Western Michigan didn't celebrate its first national championship partly because the school didn't immediately realize what the men's cross country teamhad accomplished in 1964.
"When we came back," Bob Parks, the team’s assistant coach, said in 2014, "people didn’t even know where we’d been. The athletic director asked where we were this weekend and I said, 'At nationals. And, well, we won.'"
The trophy given to the school read “Cross County Champions.” At least champions was spelled correctly.
Bruce Burston, the team's captain who moved to Kalamazoo from Australia for a running scholarship, recalled a couple lecturers commenting about the victory. The team also was commended during a basketball game the next day. But that was about it.
"I don’t think the university thought of itself as capable of winning," Burston said in 2014. "I think I appreciate it more now. It was a pretty big deal, and I don’t think we realized it at the time. We were the first to come first in anything."
As such, it's the sports moment judged the greatest in school history. It was also the first national title for the Mid-American Conference.
And to prove it was no fluke, the Broncos won again in 1965, when the championship race was extended from four to six miles.
Coached by George Dales, the team went a combined 9-0 in dual meets during the 1964 and 1965 seasons. Three runners — Burston (11th overall in 1964), Mike Gallagher (seventh in 1964) and Steve Smith (sixth in 1965) — were named All-Americans after impressive NCAA Championship finishes.
Gallagher was the wild card in 1964, as Runner's World reported in 2014:
But the breakout performance of the day came from Mike Gallagher, who had run the race of his life to finish seventh. Gallagher, an unreliable junior who had barely made the team after a summer of skimpy training, had almost not been entered in the race. “He started coming around late in the season,” explained Bob Parks, the team’s assistant coach. “We had a decision to make. Should we put him in the nationals?” Gallagher was a talented runner, but his performances were all over the place. Everyone had expected Burston to be the Broncos’ top scorer, so Gallagher’s seventh-place came as a complete surprise. “We knew that Mike was really running out of his head that day,” Bishop says.
That's how the Broncos led a field of 23 teams with a total of 180 runners, outdistancing second-place Oregon 83-116. Ohio, led by individual champion Elmore Banton, finished third.
"It was all a bit surreal," Burston said. “Here was this little dinky school that had knocked off Oregon."
In 1965, paced by Smith's sixth-place finish, the Broncos led a field of 17 teams and 148 runners. They edged Kansas State, led by individual champion John Lawson, 81-92.
It was the end of a dominant run by the Broncos. They had seven consecutive undefeated seasons in dual meets with 35 consecutive wins from 1957-65. They also had finished as NCAA runner-ups to Michigan State in 1958.
But 2003 marked the end of the men's cross country and track programs, casualties of cost cutting. The 1964-65 teams received their due in 2009, when they were inducted into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame.
• WMU Athletics Hall of Fame
Above: Western Michigan's 1964 NCAA championship cross country team, including Bruce Burston, Donald Clark, James Carter, Michael Gallagher, Theodore Nelson, Lawrence Peck and Steve Smith. (Courtesy Western Michigan University Archives)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Western Kentucky and Western Michigan
• Tuesday: William & Mary and Winthrop
• Wednesday: Wofford and Wright State
• Thursday: Yale and Zips (Akron)
• Friday: The Judge