The University of Oregon has the most dominant program in the history of college track and field.
The Oregon Ducks track and field program competes in NCAA Division I and is a member of the Pacific 12 Conference. The team participates in three disciplines–indoor and outdoor track and field as well as cross country–and fields both men’s and women’s squads. Oregon’s first track and field team was formed in 1895 and, since its inception, there have only been seven permanent head coaches in 121 years. The Ducks claim 28 National Championships among the three disciplines: 17 for the men and 11 by the women. Four of the head coaches in Oregon’s history have been inducted into the track coaches hall of fame. U of O athletes have produced 24 track and field world records, including Harry Jerome, who set four in sprinting in the early 1960’s, and Ashton Eaton [Daily Dose, 10/12/15], who has set four in heptathlon/decathlon since 2010 while winning gold medals in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Since Dan Kelly finished second in the broad jump at the 1908 Summer Olympics, at least one athlete from UO has participated in each summer Olympics since, including 1980, when the U.S. boycotted. That year, Oregon’s Chris Braithwaite competed for his native Trinidad at the 1980 Moscow Games.
In 1904, Oregon lured Bill Hayward away from Albany College to coach its track team. Hayward stayed 44 years, producing nine Olympians and five world records. In the early 1930s, Hayward convinced Bill Bowerman, a Ducks football player, to run track. Bowerman graduated Oregon with a business degree in 1934. After serving in World War II, he returned to Eugene and replaced Bill Hayward as track and field coach in 1949. More of a teacher than coach, Bowerman stressed schoolwork over athletics and urged his pupils to apply the values they learned participating in track and field to everyday life. Bill Bowerman retired in 1972. In 23 years at Oregon, he mentored 33 Olympians and 24 individual NCAA champions. Mr. Bowerman also coached two U.S. Olympic track and field teams and helped bring the Olympic Trials to Eugene for the first time–in 1972. Bowerman and his successor, Bill Dellingher, authored a number of books and articles on running. Bowerman’s Jogging was written with a cardiologist and detailed the medical benefits of jogging, contributing greatly to the running boom in American in the 1970s, when an estimated 25 million Americans took up some aspect of running. In 1977, Tom Heinonen was appointed as the first full-time head coach for the Oregon women’s program. A strong advocate for women’s sports, Heinonen led the Lady Ducks to their first three NCAA titles, produced 134 All-Americans and his athletes made 17 Olympic appearances. Since 2012, Robert Johnson has headed up the Ducks’ track program and has won more NCAA titles—ten—than any coach in school history.
Steve Prefontaine is the most famous athlete in Oregon track and field history. A middle and long-distance runner, “Pre” once held the American record in seven different distances between 2,000 and 10,000 meters. Prefontaine was a very aggressive front runner who went out hard and did not relinquish the lead. “No one will ever win a 5,000-meter by running an easy two miles,” Pre said. “Not against me.” During his four years running for Oregon, Prefontaine never lost a collegiate race longer than one mile. A local celebrity, Duck fans would cheer “Pre! Pre! Pre!” at home meets, and he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 19. A rebellious athlete, the shaggy-haired, mustachioed Prefontaine frequently butted heads with the AAU, calling it a corrupt organization that treated amateur athletes unfairly. His opinions played a major role in the passing of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which provided protection for amateur athletes. Steve Prefontaine is the subject of two films: Without Limits, a 1998 biopic that follows the relationship between the runner and his coach, Bill Bowerman, and Prefontaine, a 1997 film chronicling his life that stars Jared Leto in the lead role. In May 1975, Mr. Prefontaine died in an automobile accident at age 24. Following his death, which the Eugene Register-Guard called “the end of an era,” the Oregon Track Club established the Prefontaine Classic, which is held in Eugene and has been one of the premier track and field events in the U.S. since 1975.
Oregon home meets are held at century-old Hayward Field, one of the world’s most iconic track and field stadiums. Originally constructed for football in 1919, a six-lane cinder track was added two years later. Located at 15th Avenue and Agate Street in Eugene, “Tracktown, USA” sits at an elevation of 420 feet above sea level. In fall 1967, Autzen Stadium opened for Oregon football, making Hayward Field exclusively a track and field stadium. Named for the legendary track coach, Hayward Field seats 10,500 and is currently undergoing renovations to expand capacity to 30,000 spectators in preparation for hosting the 2021 IAAF World Championships. The “Carnegie Hall” for American track and field, it is one of only five Class 1 tracks in the United States [Auburn, Arkansas, Manhattan’s Icahn Stadium, Kansas]. The track is Benyon Sports Surface BSS-2000, a urethane-and-sand composite that is hard and fast, giving Hayward its reputation as the fastest track on Earth. With a state-of-the-art scoreboard, covered grandstands, an adjacent warm-up/practice track, and the most knowledge fans in track and field, Hayward Field is an unparalleled venue for spectators. It has hosted USATF championships, NCAA championships, the Pac-12’s, and six Olympic Trials. Many athletes have achieved “PBs”—personal bests—at Hayward, attesting to the venue’s magical aura. Without Limits was filmed primarily at Hayward Field. The iconic stadium also served as a backdrop for the ROTC drill scene in the 1978 comedy, Animal House.
The Oregon men’s team has won 20 Pac-12 Conference outdoor titles, including the last ten in a row and 12 of the last 14. The Lady Ducks have won 14 outdoor conference titles, including the past eight in succession. Oregon men have won 16 conference crowns in cross country, while the women have claimed 17 Pac-12 titles.
Oregon track and field has an impressive list of alumni. Alberto Salazar [Daily Dose, 7/2/15] won three NCAA championships in the late 1970s before going on to take three New York City Marathon titles. Kenny Moore set an American marathon record in 1969 and served as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated for 25 years. He also wrote the screenplay for Without Limits. In 1964, Bill Bowerman struck a handshake deal with Phil Knight—a three-time Duck letterman who once ran a personal-best 4:10 mile—to form Blue Ribbon Sports and import Japanese running shoes into the U.S. Looking for lighter shoes for his athletes in the late 1960s, Bowerman discovered a superior sole by pouring rubber into his wife’s waffle iron, inventing the modern running shoe. Knight decided to rename the company Nike and develop its own shoes, with Bowerman’s invention becoming the prototype. The shoe made its debut at the 1972 Olympic Trials at Hayward Field with Steve Prefontaine as one of its early endorsers. Rudy Chapa was a six-time All-American in cross country and track for the Ducks. After earning a law degree from Indiana University, he founded SPARQ, an organization that sells training equipment and provides a standardized test for sport-specific athleticism [a “SAT” for athletes].
On this date in 1943, Kenneth Clark Moore—one of Bill Bowerman’s finest distance runners and a superb writer—was born in Eugene, Oregon, where he currently resides.
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”
– Steve Prefontaine