coach of the Olympic track-and-field team in Munich in 1972, and got a chance to coach the most notable athlete to ever put on an Oregon uniform—Prefontaine.
The Legend of Pre “Bowerman had people who were exciting to watch, but certainly it was the middleand long-distance runners that were the fan favorites,” says Tom Jordan, the annual Prefontaine Classic meet director who covered Pre’s final years in Eugene as a reporter for Track & Field News. He then penned Pre’s biography after his death. “Bowerman was the one who really established track and field as a popular sport, and then Pre was the one who brought something to it that no one else had.” When Pre died on May 30, 1975, at the age of 24 in a car accident on Eugene’s Skyline Drive, he owned eight American distance records. He also held eight collegiate records while at Oregon—and still holds the top NCAA mark in both the three- and six-mile. He never lost a race longer than a
Steve Prefontaine never lost a race longer than one mile at Hayward Field.
Pre took news that would be headline news in the state of Oregon and made it national.
mile when competing as a Duck. At the ‘72 Olympics, in a memorable 5,000-meter race won by Finland’s Lasse Viren, the 21-year-old Pre was passed by Ian Stewart of Great Britain with less than 10 meters to go. Pre finished fourth, just out of medal contention. Everything Pre did, he did with flare. “He had this flamboyance and [Muhammad] Ali-like personality,” Jordan recalls. “He’d say he was going to do something and then he’d go out and do it. Pre was the first one to take a victory lap. He was a showman. He ramped it up a notch.” Adds Hollister: “Pre took news that would be headline news in the state of Oregon and made it national.” With that national attention, the reputation of Eugene continued to grow. “Maybe even more significant was that this was the only town then that cared whether it was Track Town, USA,” Jordan says. “That’s the reason I moved here. That legacy was established.” It’s also a legacy, Jordan says, that went global long ago. “If you went to, say, Romania, and you said ‘Eugene, Oregon,’ if they’ve ever heard of it, it’s because of track and field,” Jordan says.
Bringing Back the Program Here is some shoes at the track field. So incredibly cool!
We’re going back to see what was going on here, what made Eugene ‘Track Town’.
That is how Lananna wants to keep it. He’s worked tirelessly in his short time at Oregon to rekindle the passion and excitement for track that once filled Hayward Field. With his help, Eugene landed the 2008 Olympic Trials, which will be held at Hayward Field for the first time since 1980. “We’re going back to see what was going on here, what made Eugene ‘Track Town,’” Lananna says. “It was everybody running, it was a community of runners ... and this community and this city embraced track and field and really carried it for decades. “I’m not sure the magic that was here during the heyday of Oregon track and field necessarily went anywhere. I think, in many ways, it’s been tucked away in the memories and minds of those who sat in Hayward Field during the days Bowerman was here.” And what days those were.