As home to the powerful Oregon Ducks’ track and field program — and its storied Hayward Field — Eugene, Ore., can rightfully lay claim to bragging rights as Tracktown, USA.
The university that this summer added Matthew Centrowitz and Ashton Eaton to its long list of Olympic medalists began its track program in 1895 and garnered its first NCAA team national championship in 1962. It has since added 18 others. The Ducks also have 11 cross country titles to their credit.
But that city has a new DI competitor for the title from distant quarters — Abilene, Texas. That West Texas town is home to the track and field and cross-country programs of Abilene Christian University.
Just three years since competing transitionally at Division I after a century at the NAIA and Division II level, the Wildcats will be eligible for the postseason in 2017-18 and hope to pull astride storied programs like Oregon.
The case for Abilene as the top U.S. track entry is compelling. In 1999, the ACU track & field program was named the “Texas Sports Dynasty of the Century” by Texas Monthly magazine. Its men’s team has 37 team national championships to its credit, the vast majority of which were earned at the DII level. Its first team title came on June 7, 1952, when the men’s track and field squad captured the NAIA national championship at cross-town rival, McMurry University.
The Wildcats squad began competing in 1926 thanks to the efforts of Eddie Weems, a TCU graduate who competed in the mile and half-mile as an undergraduate. He was lured to Abilene from Fort Worth by the opportunity to start the track and field program from scratch. A member of his inaugural squad was the son of a local county commissioner, who Weems convinced to lend his road grader so the team could cut a measured quarter-mile track on a dusty vacant lot near campus. The Wildcats program was born, and by 1928 was off on a streak of eight consecutive Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association (TIAA) championships.
That lot became the precursor to the current incarnation of Elmer Gray Stadium, named after the first Wildcat to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 1932. Gray began an Olympic tradition that in relatively short order saw sprinter Bobby Morrow capture 100m, 200m and 4×100 gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne Games. That year he was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. That performance also earned Morrow the Greatest Moment for Abilene Christian in ASN’s countdown this summer.
The program’s next gold came four years later when sprinter Earl Young was part of the 4×400 world-record breaking squad in Rome. In 2015, Young broke the tape at the new Elmer Gray Stadium and recollected how he was spotted by legendary ACU coach Oliver Jackson. Jackson’s athletes set 15 world records during his tenure from 1948-63.
“Oliver signed me up in California without ever seeing me run. He’d seen a picture of me finishing the 100-yard dash,” said Young. Like Morrow before him, Young graced the cover of Sports Illustrated following his Olympic exploits. This past spring, sprinter Rosen Daniel followed in Young’s tradition when he captured the 400m title at the Southland Conference championships.
On the women’s side, the track team has 22 NCAA DII national championships to its credit. This summer it had a representative in Rio when recent graduate Rayere Thomas competed for Trinidad and Tobago in the 200 and 4×100. She is the sixth Wildcat to compete for the tiny island nation. Globally, ACU athletes have represented 19 countries at the Olympics.
The current steward of Weems’s initial efforts is Lance Bingham, a former assistant at Liberty University, where he helped compile 51 Big South titles for the men’s and women’s track teams.
“It’s humbling to be in charge of a program like this, the tradition is so rich,” said Bingham upon his hire. “The foundation is there, and it’s exciting to be part of the process at the Division I level.”
Last fall, the women’s cross-country team gave Division I an early warning of its prowess when it captured the 2015 Southland Conference championships; it was unable to advance during the transitional period to the NCAA postseason. This year, it redshirted a group of talented seniors until 2017-2018, when the team will have the ability to compete nationally in the postseason and will hold the Southland Conference championships after a long absence as a host city.
Under assistant coach Jarvis Jelen, ACU is preparing for the return of championship cross country to Abilene. “In the past, our course has hosted DII conference and regional meets, but hasn’t been used much under the last couple of coaches and was overgrown,” said Jelen. “We had a day on the course where we cleared out and cleaned up all of the old trails in the wooded section and we’re having another workday to start to develop better footing in areas.”
Like the cross country team, the ACU Wildcat track program is ready to return to its footing nationally as a force on the NCAA track.