LAWRENCE — During his first year at Kansas, Clifford Wiley found himself transfixed by a gaudy piece of jewelry decorating his teammate’s hand.
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, walking on campus with 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 first introductions to The Kansas Way, the feeling of confidence that washed over this entire little 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 ’70s, KU track and field was king. The KU men were in the midst of 11 straight Big Eight outdoor championships. The program had claimed five NCAA championships (three outdoor; two indoor) in the previous 20 years. And while the historic basketball team — the state’s jewel program — 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,” says 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, and the Kansas relays, and Sports Illustrated covers, and the 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,” says Ryun, the legendary Kansas miler, “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.”
Now, more than four decades after KU’s last NCAA track title in 1970, the KU track program is back in the national spotlight, on the cusp of the school’s greatest track and field achievement since the dynasty days of the ’50s and ’60s. And this time, it’s coming from a relatively new source: the KU women.
After winning their first Big 12 championship earlier this spring, the KU 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 in Lawrence, the hope is that another national title could signal another renaissance for the programs.
In April, the school broke ground on Rock Chalk Park, a new multi-sport complex in west Lawrence that will include a track facility with seating for up to 10,000. The new track will pave the way for the removal of the old track at Memorial Stadium. But KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger, who did not respond for this story, 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 against 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 already established itself as a power.
Ryun still 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 says. “But they ran out of tickets. I think they stopped counting at 36,000.”
The women’s program would begin 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 say it was facilities. The Memorial Stadium track, once a symbol of history, was now an outdated relic, just something that ruined the sightlines at football games. Some say it was the weather. How could a cold-weather school compete with the Sun Belt? Others, of course, say it was a combination.
“A lot of schools built new facilities,” says Wiley, “and KU didn’t.”
Wiley, who now works as an attorney in Kansas City, saw the decline first-hand. First, the results suffered. Then some of the top talent stopped coming to Lawrence.
“The reality is,” Wiley says, “if you have the horses, you’re gonna win the race more often than not.”
In 2001, when Stanley Redwine took over as the coach of both programs, he did so in large part because of the tradition. He had gone to school at 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 says, he called an old teammate, Kevin Newell, who now 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 says. “I think it’s gonna be something special.”