LAWRENCE — The Kansas Relays arrive Wednesday for a four-day stay with the usual strong fields of athletes and incentive for fans of nostalgia.
These likely will be the final relays to be staged in Memorial Stadium, where they have operated almost annually since their inception in 1923.
On Tuesday, the university staged a ceremonial groundbreaking for Rock Chalk Park, a $39 million athletic complex in west Lawrence that will include a new track and field stadium.
“The plan is to the have the Relays (there) next year,” Kansas athletic director Sheanon Zenger said.
And to eventually remove the track from Memorial Stadium, dropping the field and moving the seating closer to the action.
It’s not the first time Kansas has talked about moving fans closer to the football field. The subject was raised in 1962, and retired basketball coach Phog Allen, who played a key role in founding the Kansas Relays, predicted the track meet’s demise.
“You can be sure of this, when they tear out the stadium track, the Relays are as dead as the cadavers in the formaldehyde tanks in the medical department’s dissecting room,” Allen said.
This time, lowering the football field is in the planning stages, but Rock Chalk Park is moving forward. The complex, located near the intersection of Sixth Street and George Williams Way, will include a track stadium with 7,000 permanent seats and room for 3,000 temporary seats, a 1,500-seat softball stadium and a 2,500-seat soccer stadium.
“This is a place that will welcome recruits and a place that our athletes can call home,” Kansas track and field coach Stanley Redwine said.
Memorial Stadium will become a memory for track and field, but what memories. Some of the world’s top track athletes have completed in the Kansas Relays — many who wore Jayhawks uniforms — from gold-medal decathlete Jim Bausch and world-record miler Glenn Cunningham in the early years, to gold-medal winning discus thrower Al Oerter and distance runner Billy Mills and three-time Kansas Relays outstanding performer Jim Ryun.
Top athletes from other schools, such as Missouri sprinter Mel Gray, Nebraska sprinter Merlene Ottey and decathlete Bruce Jenner from Graceland College competed at Memorial Stadium before gaining Olympic fame.
Such fields and crowds in the tens of thousands made it one of track and field’s premier events, and the meet began to recapture past glory in 2000 when Kansas City native Maurice Greene, the world-record holder in the 100, competed.
The Kansas Relays were the brainchild of two men who aren’t known for track. John Outland played and coached football and created the Outland Trophy for football linemen. He earned All-America honors at two schools, Kansas and Pennsylvania, and while at Penn near the turn of the century threw the shot and discus in the Penn Relays. He never forgot the carnival atmosphere at the event and believed such a meet would work at Kansas.
Allen was the Jayhawks’ basketball coach and athletic director — and football coach in the year a new football stadium was planned, 1920. Post-World War I was a busy time in football stadium construction, and Kansas’ field, like most, was planned with a track.
Now, track will have its own home, and the Relays won’t end up as a cadaver.