There’s a lot of talk recently about college dual meets, and how getting away from a dual-heavy schedule has been a very bad thing for college track. The Oregonian’s Ken Goe, one of the very last daily newspaper writers who covers track, is always talking them up. Track and Field News recently ran an online editorial lamenting their demise.
Over the last few days I’ve been doing some research on the “good old days” of college dual meets, and I’ve come to an interesting and unexpected conclusion: without dual meets, Steve Prefontaine would never have become the legendary Pre, the man beloved by Oregonians like few other sports stars (and rediscovered by Nike a decade ago, to their great profit).
The biggest problem with track at any level beyond high school is that we just don’t get to see the athletes compete much. The only sports whose stars compete less than tracksters are boxers and racehorses–not good company to be in, considering that those two were once among the most popular sports and now are nearly invisible.
But back in the era of Prefontaine, we did not have this problem. Oregon competed every weekend, as did most other college teams. Since most of the competitions featured only two or three teams, about half of the meets were at home.
Here are Pre’s race results from his four years of collegiate competition. Oregon home meets are in bold.
|3/21- won 2 mile at Stanford/Fresno St tri-meet||3/20- won 2-mile at home quad meet|
|3/28- won 3 mile at UTEP dual||3/27- won mile at San Diego State dual|
|4/04- won mile/2-mile double at Washington dual||4/03- won 3-mile vs Stanford|
|4/11- won mile/2-mile double vs UCLA||4/10- won mile/2-mile double vs Washington|
|4/18- won 3-mile at Cal dual||4/17- won 3-mile vs Cal|
|4/25- won 3-mile vs Washington State||4/24- won mile at UCLA dual|
|5/02- won mile vs Oregon State||5/08- won 2-mile at Oregon State dual|
|5/09- won 3-mile at Pac-8 Northern Division||5/15- won 2-mile at Pac-8 Northern Division|
|5/16- won 3-mile at Pac-8 Championships||5/22- won mile/2-mile double at Pac-8 Championships|
|6/05- 3rd in mile at Oregon Twilight||6/06- 2nd in mile at Oregon Twilight|
|6/20- won 3-mile at NCAA Championships||6/19- won 3-mile at NCAA Championships|
|3/18- won 2-mile at Fresno State dual||3/17- won 2000 at home all-comers|
|3/25- won 6-mile at Bakersfield all-comers||3/24- won 6-mile at Bakersfield all-comers|
|4/01- won 2-mile at Oregon Invitational||3/31- won 2-mile at Oregon Invitational|
|4/08- won mile at Washington dual||4/07- won mile vs Washington|
|4/15- won 2-mile at Nebraska dual||4/14- won mile/3-mile double at home quad meet|
|4/23- won mile at Oregon Twilight||4/27- won mile at Oregon Twilight|
|4/29- won 5000 vs Washington State||5/05- won 3-mile at Oregon State dual|
|5/06- won 1500 vs Oregon State||5/19- won 3-mile at Pac-8 Championships|
|5/20- won 3-mile at Pac-8 Championships||5/29- won 2-mile at home all-comers|
|6/03- won 5000 at NCAA Championships||6/09- won 3-mile at NCAA Championships|
(source: Jordan, Tom (1994). Pre!)
Take a good look at that. Racing week in and week out, with very few weeks off until the championship phase of the season, a lot of them at home, almost all of them wins.
From my perspective, Pre became an Oregon sports hero for a very simple reason. He regularly ran against and beat the Ducks’ most hated rivals, and did it with an attitude. That’s basically what college sports are all about. He’s like
Lew Alcindor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Tommy McDonald — all he did was win.
It’s important to also see the other differences between then and now. Pre never ran an indoor race until his college days were over, and Oregon did barely enough with cross country to be ready for nationals. But this also means that Oregon track fit in with the changing of the sports seasons, and never competed with football or basketball for attention. He didn’t run that many more races than athletes do now, but his were in a more compressed time frame.
In any case, it was about competition against rivals. We don’t do track this way anymore. We don’t compete week in and week out. We don’t make winning the most important thing (let alone the only thing). No wonder everyone in the rest of the sports world thinks that the only thing more boring than track is field.
Oh, and if you want to cash in on the next Pre, you’re not going to. There won’t be another one. The things that made him are gone.