Eugene may be home to BCS runner-up University of Oregon, but first and foremost, it is synonymous with all things track and field. Tracktown, Track Town USA, Track City and Track Mecca are just a few nicknames bestowed on this Willamette Valley community of 160,000.
There are other outstanding track and field programs in the U.S.A. – USC, Arkansas, Stanford, Tennessee, UCLA and LSU come to mind quickly. All are ideal locations and all have traditions of track and field excellence.
So, what is it that sets Eugene apart from all others?
Could it be because the University of Oregon has had only six coaches in its 107-year track and field history? Bill Hayward coached from 1904 to 1947 and Bill Bowerman had four national championship teams and finished in the Top 10 of the NCAA finals 16 times during his 24 years at the helm. Current coach Vin Lantanna has been named head coach of the USA Men's Team for the World Games to be held later this year. That's tradition.
Perhaps it's just hype from journalists and chambers of commerce? After all, Eugene is regularly named by Runner's World magazine as one of nation's top running cities. Sports Illustrated recently ranked it one of the top five college towns, and the city has also been selected on recent top-10 lists by Cosmopolitan, Money and Sunset magazines.
Maybe it's the two movies that featured the life of distance running legend Steve Prefontaine. "Pre" set 13 American records, earned a couple of NCAA titles and wore the red, white and blue in the 1972 Olympics. Had he not died in a car accident in 1975, Prefontaine would have turned 50 Jan. 25. That's legend.
Could it be the continued recruiting success of the coaches? The names that have worn the Duck singlet read like a who's who of track and field - Alberto Salazar, Bill Dellinger, Rudy Chapa, Joachim Cruz, Galen Rupp, Leann Warren, Kathy Hayes, and Claudette Groenendaal, to name a few. While UO is well known for its distance runners, no story would be complete without mention of sprinters Otis Davis, Mel Renfro, Jerry Tarr, Harry Jerome and discus thrower Mac Wilkins. All left their mark on the world stage. That's recruiting at its finest.
Some say Track Town got its start when Duck distance runner Phil Knight and his track coach, Bill Bowerman, teamed to develop a shoe for a Japanese shoemaker. That was in 1964 and the company was Blue Ribbon Sports. Reportedly, their first sales were out the back of a van. In 1978, Knight changed the company's name to Nike, in honor of the Greek God Ni-Ke, which means victory. The rest, as they say, is history.
But there are those who say the real key is Hayward Field, built in 1919 as the school's football field. Since hosting its last Duck football game in 1967, Hayward Field has become known as the most prominent track-only venue in the United States, but the field's aura goes beyond that.
Hayward Field, named after coach Bill Hayward, has been called a concert hall for track and field. Cozy like Chicago's Wrigley Field, it's been compared to the old Yankee Stadium, where the ghosts of Babe, Lou, Joe, and Mickey reportedly roam.
No one is willing to say the spirits of Bowerman, Prefontaine or other great Ducks are present at Hayward, but they are quick to use phrases such as "there's a magic at Hayward" or "it's a mystical place" or "there is a power there."
"As a coach, I can attest to the ‘Hayward Field Factor' with athletes running there," said long-time Sisters distance coach Charlie Kanzig. "I have seen countless high school kids run their very best at that site. There is a magic there because knowledgeable track fans attend regularly. Kids dream of running there with the green and yellow jersey that reads 'Oregon.'"
Kanzig said his personal bests for 800, 1500 and 3,000 meters were all run at Hayward.
It has been home to three Olympic trials, nine NCAA championships, six USA Track and Field Championships and there is no other place Oregon preps would rather be Memorial Day Weekend. Fifteen world records have been set at Hayward.
Hayward Field has a grip on the future, too. It will host the USA World Championship Trials, NCAA West Regional Preliminary Rounds, and the USA Junior national championships. Add to that, the Oregon Preview, the Pepsi Team Invitational, the Oregon Relays, and the Oregon Twilight, and Track Town, USA will stay in the spotlight in 2011.
And looking ahead, the road to the 2012 Olympic Games in London will also run through Eugene, with the U.S. Olympic Trials set for July of 2012. It will be Oregon's fourth Olympic Trials.
The support Eugene-area residents offer track enthusiasts is unparalleled, be it college, amateur or prep. Oregon fans love their track. One could call their fans "record setters" as well. A final day record crowd for the 2010 NCAAs of 12,812 pushed the four-day attendance (45,847) past the previous record (41,187), set in 2008 in Des Moines, Iowa.
It takes only one trip to Eugene's Hayward Field to witness, even feel, the magic.
Summit High School coach Dave Turnbull calls Hayward his "castle." And he is quick to note that when his teams compete at Hayward, "there is a magic ... a power." His Storm squads have six 5A state titles and he has been named the Oregon Track Coach of the Year six times.
Turnbull says that while Hayward is the "pinnacle of venues," all of the aforementioned factors are the reason Eugene is entrenched as Track City, USA.
"First, the history," said Turnbull, a former 7-foot high jumper at Oregon State. "Just think of the great things that have happened in Eugene. The number of Olympic Trials, NCAA, Pac-10 meets. World meets. Then, there's the athletes themselves. 'Pre' is just the one that comes to mind. Just the word "Pre" and most track enthusiasts know the story. How about Bowerman? There's just so much."
It truly is like no other place.
Year after year, UO has dominated the west coast - and oftentimes national - track scene. The Ducks' prowess began in the early 1970s with Prefontaine, who competed in the 1972 Olympics and set 13 American distance records. Each year, the Ducks have their share of All-Americans and each Olympiad seems to have a few Ducks wearing USA colors.
The Ducks are doing it with home grown products. Nearly 50 members of the men's and women's 2011 roster attended Oregon High Schools. The most recent high-profile athlete is decathlete Ashton Eaton, a graduate of Bend's Mountain View High School. At the 2010 NCAA Championships, Eaton set NCAA meet and Oregon school records in winning his third-straight NCAA Decathlon title with the second-highest total ever by a collegian, 8,457 points. Though he had the top performance, Eaton was one of a dozen former Oregon high school athletes competing against the top 24 in each event nationally.
Need further proof there is no place like Eugene? According to Track and Field News, both UO's men's and women's track and field recruiting classes of 2010 were ranked No. 1.
That top class include Dakotah Keys (Sweet Home), Cole Watson (Rogue River), Kelly Beck (Crater), Steve Bishop (Cascade), Sam Crouser (Gresham), Trevor Ferguson (Oregon City), Boru Guyota (Jefferson/Portland), Ron Perkins (Redmond), Daniel Winn (Cleveland/Portland), Sammie Clark (North Bend), Olivia Ferrara (Liberty/Portland), Jill Fogelstrom (Sheldon/Eugene), Rachel Perry (Hood River) and Hannah Picknell (South Medford).
Looking ahead to the 2011 prep season ...
Here's a quick look at the top returning Oregon preps in 2011:
• Annamarie Maag (Jesuit), Sr., 9:56.55 (3000 meters), 4:38.34 (1500 meters).
• Ryan Crouser (Barlow), Sr., weights.
• Arthur Delaney (Barlow), Sr., 10.42 (100), 21.28 (200).
• Dominique Keel (Westview), Jr., 12.06 (100), 24.09 (200).
• Kody Kozank (Oregon City), Sr., 6-7 (high jump).
• Nathaniel Franks (Barlow), Sr., 6-7 (HJ), 6905 (decathlon).
• J.J. Juilfs (Sheldon), Sr., 17 1/3 (PV).
• Jazmin Ratcliff (Benson), Sr., 43.8 (300 hurdles).
• Haley Crouser (Gresham), So., 161-6 (javelin).
• Chancey Summers Estacada), Sr., 5-7 (HJ).
• Sarah Almen (Santiam Christian), Jr., 5-7 (HJ).
• Iris Anderson N. Eugene), Jr. 18-1 (LJ) and 37-10 (TJ).
• Tasiha Moore (Aloha), Sr., 40 (TJ).
Track Recruit - J.J. Juilfs has narrowed his college choices to Oregon and Washington. The Sheldon (Eugene) senior is the reigning Class 6A pole vault champion. With a 17 3/4 effort in 2010, Juilfs became one of three Oregon prep vaulters to clear 17 feet durnig the high school season. Juilfs is ranked No. 1 nationally among returning vaulters this season.
Only South Eugene's Jay Davis (17-4 1/2 in 1985) and Sandy's Tommy Skipper (18-3 in 2003) rank ahead of Juilfs.