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Oregon State getting back on track, in a big way

by: COURTESY OF EMERICK CONSTRUCTION CO. - The new track at Oregon State University.CORVALLIS — For a moment, it was 1968 again, with Dick Fosbury on the high jump apron in Mexico City. Rocking, readying for an approach on the way to an Olympic-record 7-4 1/4.

“Take a deep breath. Focus. ... and then get over the bar,” the inventor of the Fosbury Flop intoned, smiling as he recreated history while standing at the lecturn.

The metaphor was fitting as the "Foz" addressed a crowd of 650 Friday afternoon at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Whyte Track & Field Center at Oregon State.

Organizers and contributors got over the bar with the $4 million first phase to bring track and field back to OSU with the state-of-the-art facility that, in the words of junior distance runner Audrey Botti, “turned a dream into a reality.”

Dozens of former Oregon State track-and-field athletes and coaches from as far back as the 1950s were on hand for a ceremonial 100-meter walk on the new nine-lane track that will soon signal the return of the sport at OSU since its demise in 1988.

“This is a big deal,” said OSU women’s coach Kelly Sullivan, who has worked so hard at the forefront of the movement to get the facility built.

Yes, it is.

“It’s almost unreal, but it’s here,” Fosbury said. “We have this great day to enjoy it. It’s what we’ve worked for. It’s what we have deserved.”

Now comes the hard part.

“We’re halfway there right now,” said John Radetich, the former world indoor high jump record-holder who has volunteered his time to work with men and women jumpers at OSU. “We are the point where we have a facility for the kids to practice on, but we have a long way to go.”

Oregon State brought back women’s distance running in 2004, but the idea is to bring a full men’s and women’s program back — with a timetable of perhaps five years, athletic director Bob De Carolis tells me.

“It’s going to depend on the fundraising for our next two phases,” said De Carolis.

First up is the second phase, a project that will cost $3 million to $4 million and provide permanent grandstands with concessions, a video scoreboard, a press box, a hammer throw field and parking.

Then comes a $5 million endowment that will ensure the future of the men’s program that went dark after the ‘88 campaign.

“We’ve been through a generational drought of track-and-field athletes who would have represented Oregon State in the conference and on the national stage,” Fosbury said. “We are bound and determined to bring this sport back as athletes, coaches, teacher and parents.”

I saw a lot of happy faces Friday as people who have meant a lot to track and field at Oregon State — and to whom OSU track and field meant a lot to — cavorted in the sunshine, many of them adjourning to the club level at Reser Stadium for dinner and more celebrating.

I’m talking about Olympic, national and NCAA champions and world and American record-holders from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. Great names such as Fosbury, Radetich, Darrell Horn, Steve DeAutremont, Steve Pauly, Willie Turner, Morgan Groth, Joni Huntley, Cindy Greiner, Tom Woods, Ed Lipscomb, Dale Story, Terry Thompson, John Lilly, Jan Underwood, Jeff Oveson, Dan Likens, Dick Oldfield, Gerry Church and Tim Fox. Olympic decathlete Dave Johnson was there, along with Oregon’s Vin Lananna and Tom Heinonen.

“It’s like a track-and-field Hall of Fame,” said Doug Crooks, the former OSU distance runner who serves as a member of the program's fundraising committee.

The track is the result of much toil by such as Fosbury, Crooks, Brian Glanville, John Ball, Oldfield, former coach Berny Wagner and athletic department exec Doug Oxsen, among others. And funding provided by hundreds, atop the list namesake Jim Whyte, the ex-Beaver hurdler and businessman from Vancouver, British Columbia. And the Valley Foundation, the legacy of the late Wayne Valley, who played football at the school and once was a majority owner of the Oakland Raiders.

“The Valley Foundation,” Whyte said, “got us over the hump.”

Many of the folks at the scene Friday were like kids at a candy store.

“This is fantastic,” said Morgan Groth, the 1964 1,500-meter Olympian now retired and living in West Linn. “I’m amazed at the track, how fast it looks.”

Fast enough to spur a comeback?

“No, not that good,” he said, laughing.

Turner — the fastest man I ever saw in an Oregon State singlet, one of the greatest closers in U.S. sprint history — drove from his home in Yakima, Wash., for the event.

“This is one of the greatest things I can imagine,” said Turner, 63, once the American-record holder at 200 meters in 20.0. “This facility is Olympic-caliber. I want to come back and run again.”

Portlander Wayne Baseden, who held the 100-yard record at the old Valley Field, was ready to offer his services to help officiate when the Beavers begin hosting meets at the new facility.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Baseden said. “After all these years, I can stop going down to Eugene for meets. I love track, and I’ll be so glad we have an opportunity to be on the map again, and hopefully be a part of it for a long time in the future.”

Greiner, a three-time Olympic heptathlete from 1984-92, marveled that a program lost could be regained.

“It’s so expensive, it just doesn’t happen very often,” she said. “I’m glad to see it coming back.”

When he was in Eugene for the Olympic trials in June, DeAutremont drove to Corvallis to get an early look at the facility.

“I jumped the fence and took 100 pictures of all the throwing rings,” the two-time NCAA hammer champion said. “It’s great. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a hell of a good start.”

That was the theme Friday. Everyone was thrilled to see such a terrific facility in place. But the next two phases are not just important, they are mandatory now. The men’s program — which fielded so many national- and world-caliber athletes in the '60s and '70s — must be restored.

“It’s the highest priority,” said Fosbury, the former president of the World Olympians Association who lives in Ketchum, Idaho. “I will support the women’s team, but I also want to give that opportunity to men. We’re on it.”

“Things are coming along, but we don’t have a track program until we have a men’s team,” said former sprinter Ball, a member of the fundraising committee. “It’s great what has happened, but we have to proceed.”

“That is what we’ve been waiting for,” Groth said. “It’s nice to see the women do well, but we need to get back to where we were on the men’s side.”

Huntley and Greiner — two incredible performers I was fortunate enough to get to know when I was covering international track in the '80s — are in full agreement.

“It has to happen,” said Greiner, now retired after a career with Hewlett-Packard and living in Boise. “It’s going to happen.”

For the first time, many of us are believing that, especially after what we experienced Friday.

“I really doubted it when we started talking about it, but I think it’s going to happen now,” said Oveson, a former Pac-8 intermediate hurdles champion now living in La Grande. “There’s too much impetus. I can see in a decade some really big meets here.”

I can, too.

“With Tracktown USA down the road (in Eugene), we’re the next world-class track that’s in their backyard,” Fosbury said.

Horn — the greatest horizontal jumper in school history, six times ranked among the world’s top 10 in the long jump — has an important wish: “I want to have a dual meet with Oregon.”

That’s going to happen. Even before that, though, could come the Pac-12 championships, slated to be held at Whyte Center in 2015.

“Our goal is we’ll be in construction for phase two at this time next year,” Sullivan said. “And the big goal is to have the first big meet here in 2014.”

Sullivan envisions a quadrangular with teams from OSU, UO, Portland and Portland State for that first big meet. Crooks suggests something else — a world-class invitational that could be an annual event, with Nike’s help and perhaps that of Eugene promoter Tom Jordan, who runs the Prefontaine Classic.

I’d focus on getting the nation’s top high jumpers and calling the meet the “Fosbury Classic.”

Sullivan has already started the transition to a full women’s team. He has recruited some high jumpers and horizontal jumpers/hurdlers, including a couple of potential multi-event performers.

“The first big objective is to trim the distance runners (from 40) into the teens,” he said. “The next stage is to continue to recruit the high jump areas, and I’m excited about doing the throws and multi-events.

“The university will increase our scholarship money over the next four to five years. After we do that, we’ll see how much further we’ll expand.”

Having the track in place will help it come together.

“It’s been hard to keep connected with the university because of the lack of (men’s and women’s) programs,” said Lilly, the great half-miler if the late '60s. “Now you have a tangible asset. This is our track. We’re going to have a program. You get reacquainted with people. You get more people involved.”

Fosbury has conducted national high jump camps in Maine and Idaho for a number of years. On Friday, he pledged to me that he’ll bring his act to Corvallis. What was once the high jump capital of the U.S. could earn that title again some day.

“This is an international-class facility,” he said. “As part of our fundraising and as we begin to use this track, I’ve been talking to Kelly about doing some clinics here. We’ll bring in some quality coaches and introduce the high school kids to this facility and help them improve their abilities. They’ll get hands-on coaching by experts in that event. I’m really looking forward to being able to use this track.”

It’s going to take time. It’s going to take a lot more money. Whyte has pledged to match dollar for dollar any contributions from the public.

“I’ve taken $100,000 from each of my kid’s endowment to start fund-matching for the second phase,” he joked.

After what I saw Friday, I’m not doubting the return of men’s track anymore.

“This day is anything and everything I could have dreamt of,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to get this thing done.”



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