The new June issue of Running Times includes a column by friend of the blog Parker Morse about Eugene’s success as Track Town USA. He notes lots of different factors; tradition, money, the facility, the community. But it’s how they work together that makes it a special place. He says that track works in Eugene because the atmosphere works to put each individual race and meet into a larger context.
In Eugene, the calendar, the facility, the funding, the community and the tradition all come together to tells stories, to listen to them, and to ask for more…
He’s absolutely right, of course. Most track meets in the USA are little more than a bunch of stuff that happens, rather than part of a larger narrative. Other sports don’t do this; each game in a team sport is part of league or division standings which lead to playoffs which lead to a championship, and each competition in individual sports such as golf or tennis or auto racing is understood within the context of a larger season.
The one place where track and field is hugely successful in this country is in the high schools. Our Toledo City League championship next week is likely to draw as many or more spectators as many major collegiate conference championships will, as will hundreds of other league meets around the country. Our league is nothing special, it’s just that people actually go to high school meets and for the most part they don’t go to college meets.
Why is this? It’s because of that same thing Morse identifies: story-telling. Just about every high school meet keeps score, and you almost never see high school teams split their squads. Championships are pursued, and there are rounds of qualifying to get to everyone’s ultimate goal, the state championship, the biggest stage and highest form of glory the vast majority of high schoolers will ever acheive. Each state does it a little differently, but the basics are universal. And it works really well.
Getting back to Oregon and Eugene, I’d add a couple of observations. First, for about two decades there were very few stories in the media about Eugene’s status as Track Town USA. That period of maintaining its status but not expanding it came to an end with the hiring of Vin Lananna as Oregon’s head track coach.
Track in Eugene has had two visionary leaders, Lananna and Bill Bowerman, each of whom understood how to bring together those things noted by Morse to tell those stories. It’s not that you can’t do these things without a visionary leader, but using the word “leader” means that they show the rest of us the direction to go. For example, the NFL has continued its success after the exit of Pete Rozelle, but it’s hard to imagine the modern NFL without seeing where Rozelle led it. Eugene was still a special place after Bowerman’s exit, but without strong leadership there was little new going on.
Secondly, in Eugene the relationship between that leader and the community is not one-sided. There is a sense of responsibility to the community from the teams and athletes. And that is so unusual in college track as to possibly be unique.
Here’s what I mean. There are lots of college twilight meets around the country this weekend, being used as senior nights and final tuneups for next week’s conference championships. Pretty much all of them are fairly dull affairs, as the home teams rest their top athletes. But not at Oregon. Football star LaMichael James ran the 100; freshman half-miler Boru Goyota won the 1500; and Matt Centrowitz, Michael Berry, Elijah Greer and AJ Acosta teamed up to run a distance medley against the Oregon Track Club, running faster than this year’s winners at both Penn and Drake.
Those are pretty much all the headline names for the Ducks’ men’s team, and they didn’t just run easy and wave to the crowd. They used up a bit of gas they’ll need for next week’s Pac-10 Championships, where they have a shot at winning but with little margin for error. But you don’t get 6,251 people to come to a track meet on a rainy night unless they’ve come expect to see a show. The Ducks rarely if ever disappoint their fans.
It’s other little things too. There are more college teams than you’d expect that split their squads while hosting a home meet, sending some of their stars away from the home crowd, but Oregon never does this. There are the “Tuesdays in Track Town” public forums. And on an on. Oregon has a fan base in no small part because they take care of that fan base.
How many other college track programs include the needs of the spectators as part of the decision-making process? I’d say none. And they might say “well, Oregon is different, they have fans and we don’t”. Which is putting the horse before the cart. If your goal is to win a championship regardless of whether anyone sees it or cares, you might achieve that goal, but it will happen in a vacuum. Oregon’s goal is to have a first-class track program–which includes a fan base and community support–and then let the championships come as a result of the overall quality. In terms of championships, they’re still a bit behind what Texas A&M and LSU and Florida State and Tennessee have done. But when you look at the big picture, they’re beating the pants off every other college track program in the country.