Beaver Power, by Dan Kaplan
This article appears unedited, as submitted to Northwest Runner Magazine in December, 1997. The published version contains minor changes.
Note 1: For 2004-05, OSU has reinstated a Women's Distance program at the Pac-10 level.
Note 2: In June of 2011, ground breaking took place for a new track facility, a mere stone's throw from the old track which was torn up in ~2000. Fundraising continues for rounding out the other event areas and eventually adding a Men's program. For up-to-date fundraising efforts, contact Doug Oxsen, OSU Foundation, 850 SW 35th St, Corvallis, OR 97333.
"BACK IN THE RACE," the battle cry ringing throughout the Pacific Northwest. Yes, Cross Country and Track & Field are back at Oregon State University. At least in theory. Much has changed since the glory days of OSU athletics, but for better or worse, some things remain the same.
Before coming to OSU in 1994, I was unaware of the splendid history of the school's Cross Country and Track & Field programs. Unfortunately, I think this is true of many people my age. Ask the average sports fan what is the only team sport in which Oregon State University has won an NCAA Div.1 championship. Okay, anyone reading this article is probably more knowledgeable than average and is aware that it was the Cross Country team of 1961. I would not have known this three years ago. I knew the program had been cut in the late 1980's. But my impression was that it was not that great of a loss, as the teams were never in the news much anyway. After all, University of Oregon is the only noteworthy athletics program in the state, right? Well, I am happy to say that I am now much more familiar with and impassioned by the history of Oregon State CC/TF. At the same time, I am saddened to see how much things have deteriorated.
Even in times of heavy dual-meet schedules, most track programs molded their teams into distinctive strengths and weaknesses. Few were strong across the board. Although Oregon State does not have a reputation as a distance running school, this very nearly was not the case. Two of the all-time great American distance runners nearly became Beavers. Jim Ryun had signed a Pac-8 letter of intent with OSU coach Bob Timmons, who had just taken the position vacated by Sam Bell. However, Timmons left after four days to take the head job at his alma mater, Kansas, and was followed east by Ryun. Berny Wagner replaced Timmons and began the recruiting process anew. In fact, his highly successful first recruiting trip consisted of the drive up from California!
Although Steve Prefontaine clearly desired to go to Oregon, Oregon State was reportedly a strong second choice. Maybe just as well. The 1972 Prefontaine vs. Hailu Ebba epic 1500m battle would go down as one of the best of Pre's spectacular career. Ebba, just a sophomore, had shown dramatic improvement – so much so that he was not recruited by any colleges after finishing high school on exchange in California. He had made quite a name for himself by the time of the showdown. It was believed that Ebba would run the 800m and Pre the 1500m. But when Ebba was seen warming up for the 1500m, Oregon's Rick Ritchie was thrown in to shake up the pace. And that he did, setting an opening lap of 57 seconds. Things settled in at 60's for the next two laps, before Pre and Ebba battled it out down the stretch. They fought so hard, with Ebba being forced out into lane 3, that OSU's Keith Munson (third in the 1971 NCAA mile) and Chris Carey probably would have taken the win had the race been 100m longer. It took a personal best of 3:39.8 for Pre to eke out the win and cement a classic rivalry. Ebba would go on to run a school record 3:57.8 mile in 1973. Ryun and Pre may have slipped away, but the Beaver's team depth could not be denied and it led to many national caliber distance squads.
It was in the jumps, throws, and sprints that Oregon State individuals shone the brightest. OSU's superb high jump history is well deserved, beyond just the legendary "Fosbury Flop." In 1973, Track and Field News reported that John Radetich, Tom Woods, and Dick Fosbury, all Oregon Staters, accounted for four of the six best ever American high jump marks. The two remaining top-six marks came from Pat Matzdorf, the world record holder at the time. Despite the many stellar individuals, it was the team balance that was most evident. As written by Jerry Uhrhammer of the Eugene Register-Guard in 1969, "Early in the week, Oregon's Bill Bowerman said flatly that Oregon State had the best balance of any track and field team in the Northwest. And this balance – plus some outright strengths – were painfully evident to Bowerman's Oregon Ducks Saturday as the Beavers rolled to a 91-63 dual meet victory before 5,336 spectators at Bell Field in Corvallis. Thus, Oregon State finished the Pac-8 dual meet season undefeated – and with a second consecutive dual meet win over Oregon."
Hardly surprising that Bill Bowerman recently proclaimed, "It's unthinkable that a major university in the state of Oregon would not have a Track and Field program. Join me in correcting this omission." Indeed, Bowerman has been the biggest financial supporter of reviving OSU Track. It seems odd that Bowerman would assist his former rival. However, it is widely regarded that U of O Track suffered significantly due to the loss of the natural in-state rivalry.
The last race held at Oregon State was probably the most symbolic of all. In 1988, Karl Van Calcar would cap off a dominating collegiate career with a wire-to-wire win in the steeplechase, becoming the last Beaver NCAA track champion. The final home meet of the season was against Washington State, and Van Calcar's father wanted Karl to run a sub-4 minute mile. His coaches thought he was capable of 4:03, but they underestimated his great drive. After notifying WSU that there would be a rabbit in the race, Van Calcar went on to run a 3:59 with a solo effort on the final lap. Yes, the last race held at Patrick Wayne Valley Field was a sub-4 mile. Just as significant is the fact that only two schools (the other being Nevada-Reno) have ever cut track the year after having an individual NCAA champ.
Probably the most difficult question to get a consistent answer, to even more so than, "When will OSU Track be back?" is, "Why was the program cut?" In 1988, amidst OSU Athletic Director Lynn Snyder's dreams of hosting World Cup Soccer in Parker Stadium, it was decided that arguably the most successful sport the school had ever fielded was simply too much of a burden. It made perfect sense at the time to cut a track program for which a terrific facility existed in order to save $267,000 per year (this included cross country, indoor, and outdoor track). Not to mention the $60,000 that had been spent the previous year resurfacing all of the jumps and throws runways for hosting the Pac-10 championship meet. The sport that would replace track – club soccer, without a facility, and at a cost of $50,000 per year. It should be noted that as recently as two years ago Snyder recommended cutting back the very successful track program while serving as a consultant at Linfield College. Is running really such a loathsome occupation?
In 1993, a handful of OSU students decided the time had come and they organized the OSU Cross-Country/Track Club. Initially, the club consisted mostly of distance runners; ironic considering the school's history. The club became an officially recognized Oregon State sport club for the 1995 track season and steadily became a more balanced squad. In the three years since, the amount of support and interest the club has received from young and old alike at cross country and track meets has been truly amazing. Generous uniform and equipment donations from the likes of Nike, UCS, Oregon Track Equipment, and Stackhouse Athletic Equipment have helped get the club up and running.
Looking at the OSU track at Patrick Wayne Valley Field today, one would never guess it was once a world-class facility. When the track is not being used as a parking lot for football games, it is visibly quite patchy and worn to the point of looking cracked and weed infested. The infield tends to be very overgrown and often hangs out into lane 1, and a sinkhole has been encountered in lane 8! It seems that the only time the track's appearance is enough of a priority to justify maintenance is when the corporate tent area is in use for football games. Go figure.
It is no secret that the club has had difficulties in dealing with the Athletic Department, albeit a different Athletic Department than that which originally cut the program. In the Fall of 1994, we were quite alarmed to learn that the track was being used as a parking lot for football games. As one club member proclaimed in a flash of enlightenment, "Make OSU Track a reality, not a parking lot!" Granted, the track facility is the Athletic Department's to do with as it likes. But the historical context of the facility – the oldest permanent 400m track in the country – should not be so lightly disregarded. This apathetic misuse of a once-proud facility is quite simply inexcusable.
Although this sounds a lot like merely complaining about past grievances, the intent is to demonstrate the attitude which the Athletic Department has shown toward the facility. The obvious question – what could they possibly do for an encore? The often mysterious thought process of the OSU Athletic Department has arrived at the conclusion that they really need a hotel (for football games) right where the track currently sits. They have had the plan all drawn up for 2 or 3 years now; it's called T-2000. Then this past year they built a new state of the art soccer facility right where the parking lot will go! Apparently they will tear it up too and build another field about 50-100m over. The delay with the original plan was finding a hotel chain interested in this sorry scheme. Unfortunately, several hotels have recently bid for the contract. The bid of one of the leading contenders for the job is to start work in December, 1997.
The original T-2000 plan called for any hotel signing the contract to build a new track before tearing down Patrick Wayne Valley Field. Many people are disconcerted that this clause managed to slip out of the contract. However, assurances have been given that the original agreement will be adhered to, eventually. But until something actually happens, it is only conjecture. Land has been set aside for the new facility, all that is needed is money to begin construction. The strategy is to build a European style track/soccer facility, similar to those under design at UCLA and U of Texas.
To some degree, deconstruction of the track facility has already begun. This past winter, the press box at the track was taken down without warning. Unfortunately, the press box is where the club stored all of its equipment, uniforms, etc., and nobody within the club was informed where everything had been moved to. Much of the equipment made it safely to a "secured" location, but a number of things disappeared and have not since surfaced. We were later informed by members of the Athletic Department that they had planned to take down the press box at least six months before doing so. Even more insulting is that the press box sat in pieces on the ground for the entire spring while Athletics decided what to do with it next. Of course, no one in the Athletic Department would take any responsibility for the club's missing items. Instead it was suggested that someone had broken into the press box in the two days since a club member had last been in there and stole uniform checkout lists but left the uniforms, stole some newly ordered shoes but left others, etc. Never mind that the equipment had been stored there safely for three years and that the club was given full permission to use the facility for storage. It has been very frustrating dealing with that mentality.
Despite these setbacks, the club has achieved considerable success. As reported in the June 7, 1997 McMinnville News Register, "Oregon State University moved closer to reviving its Track & Field program today as the OSU Track club won the Oregon Open championship meet of USA Track & Field here at Linfield Stadium." Club comprised teams have been victorious in either the overall or mixed-open divisions of the Civil War Relay between Eugene and Corvallis the past two years. Also, there have been numerous team and individual victories. Individual member highlights include the NAIA women's marathon national champion, four men between 14:23 and 14:48 for 5k, an indoor age-group world record holder in the women's 400m, two Penn Relays participants, a 4:44 for the women's 1500 by a freshman in only her second attempt at the distance, and a third place overall finish in this year's Portland Marathon for a marathon debut.
This year is a year of transition as many club members have graduated and have been replaced by our largest group of newcomers. In fact, it could be referred to as the club's best recruiting class ever. Consisting of a mix of freshmen, transfers, and graduate students, these new members have been very successful athletes in the past and plan to continue that success at OSU while carrying the club to new heights. University of Oregon graduate Chad Schacht has been hired as the full time coach to help maximize potential and growth. Former Oregon State coach Neil Webber has volunteered his coaching expertise over the past three years, as have several other OSU alumni. These generous contributions are greatly appreciated for what they provide – a sense of direction that is the cornerstone of the club's success. Support has also come from outside of the club. Oregon State University President Risser and interim A.D. Lee Schroeder are in favor of reviving the program. Other OSU head coaches, most notably for football and men's basketball, have also spoken in support of the endeavor. Add to that the untiring work that has been put in by people such as Berny Wagner, and there is indeed reason for hope. We're back in the race.
"When you think of all the Olympians, the national champions and even – especially – the athletes who just trained and competed, there's a history there. It's something we should all be proud of – too proud of to let it go."
- Sam Bell, OSU Track Coach, 1959-65
If you are interested in contributing to either the club or intercollegiate effort, be it financially or volunteering time, please contact:
OSU Cross-Country/Track Club|
204 Dixon Rec Center
Corvallis, OR 97331-301
517 Snell Hall
Corvallis, OR 97331-1653
'Restricted to Track & Field'
(for donations to non-Club only)
Special thanks to Neil Webber, Berny Wagner, and OSU Archives for historical input.