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January 18, 2018

When Was the Best Time to be a Track Fan?

Jesse Squire’s Thursday Morning College Trackstravaganza and Field Frenzy runs every Thursday morning at Citius Mag. You can follow him on Twitter at @tracksuperfan.

I do a lot of historical research into track and field. Often I pause and wonder what it was like to be a track fan at whatever particular time I’m looking at. That naturally leads to a question: when was the best time to be a track fan?

The natural response is to think “a long time ago”. Track and field’s position among spectator sports has been in more or less constant decline for decades. I guess it peaked somewhere between the two World Wars or maybe even earlier than that.

In another sense the answer might be “right now”. Think about this: you can see live video of virtually any major meet anywhere in the world. You can follow live results of basically any meet anywhere in the world. These are facts of modern life.

So when did those two trend lines intersect? When was the sport still popular, yet media technology sufficiently advanced to take good advantage of that popularity? I think the answer is the first half of the 1970s.

Whereas these days we have basically three major indoor invitationals in North America, in 1973 there were nineteen major indoor invitationals meets. The AAU Championships in Madison Square Garden drew more than 15,000 fans (oddly enough, the attendance at the indoor nationals was virtually always more than at the outdoor nationals). And 1973 saw the start of the International Track Association, a pro tour that signed many top stars from the ’72 Olympics and barnstormed through the USA to crowds of 10,000 or more. All of this meant that by the mid-70s there was at least one major meet every weekend from January through June, and often two or three. Sometimes a top miler would race on one coast on Friday night and the other coast on Saturday night.

There was widespread coverage of track and field in sports media, and track’s own niche media was expanding. Under managing editor Dick Drake, Track and Field News went from the small black and white monthly magazine it had been in the 1950s and 60s to its 70s status as a full-color glossy publication that went out twice a month during the peak domestic season.

Attention to distance running was emerging too. By the mid-70s its public image transformed from an obscure pastime for mental deficients to a hip new thing. Distance Running News had been home-published in Kansas in the 1960s, but moved to California in 1969, changed its name to Runner’s World, and greatly expanded its features on and interviews of the USA’s and world’s leading runners.

Television coverage of track and field was broader and better than you’d expect for its time. Starting in 1970 a series of ten track meets were broadcast each year on CBS. The announcing and production were pretty good too – they were done by that same Dick Drake who transformed TFN.

It was not all days of wine and roses, though. Women’s competition almost didn’t exist at all. The amateur code meant that few athletes hung on past college. An awful lot of facilities were still fairly primitive. But track and field and “Olympic style” competition were strong enough in the public eye to inspire things like Battle of the Network Stars, which I believe to be the single best example of 70s schlock in all its glory.

LAST WEEK’S MEDAL WINNERS

Handing out medals for the best of the week in college track…

Gold – Trey Culver
Texas A&M’s two-time NCAA high jump champion competed for the first time since last summer’s USA Championships and jumped out of his gourd. Coming into the meet his PR was 2.26 meters (7′ 5″). Culver beat that on his first attempt at 2.27, then cleared his first attempt at 2.30, and his first attempt at 2.33 (7′ 7¾”). Jumpers usually stop PRing three times in a row when they get out of junior high. It’s the highest indoor jump in college track since Indiana’s Derek Drouin cleared 2.35 at the 2013 NCAA Championships. He even got a shout-out on ESPN’s SportsCenter from John Anderson, a former college high jumper himself.

Silver – Wolverine Invitational
1,724 fans came to an early-season track meet. That’s a big deal. Arkansas deserves recognition too as they reported a turnout of 1,353 to their invitational.

Bronze – Illinois State Finally Gets a Win
Illinois State and Indiana State have been running an annual indoor dual meet for fourteen years now. The Coughlin-Malloy Cup is awarded based on total men’s and women’s scores, and Illinois State won for the first time since 2006. All it takes to be a hero in a dual meet is to blow up the formchart, and this time that unlikely hero was the Redbird pole vaulter Ariana Cranston.

HIS EARTHLY RACE IS OVER

Keith Jackson died on Saturday. He is best remembered as the exuberant and avuncular voice of college football, the man who first called the Rose Bowl “the granddaddy of them all” and Michigan Stadium “the big house”. But he did a lot more than that. He announced baseball, basketball, golf, boxing, and motor sports, and covered news including the 1964 Republican National Committee. He was a regular on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and five of Olympiads’ worth of ABC broadcasts, including track and field play-by-play in 1976. The first game he ever announced was the 1952 Stanford-Washington State game starring Bob Mathias, who had won his second Olympic decathlon just a few months earlier. My earliest memory of Jackson’s voice was for a different kind of track racing: Eric Heiden’s five speed skating victories at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Was he the greatest announcer of all time? I think an argument could be made for it, although “greatest” is a matter of personal preference. I grew up near Detroit in the 70s and 80s so in my mind no one can surpass Ernie Harwell. But he, Jackson, Vin Scully, Dick Enberg, and others of their age were all of the same type. They had beautiful voices and understood how to pause and let the sound of the sport filter through. None of them earned their stripes as athletes, rather they started their broadcast careers in their 20s and most perfected their craft on the radio, where sound is the only medium. One by one they have left us, and I doubt we’ll ever hear their kind again.

WHAT2WATCH THIS WEEKEND

My completely unscientific ranking of the meets to see this weekend, rated for sheer watchability on a scale of one to three dip finishes.

Three Dips: Simmons-Harvey Quadrangular
The second meet at Michigan’s new indoor track is a four-way scored meet between the hosts, a formidable national-level team (Arkansas) and two hated rivals (Ohio State and Michigan State). Three of the four men’s teams appear in the TFN dual meet rankings, while all four of the women’s teams are ranked. This should be fun to watch.

Three Dips: Texas A&M Quadrangular
Texas A&M hosts Arizona State, Baylor, and Texas. Longhorns versus Aggies is bloodsport.

Two Dips: Larry Wieczorek Invitational
Iowa’s second annual Wieczorek Invitational brings in a number of top collegiate teams such as LSU and Florida State, but a nice bonus is the thirty-two pro athletes who will also be competing. My pick for the single best race on the schedule? The “premiere” sections of the women’s 200 meters, where the Hawkeye’s own Brittany Brown will go against LSU’s Mikiah Brisco and Aleia Hobbs.

Two Dips: Mark Colligan Memorial
Nebraska hosts Kansas, Illinois, and Houston. Again, many of these teams appear in the TFN dual meet rankings, which I compile.

How do those rankings work? They’re a bit different than the USTFCCCA national team rankings. Those rankings seek to estimate scoring potential at the national championships, and at this point of the season they are compiled using marks from this season and previous seasons.

The dual meet rankings are based both on marks and actual meet results, and use marks from this year only. The rankings say:
To be ranked, a team must compete in one or more dual meets (defined as a scored meet between four or fewer teams) during the indoor season. Teams are ranked on wins and losses, marks, and strength and depth of dual meet schedule, and are rewarded for taking dual meet competition seriously.

The key difference between being a good team at the national championships and a good team in a dual meet is balance, meaning being decently competitive across most or all events. Scoring well at a national meet requires being able to pile up big points, and finishing 1st and 2nd in a single event will do that for you. Going 1-2 in single event in a dual meet won’t pile up a lot of points, and in fact it’s better to split up those athletes and get two separate wins.

The other thing that makes the dual meet rankings different from the USTFCCCA national rankings is that winning matters. If you think your team is ranked too low, all they have to do is go out and win a meet.

One Dip: Akron at Kent State
If you’re noticing a pattern here you’re right. It’s still early in the season and dual/tri/quad meets were part of early-season buildups back in the day and they’re regaining popularity now too. This might be Kent State’s best chance at beating Akron in a while.

One Dip: Air Force Team Challenge
This is another quadrangular, featuring the host Falcons plus BYU, Colorado State, and Wichita State. That’s three traditional rivals from the old WAC.

BAD MOVIE OF THE WEEK

Yes, I know I said Battle of the Network Starswas the single best example of 70s schlock in all its glory, but that’s one kind of schlock. Another kind is best exemplified by Satan’s Cheerleaders.

It is as bad as it sounds. Horrorview.com says “This is, perhaps, the worst movie I have ever seen.” Horrornews.net says it delivers sleaze and “does it with all the panache Dominos brings to the art of pizza.”

Plot? There’s sort of one. You’ve got your basic mean girl cheerleaders with B-movie trashiness. You’ve got your high school football “team” – how do they actually play football when you never see more than five of them on screen? You’ve got your creepy high school janitor who is a covert Satanist. You’ve got appearances by Yvonne DeCarlo (The Munsters) and David Carradine (Kung Fu). You’ve got your local sherrif named B.L.Z. Bubb (seriously) conspiring with DeCarlo to force these cheerleaders into Satanic rituals. And all of it is horribly written and acted. Awful! Awful! Couldn’t be worse!

Enjoy the meets!

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