The Biggest Upsets in NCAA Track And Field History (Plus the Weekend’s Best Matchups)

By Jesse Squire

March 22, 2018

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

The NCAA basketball tournament’s Sweet 16 kicks off later today, and last weekend’s first and second rounds saw plenty of upsets. The biggest of those upsets was #16 UMBC beating #1 Virginia, the first time a 16-seed won in 136 tries.

Naturally, we at CITIUS MAG began to think about the biggest upsets in the history of college track and field. Here are eight that sprung to mind for me, spanning a variety of eras, events, and types of competition.

2011 NCAA Outdoor Championships: Trecey Rew, Northwestern State

Arizona State’s Anna Jelmini was the overwhelming favorite for the 2011 NCAA championships women’s discus throw. Her only losses that year were to post-collegiate pros, three-time Olympian Suzy Powell and then-Olympic champion Stephanie Brown Trafton. She had thrown over 60 meters five times that year while the best anyone else had hit was 59.04. Despite being a freshman, she was about as close to a lock as there was in the meet. Northwestern State’s Trecey Rew was #9 on the 2011 collegiate list and was left off Track and Field News’ premeet formchart.

At the NCAAs, Jelmini took the lead on her first attempt as expected, while Rew went to fourth with a near-PR, then up to second in the second round with a 35cm (13”) PR. The positions held until the fourth round, when Tennessee’s Annie Alexander overtook first. Jelmini retook first in the fifth round while Rew moved back to second with another PR, this time by a whopping 1.45 meters (4’ 9”). On the second-to-last throw of the meet, Rew again unleashed a PR throw: 58.64 meters, more than 2 feet further than her 10-minute-old PR and more than 15 feet beyond her pre-meet PR – and more importantly, it put her in first for good. Jelmini responded with her best throw of the day but it was not enough for the win.

2000 Penn Relays: U Conn Huskies

In the 1990s, Arkansas distance runners were about as reliable as death and taxes. They the heart of teams that won 24 of a possible 30 NCAA championships in outdoor track, indoor track, and cross country. Coach John McDonnell took the Penn Relays very seriously and Arkansas amassed 35 wins in the 4 x Mile and Distance Medley Championships of America, including 7 DMR Championships during the 90s. That distance medley is considered THE race to win at Penn.

One would assume more of the same in 2000, when Arkansas anchored with All-American miler Sharif Karie. UConn countered with sophomore Dan Wilson, who was then two years away from scoring at the NCAAs (one point, in the 2002 indoor mile). And the Huskies had never won a championship in the previous 105 editions of the Penn Relays. Underdogs? You bet. Track and Field News set the action:

With Stanford skipping Penn in favor of Drake, Arkansas was a prohibitive favorite in the men’s distance medley. Ryan Travis (2:54.1) gave Arkansas the early lead, but a strong 800 leg by Connecticut’s Elliot Blount (1:47.6) tightened up the race. Anchoring for Arkansas, Sharif Karie set a painfully slow pace (2:06.5), which left eight teams in contention with a lap to go…

Wilson got in front, Karie got boxed in and then came storming back. The UConn anchor held on by just 0.03 seconds and the Huskies had their first-ever championship at Penn, and in the biggest race of the weekend.

“I told my assistant recently that I didn’t know which is bigger, winning the N.C.A.A. title or the distance medley championship at the Penn Relays,” head coach Greg Roy said. “I grew up in East Brunswick, N.J., and went to my first Penn Relays when I was 14. To win here is a boyhood dream come true.”

1991 NCAA Indoor Championships: Jennifer Lanctot, Boston University

Villanova’s Sonia O’Sullivan was one of the greatest collegiate runners of all time, and flat-out the greatest Irish runner of all time. This was her senior year and she was going for a mile/5k double. She got through Friday just fine, qualifying to the mile finals and then winning the 5000, the event in which she held the world indoor record, with relative ease.

Jennifer Lanctot clearly had running talent, but injuries held her back. She had plantar fasciitis in both feet, culminating in surgery in 1989. She managed to qualify to the NCAA 1500 in the spring of 1990 and finished 33rd in the NCAA cross country that fall, 56 seconds behind O’Sullivan’s winning effort.

O’Sullivan led most of the way in Saturday’s mile final, then didn’t have the next gear over the last 400 meters. Cornell’s Stephanie Best and BU’s Lanctot did, both closing in 64.1 seconds. Lanctot ended up in front by about a foot, winning by a mere 0.01 seconds.

1986 NCAA Outdoor Championships: Karen Bakewell, Miami

Not that Miami, the other Miami. We’re talking upsets here. This was a massive shocker because Bakewell didn’t take up the 800 until three months before the championships, and that was a right after taking a year off of school and running. She was tenth on TFN’s pre-meet formcharts, and the NCAA final was just the sixth time she had ever run the 800 meters. From the Bible of the Sport itself:
Sometimes, if you don’t come from a big name track school, you don’t get no respect….

“After a 1:28 time trial for 600 in late May, we decided how she would run the NCAA,” revealed [head coach Rich] Ceronie. “Instead of letting someone else pull away at 500 meters, Karen was just going to go for broke.”

Go for broke is what she did, never letting anyone else lead a step of the race after the break. A 2:00.85 made her the #5 collegian of all time [and broke the meet record].

1973 NCAA Indoor Championships: Manhattan Jaspers

This was such an upset that Runner’s World ran a 40th anniversary article about it in 2013. The tiny 22-acre, 2,800-student college in the Bronx won the national indoor championships. The article describes how difficult it was to train hard in a New York winter, especially when the campus had zero facilities of its own. Despite dominating the IC4A Indoor Championships, the Jaspers went to Detroit’s Cobo Hall for the NCAAs not so much as underdogs as mostly ignored.

The scoring got started on Friday when Ken Mcbride took third in the triple jump on his final attempt, and then Mike Keogh outran Bowling Green’s Dave Wottle to win the 2-mile (Bowling Green is my alma mater, and my Falcons came one point away from pulling off a similar upset the year before).

On Saturday the Jaspers not only won the distance medley but broke the world indoor record. They finished off the scoring with a third by Cliff Bruce in the 1000 yards. Scoring was 6-4-3-2-1 in those days and Manhattan’s 18 points put them 6 points clear of the field.

Head coach Fred Dwyer stayed at Manhattan until retiring in 1993. His assistant, Frank “Gags” Gagliano, left to take jobs at Rutgers (1974) and Georgetown (1984) and at age 81 now coaches the New Jersey-New York Track Club.

1964 NCAA Cross Country Championships: Western Michigan Broncos

This is the biggest upset ever, and for good reason.

The Western Michigan Broncos came into the meet as just another team. If there had been a coaches’ poll back then, they wouldn’t have been in the top ten and maybe not even in the top fifteen. They hadn’t won their megaconference, the Central Collegiates, finishing second to Notre Dame. They hadn’t won their conference, the Mid-American, finishing second to Ohio U. They hadn’t won their major invitational, the Notre Dame Invitational, finishing second to the hosts.

Depending on who you asked, the favorites were either Oregon (the best in the west and the ’63 runners-up), Notre Dame (the CCC champions), or Georgetown (the IC4A champions). Western Michigan wasn’t exactly an unknown quantity – they’d finished a respectable 5th at the 1961 NCAA track & field championships and beat Michigan, the Big Ten champs, in a dual that same year – but this was not expected to be the Broncos’ year.

What Western Michigan did have was a secret weapon in Mike Gallagher. The talented but unpredictable junior from Toledo, Ohio, had barely run over the summer and spent the fall rounding into shape. Bronco assistant coach Bob Parks convinced head coach George Dales to put Gallagher on the team for the NCAAs. It paid off and then some: Gallagher was 7th overall, and that pushed Western Michigan to a 30-point win over an Oregon team led by future Sports Illustrated writer Kenny Moore.

The result was every nerdy distance runner’s dream: the cross country team supplanted the football team at the front of the WMU yearbook’s athletics section.

1945 Quadrangular: CalTech beats USC, UCLA, and Cal

Yes, that’s right. CalTech beat the west coast’s major powers in a track meet. The world’s top research university, whose alumni have won 35 Nobel Prizes and whose athletic teams have set records for futility, beat USC, the track team that won 16 NCAA Championships between 1935 and 1955.

It was on May 12, 1945, when CalTech swept a quadrangular over USC, Cal, and UCLA. It was payback for the Engineers for a dual four weeks earlier when USC came out ahead by a scant one-third of a point, 65⅔-65⅓.

How did this happen? It was 1945 and World War II turned college athletics on its ear. Most physically fit men between ages 18 and 23 were in military service and the traditional powers were keeping their sports alive on skeletion crews. But CalTech, the great engineering college, lost fewer of their students in part because the kind of classroom work they were doing was essential for the war effort.

Still, this was USC. Aside from the war years, the Trojans didn’t lose to another college team between 1935 and 1955 in any kind of meet, be it dual, conference, or the NCAAs. The best comparison in modern college sports is UConn women’s basketball. This is the equivalent of those Huskies losing to Doonesbury‘s fictional Walden College.

1933 NCAA Championships: LSU Tigers

LSU is not an underdog in anything these days, but 1933 was a different time. I mean, this was the era of Huey Long, who has been dead for 83 years.

LSU took ten athletes to the NCAAs. They and all their luggage and equipment — including javelins and vaulting poles — traveled in two cars from Baton Rouge to Chicago. President Roosevelt had declared a bank holiday, which froze most accounts in Baton Rouge, but the team raised enough cash to travel. “We looked like an advertisement for [the movie] The Grapes of Wrath,” pole vaulter Matt Gordy later recalled. It took them four days to get from Louisiana to Chicago, where the meet was to be held.
Favored USC had no shortage of funds, and sent a much larger squad via private railway car complete with their own porter.

LSU may have been an underdog but they had some stars. The biggest was Glenn “Slats” Hardin, the 1932 Olympic 400 meter hurdles champion. Unfortunately for the Bayou Bengals, that event was not part of NCAA competition in 1933. Instead he won a 440 yard / 220 hurdle double. Team captain Al Moreau added eight more points with a runner-up finish in the 120 high hurdles out of lane 8, and another point from his sixth in the 220 low hurdles. “Baby Jack” Torrance made the most of his first appearance at the NCAAs with a win and meet record in the shot put plus a third in the discus. Nathan Blair scored fourth in the discus. All of this added up to 49 points.

USC countered with fourth and fifth in the 100 yards, fourth in the 220, third and sixth in the 440, fourth in the 880, third in the low hurdles, a tie for first in the high jump by Olympic champion Duncan McNaughton, second in the shot, and sixth in the javelin. That added up to 45 points.

As is often the case, the last event to be resolved in the meet was the pole vault. USC had Bill Graber, who had set the world record at the 1932 Olympic trials (14′ ​4⅜” / 4.37m). LSU had Matt Gordy, whose career best was just 13′ 4″ (4.06). At 13′ 11″ (4.24) he was still in the competition but had to clear the height to assure LSU’s win. He made it on his third attempt, tied Graber, and LSU held on for the win.

LSU’s victory was the first time in ten years that a southern team even finished in the top ten. No southern team would win again until Tennessee in 1974.


These are the competitions you should be talking about this weekend…


Team standings, World Half Marathon Championships
Valencia, Spain
Saturday, 5:05 and 5:30pm local time (12:05 and 12:30pm ET)

Event website
Webcast on NBC Sports Gold from 11:30am ET

Kenya’s Geoffrey Kamworwor is a strong favorite to win the men’s individual gold medal. It would be his third in a row. He’s also the two-time defending World Cross Country Champion. In other words, these kinds of long-distance off-track races are his specialty. Kenya had two last-minute withdrawals from their women’s team but I still figure Kenya’s Joyciline Jepkosgei as the favorite.

Where things can get quite interesting is in the competition for the team medals. Those are determined by the total time of a nation’s top three finishers. The USA has a very strong men’s team: Leonard Korir, Sam Chelanga, Bernard Lagat, Diego Estrada, and Jared Ward. I don’t know if they can challenge the Kenyans and/or Ethiopians for the win, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

The US women’s team is somewhat weaker. Jordan Hasay is a strong contender for an individual medal, but after that the abilities drop off. Still, Kenya is in a rough position since their two late withdrawals were not replaced and they will only have three on the start line. If just one DNFs or even runs poorly, then it opens the door for others.


Power 5 Trailblazer Challenge
Loker Stadium, Los Angeles
Saturday, 12:00pm local time (3:00pm ET)

Host website

Track and field is rare among major college sports in that women occasionally coach men’s teams. There are just five women in the Power 5 conferences who lead combined men’s and women’s track programs: USC, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Miami. Those are the five teams in this meet. Aside from the notable theme of the teams, this should be a great meet. All of them are highly competitive programs, the meet will be scored, and the main part of the schedule is a tight two-hour affair perfect for television. Unfortunately the Pac-12 Network continues to be a dismal failure and will not be broadcasting the meet; the only way you can see it is in person.

Jesse Squire

I was second in the 1980 Olympic* long jump. (*Cub Scout Olympics, Pack 99, 9-10 age group.)