Sun May 18: Big Ten Outdoor Track Championships come to Champaign
Craig Virgin listened to the roar of the huge crowd, looked at the flags and banners flying above Memorial Stadium as he took one final lap around the track.
The year was 1977, and the University of Illinois was hosting the NCAA Men's Track and Field national championships. Virgin had just run his last race for the Illini.
He wanted one more chance to run around the home track, say goodbye to the fans and soak in more of the excitement and energy that had captivated Champaign-Urbana for four days.
"It was a special time," said Virgin, a three-time Olympian and Illinois' greatest distance runner.
It was special for the athletes, for the volunteers and the fans, who numbered nearly 20,000 according to NCAA records. Track was in its heyday in C-U, as state and national champions were decided on the same track. In 1979, the NCAAs returned.
Twenty years later, as Illinois prepares to host the men's and women's Big Ten Outdoor Track and Fielld Championships next weekend, that era is just a fond memory for most.
The stadium hasn't seen track spikes for more than a decade, prep titles are determined in Charleston and only a couple thousand people can fit into the current stadium.
"It was just a really good era of track and field at that point," said Champaign's Joe Corley, an official at the 1997 NCAAs who will also work the Big Ten meet this year.
After Bruce Jenner's rise to Wheaties fame in 1976, track was in the national spotlight and Illinois was on a roll in Gary Wieneke's third year as head coach.
The Illini were the most successful team on campus and had won the indoor and outdoor conference meets and finished fourth at the indoor nationals.
The roster was loaded with NCAA place-winners from previous years such as Chartlon Ehizuelen – a national champion in the long jump in 1975 and triple jump in 1974 – pole vaulter Doug Laz and Virgin. Exciting athletes like Charlie White, Tim Smith, Nate Wyatt and Jeff Jirele added to the team's strength.
"We had a set of stars, like any good teams now in football or basketball," said Laz, who lives in Champaign. "We had a nucleus of guys competing for victories every time. And then everyone else was able to score in all their events."
The word was out about Illinois, but there was plenty of competition coming to town.
Auburn sprinter Harvey Glance was back to defend his 100-meter dash title, as was UTEP's James Munyala in the steeplechase. Samson Kimombwa and Joshua Kimeto led a strong Washington State distance squad. Washington's Scott Neilson had won the first of four straight titles in the shot put in 1976.
"There were a lot of great runners in that meet," said Jirele, who lives in Phoenix, Ariz. "We had some fun with them in the competition and off the track."
The stands on the west side were packed from "goal line to goal line," Laz said. That crowd was packed with rabid Illinois fans, including scores of folks from the Illini Striders booster club.
"It was a huge crowd, but I remember in the prelims I could hear individuals in the Striders cheering for me," Jirele said. "I could hear their voices and pick them out."
The fans watched Illinois take seventh place. Ehizuelen placed in the long and triple jumps, Virgin in the 10,000 and 5,000 and Laz in the pole vault.
Arizona State took the team title. Although Illinois athletes got the most applause, the visitors appreciated the enthusiasm.
"One of the runners from Southern Cal told me, 'This is the best stadium I've ever run in,' " Corley said. "With him being from the West Coast, with all their big stadiums and meets, that was a really nice compliment."
The athletes all were given belt buckles, courtesy of local banks, to commemorate the meet.
Laz remembered the belt buckles, and also remembered the commoraderie of the team at that time. They ran together and even partied together.
"A lot of guys would have these theme parties, and KISS was the big rock band at the time," Laz said. "Guys would get dressed up in platform shoes and makeup. I guess after 20 years we've mellowed out a little."
These days, the old mates get together at alumni meets and have barbecues, maybe play a little softball. No Gene Simmons impersonators in sight.
"There was a fraternity on that team that was very special," Virgin said. "There were good personalities. It was a colorful team, a team that people could relate to."
A source of community pride
As Virgin and the rest competed in the events, there were hundreds of others making the meet work.
Wieneke, who organized the meet at the local level, said he had about 60 meetings at one point before he quit keeping track of them.
"We had people volunteering to man the airport to tell people where to go and people driving buses back and forth," Wieneke said. "There was the housing department, putting the athletes in the dorms and feeding them. The amount of pride the community took and the teamwork was really interesting."
That pride probably showed itself best with the more than 100 members of the meet's officiating crew.
Urbana's Joe Frank, the director of officials and the one who got the Air Force's Thunderbirds to fly over the opening ceremonies, was more of a fashion consultant in the early stages.
"We were trying to get everyone to wear the same uniform – white shirts, blue pants and an NCAA hat," said Frank, who was a track official for 35 years. "Some of them came in with pants that were different shades of blue, and you'd swear they were color blind.
"And I'll bet there were more dark blue pants bought in Champaign-Urbana that week than at any other time."
The area was loaded with experienced track officials at the time, and that showed throughout the meet. They may not have been color coordinated, but they did the job.
"In a track meet, I guess your grade is if you have any problems, any protests," Wieneke said. "We had none. It went well enough that they OK'd it for 1979."
The track crew was not loaded up with the kind of high-tech equipment that you'll see at this year's conference meet, Frank said. But there were some innovations.
Wieneke said one of the computer specialists from the university set up a system to record results and update records.
"He programmed this thing so a guy, like a newspaper reporter, could come from Southern Cal, punch something and here's their entries," Wieneke said. "If it was halfway through the meet, it would tell you what they've done, what was remaining and what score points were.
"It was unbelievable. I've never seen that before or since."
Corley was involved with compiling results and scoring. He also read results from the Accu-track, a special camera set up at the finish line.
"It would put the photo in a timer and move the finish line to each guy," he said. "It could accurately pick finishers even though we had timers for that."
Although officials never get to enjoy as much of the meet as they'd like, Frank does remember one special moment fron the 1979 championship involving Maryland's Renaldo Nehemiah in the 110 high hurdles.
"You have a responsibility to keep your mind on it, keep focused so you don't make any mistakes," Frank said. "But when they announced that Nehemiah had run the fastest time that had been run in history, my hair just stood on end."
Nehemiah was one of the headliners in 1979, as UTEP won and Illinois' Gail Olson was the lone placewinner in front of nearly 14,000 fans.
"Those two meets have to be the high-water mark for track," Virgin said. "It was a magical time."
But the magic wouldn't last.
Former athletic director Cecil Coleman, a big track supporter whom Wieneke said singlehandedly brought the NCAAs to Illinois, left office in 1979. And track attendance was slipping.
In 1985, at the height of head coach Mike White's football program, track left Memorial Stadium. AstroTurf covered the entire field and more stands were constructed.
The tradition and grandeur of running in the stadium was gone.
"They made a big mistake when they took out the stadium track," Virgin said. "Mike White didn't want people working out when he was having spring drills so they tore out the track."
Virgin was at the height of his career at the time and said he should have fought for the stadium.
Jirele said running in the stadium added character to the program, and the runners and fans certainly appreciated some of the old building's nuances.
"Coming around the backstretch into the homestretch you'd go under the overhang on the south end," Jirele said. "You'd go in one side and come out the other and the crowd would go wild. It was a neat atmosphere. I loved that place."
White, who competed in the high school championships there when he was at Harvey Thornton, was always impressed by the stadium.
"Even if you only had a couple thousand people there, it was still impressive," said White, who lives in Merrillville, Ind. "When I went there in high school, the crowd was so big and it seemed like the Olympics. At the NCAAs that year, I got that feeling again."
Illinois was without a facility, running on Parkland College's track, until the current track and field stadium was completed in 1987.
"A bunch of us were talking a little while back about how we wish we still ran in the stadium," Frank said. "Now we've got all the Olympic equipment and everything. But it's not like it was at the stadium."
Capacity at the UI track and field stadium will be about 2,500 for the Big Ten meet.
The university is considering creating a combined track-soccer facility, said associate director of athletics Dana Brenner.
The plan would replace the track infield – which includes runways and pit areas – with a soccer field for the women's team, which starts play this fall.
"It makes sense to combine one facility so we don't need to build another press box or concession stands," Brenner said.
Right now there have only been discussions on the project and there's no particular timetable, Brenner said.
"We'd like to add 5,000-6,000 seats, put in permanent stands and lighting and really finish out the stadium as it was designed 10 to 12 years ago," Brenner said. "But we need to draw up some plans, get a feasibility study done."
If they're looking for ideas, the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics could look north to the University of Wisconsin.
The Badgers added a soccer field to their track stadium, which had been around since 1959, in 1993. Head coach Ed Nuttycombe said reconfiguring the stadium, adding the soccer field and putting up lights cost around $1.5 million.
He said they're about three years away from expanding the seating capacity to 5,000. Nuttycombe also said it was important to keep the sports separate.
"That's the only place a track team can compete and train in," Nuttycombe said. "A soccer practice can take place in any grass field."
It would take more seating and lights to once again host the NCAAs at Illinois. It would be hard to pull in crowds like Oregon, which drew a 29,141 last year and has drawn nearly 100,000 the last five times it's hosted the meet.
But a 5,000- to 6,000-seat stadium would match up with some other hosts. Indiana will host the meet this year in Indianapolis, which had 7,651 on hand when it last hosted the meet in 1986.
It would also give Champaign a shot at bringing back the IHSA meets, although the university is the top priority for the DIA.
And diehard fans like Corley, who's been officiating for more than 30 years, would love another shot at nationals.
"It sure would be nice to have something like that again," he said. "I know we could get the support."