Ground-breaking ceremony rings in new era at Oregon State

CORVALLIS - As the minutes ticked down to the start of Tuesday's 4 p.m. ground-breaking ceremony for Oregon State's new track, the clouds parted and sunlight beamed down on the proceedings.

Perfect timing.

Dick Fosbury smiled as he addressed the 400 or so on hand for the momentous occasion.

'Jim Whyte brought me our horoscope today,' said the former Oregon State great and inventor of the Fosbury Flop. 'We're both Pisces. It read, 'This is not the time to sign financial contracts or launch projects.'

'It's a little bit off. I think he brought out a horoscope from a year ago.'

Whyte, a Canadian businessman and former OSU track man, is the largest benefactor in the fund-raising campaign to complete four phases, including the restoration of a track and field program that was dissolved in 1988. At some point in the next few weeks, expect an announcement that the new track will be named 'Whyte Field.'

Women's track was partially restored by bringing back cross country and distance runners in 2004, and eventually a full program will be in place. That's a good thing.

Make no mistake about it, though. This is about the restoration of a men's program that brought national acclaim to the school in the 1960s and '70s, including an NCAA cross-country championship in 1961, a tradition of high-jump excellence, a number of national champions and Olympians and a series of top-10 NCAA track and field team finishes under coaches Sam Bell and Berny Wagner.

The decision to do away with the program to save money in 1988 is met by disdain by those who helped build it to national prominence.

'They should have shot the athletic director who dropped it,' said Bell, 83, who was on hand for Tuesday's ceremony. 'I'm serious. There are idiots who sit in athletic directors' chairs at times, and he was one of them.

'Any school that doesn't have track and field is admitting it is a second-rate institution. It's the center ring of the Olympic Games - always has been, always will be. To give that up, with the number of the kids who have gone to the Olympics from Oregon State, was ridiculous.'

On Tuesday, at least 50 men's track alums - including some dating back to the Hal Moe era of the 1950s - were in attendance for the ground-breaking.

So, too, was Oregon coach Vin Lananna, a visitor paying his respects from 40 miles south.

'Fantastic,' Lananna said. 'It's a great thing for the state of Oregon. It'll be fun to renew the rivalry. We couldn't be more excited about it. We look forward to having our first meet here - Ducks against the Beavers.'

That's a few years off. A full OSU program won't happen overnight.

'When? It totally depends on fundraising,' said Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic high jump champion who serves as president of the World Olympians Association. 'We'll continue to maintain our efforts to reach out to some key people who can fund an endowment so we can do what other universities have done - provide sustainable support for the coaches and the program itself.

'How long is a puzzle, but our goal is from three to five years.'

The track, which carries a $4 million pricetag, is the first phase of the project that is expected to cost $13 million. To be completed in November, it includes a FieldTurf infield and lighting and provides for all the field events except the hammer throw, which will be outside the stadium.

That will come in phase two, along with permanent seating, restrooms, concessions and parking. Phase three is the big one - an endowment fund to allow for reinstatement of the men's program. The final phase would be construction of a cross-country course.

Fosbury, school president Ed Ray, athletic director Bob De Carolis and football coach Mike Riley spoke to the delegation, echoing the importance of a track and field program to the university.

'I believe in a balanced education, which includes athletics,' Fosbury said. 'The students will have a track where they can train on. Our women's team will have a track to train on, and we'll work to bring back men's track.

'This is a key part of the infrastructure for a university in the Pac-12. We're headed in the right direction.'

Riley, who grew up in Corvallis and counted track and field as one of his favorite spectator sports as a youth, noted this will be the third OSU track venue in his lifetime, joining Bell and Valley fields.

'This one,' Riley said, 'is going to stay.'

'It will have a great impact on football, but track has a special place for all athletes,' he said. 'It brings life to a university. Every athlete is interested in track. A lot of football players we recruit, they may never participate in track again. But they like the idea, 'What if I could continue to compete?' '

Riley said the lack of a track and field program has been a factor in recruiting football players in the past.

'We've been eliminated early by some kids,' he said. 'Any big-time track athlete who is going to school to do both, we've been out of it. Now that won't be the case.'

Riley told Kelly Sullivan - who has run the women's program for the seven years since its re-inception - he should be able to provide some sprinters, throwers and high jumpers from the ranks of the football team.

'I don't know if we'll ever have a miler for you,' the football coach joked.

Sullivan said the day felt 'surreal.'

'We've been so on the go,' he said. 'You're going 900 mph coaching, running a program and doing this. Every day is a new day with (the fund-raising project). It's always on your mind.'

I asked Sullivan if he ever had serious doubts that the project would get off the ground.

'There was a point where Bob and I looked at each other and said, 'Are we going to get this done?' ' Sullivan said. 'That was about the time our lead donors stepped forward - Jim Whyte and a couple of other families.

'Once that happened, it was so encouraging, so uplifting for everybody involved. Now we really can get this done.'

It was great to see so many people instrumental to OSU track's past enjoying Tuesday's festivities, including former coaches Bell, Wagner and Chuck McNeil and ex-women's coach Pat Ingram.

Soon after the program was dropped in '88, Wagner led a drive to raise funds for reinstatement, getting help from such as ex-UO coaching legend Bill Bowerman. The money sat dormant for years. Wagner worried that efforts were for naught.

'It's finally here,' he said. 'I never gave up on it. But I never expected a turnout like this one (at the ceremony) today. I wish Bowerman could have been here.'

Old-timers like Gary Stenlund, 70, and Darrell Horn, 74, looked spry as they took part in Tuesday's ceremony. Both will compete in the World Masters Games at Sacramento next month - Stenlund in the javelin, Horn in the long jump.

'They're starting this thing at Ground Zero, but this is proof that there is a whole lot of interest,' said Stenlund, the reigning world record-holder in the 65-to-69 and 70-to-74 age groups. 'We don't need only one university in the state having track and field.

'I was on Sam Bell's team when we first beat Oregon in a dual meet in 1963, and I'll remember it as long as I live.'

Tom Woods - the former NCAA high jump champion who was one of four Beavers to clear 7 feet in a meet, a first in collegiate history - flew in from southern California for the event.

'It's a wonderful opportunity for young athletes to compete again,' said Woods, 58. 'Oregon State has such a great history in the sport. A lot of alumni have put in a lot of work to get this back. It's been a big void for this university, and now we're filling it.'

There is much money yet to be raised, but the project seems to be gaining traction. The Wayne and Gladys Valley Foundation came through with $1 million. Whyte is offering matching funds to donors. Nike execs Tinker and Toby Hatfield are providing support.

'A couple of people mentioned to me today, 'The check will be in the mail soon,' ' Sullivan said. 'There are a good number of people who haven't given yet but will.'

Men's track and field isn't back yet.

'But it will happen,' said Doug Oxsen, OSU's director of development for athletics and the point center for the track project. 'Now that more people are seeing it's a reality, people want to be a part of it. It's hard not to get motivated after seeing the enthusiasm at our function today.'

Like Lananna, I can't wait for that next Oregon-Oregon State dual meet, however many years down the road it may be.

It will be a long time coming.

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