LAWRENCE — During his first year at Kansas, Clifford Wiley found himself transfixed by a gaudy piece of jewelry decorating a teammate’s hand.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
The year was 1975, and Wiley, a Baltimore native, had arrived at KU as one of the top high school sprinters in the country. One day, he saw teammate Theo Hamilton, a national champion in the long jump, on campus wearing a shiny ring, polished and bulky.
“Where did you get that?” Wiley asked. “That’s a pretty great ring.”
“Oh, this?” Hamilton answered. “Don’t worry, you’ll get one. It’s for winning the Big Eight. We always win that.”
That conversation, Wiley says now, was one of his introductions to The Kansas Way, the feeling of confidence that washed over this track and field power in the Midwest.
Wiley had come to run at Kansas. And that meant he was here to win. And why not?
When Wiley arrived on campus in the mid-1970s, KU track and field was king. The KU men were in the midst of 11 straight Big Eight outdoor championships. The program had won five NCAA championships (three outdoor; two indoor) over the previous 20 years. And while the basketball team had stumbled into a late ’70s funk, KU track and field coach Bob Timmons was still fielding a national contender every spring.
“We were recruiting the very best kids in the country,” said Gary Pepin, who spent nine seasons as an assistant under Timmons and is now the head coach at Nebraska.
This was the program of Jim Ryun, the Kansas Relays, Sports Illustrated covers and those famed pink running shorts. The tradition of success was rich, and for a while, it seemed, it was also unbreakable.
“If you were tired in a race and wondering if the pain and the effort was worth it, you just remembered the great tradition, and some of the men that had gone before you,” said Ryun, the legendary miler.
More than four decades after KU’s last NCAA track title in 1970, the KU track program is back in the national spotlight. And this time, it’s the KU women.
After winning their first Big 12 championship this spring, the women enter this week’s NCAA championship meet in Eugene, Ore., as the No. 1 team in the nation. The Kansas men, meanwhile, are ranked 15th and could record their fourth straight top-25 appearance. And here in Lawrence, the hope is that another national title could signal a renaissance for the programs.
In April, the school broke ground on Rock Chalk Park, a multisport complex in west Lawrence that will include a track facility with seating up to 10,000. KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger has been adamant that a place like Kansas is deserving of a world-class track facility.
“Track and field is back at Kansas,” Zenger said in April, “and it’s time to put that stake in the ground and treat those young men and women and coaches correctly. If we give them one of the top tracks in the nation, can you imagine what we can do here at Kansas?”
There were no peach baskets, or low-scoring losses to the Topeka YMCA, but the origins of KU track and field began with a familiar figure.
In 1901, James Naismith oversaw the first group of track athletes in KU history. And for the next 75 years, the program lived a charmed existence. There were Olympic legends (Billy Mills and Al Oerter) and long-distance prodigies (Ryun and Glenn Cunningham). And by the time Timmons replaced legendary coach Bill Easton in 1965, the program had established itself as a power.
Ryun remembers showing up at the 1972 Kansas Relays, his last, and running in front of more than 36,000 people.
“This is going to sound a little funny,” Ryun said. “But they ran out of tickets. I think they stopped counting at 36,000.”
The women’s program began in 1973, then competing under the jurisdiction of the AIAW. But by 1988, Timmons had retired, and the programs slipped into a rut of mediocrity that would last nearly 15 years.
Some said it was facilities. The Memorial Stadium track, once a symbol of history, was an outdated relic, just something that ruined the sightlines at football games. Some said it was the weather. How could a cold-weather school compete with the Sun Belt? Others said it was a combination.
“A lot of schools built new facilities,” said Wlley, “and KU didn’t.”
Wiley, who works as an attorney in Kansas City, saw the decline firsthand. First, results suffered. Then some of the top talent stopped coming to Lawrence.
“The reality is if you have the horses, you’re gonna win the race more often than not,” Wiley said.
In 2001, when Stanley Redwine took over as the head coach of both programs, he did so in large part because of the tradition. He had attended Arkansas, another school with a track pedigree, and he felt comfortable building his own program at a place that had won before.
A decade later, the men’s program is stabilized and the women are coming off a second-place finish in the NCAA indoor championships in March. For now, some of that old confidence is back.
“When we walk in (to a meet) now, I think people see us as a threat,” says senior Andrea Geubelle, the reigning NCAA indoor champion in the long jump and triple jump.
For a former sprinter like Wiley, this is all he wants to hear. Earlier this year, he called an old teammate, Kevin Newell, who works in Chicago as an executive at McDonald’s. They wanted to talk about the new KU track facility and the resurgent women’s program, and they both made plans to meet up in Lawrence next spring.
“We just can’t wait to see the Kansas Relays there next year,” Wiley said. “I think it’s going to be something special.”
To reach Rustin Dodd, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/rustindodd.