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Historically speaking, ETSU deserves its own track

Tony Casey • Updated Nov 26, 2015 at 7:10 AM

In an apples to apples comparison, where only National Collegiate Athletic Association success matters, historically, East Tennessee State University’s track and field and cross country program is the most impressive of all the school’s 18 Division I sports, having the only official title, and with it, a immense amount of international running history.

In 1972, Buccaneer “Irish Brigade” great Neil Cusack won the NCAA cross country individual championship under legendary David E. Walker, bettering a field that included some of America’s — and the world’s — all-time best distance runners. As exciting as it was to have Cusack win the individual title, there was some letdown in just how close they’d come to winning the team time, too.

Ultimately, the Bucs would finish as runners-up behind the University of Tennessee by a mere nine points, which is just nine total places. Spreading out nine places over the five scoring ETSU runners in a field that had 241 finishers, is painfully close. With no one ahead of Cusack to get in front of, all the other ETSU runners had to do was get ahead of two more people each and the team title would be theirs.

ETSU’s finishers that day included Cusack first over the six-mile course in 28:23, Ed Leddy 3rd in 28:52, his brother P.J. Leddy 15th in 29:11, Kevin Breen 95th in 30:18, Frank Greally 104th in 30:25 and Ray McBride in 173rd in 31:05.

From stories told by Irish Brigade runners, the team huddle after the race wasn’t a pleasant place to be for those who were thought to have not pulled their weight that day.

That being said, a second-place team finish in an NCAA championship, coupled with an individual victory, is an utterly fantastic result, and one that, after a few years of sore runners-up syndrome wears off, is the kind of thing that should help build programs. The following year, 1973, they placed eighth as a team, the final year of four consecutive team finishes during the “Cusack years”. In 1971, they recorded a fifth-place team finish where Cusack and Ed Leddy placed seventh and eighth, respectively. The year before that, 1970, the team, just coming together, placed 21st.

Coach Walker continued bringing in runners who would compete well on the NCAA stage and then go on to international fame, with the team fighting back to a fifth-place finish at the same championships in 1975 and seventh in 1977.

Cusack went on to win another heralded title, winning the 1974 Boston Marathon. At around the same time, Ray Flynn began his slaying of races on the road, indoor and outdoor track, going on to represent his native Ireland at the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympic Games.

The Irish Brigade’s history, and the history of the ETSU running greats that would come later on, is well documented and understood as running history in track and field circles, but I’m not sure it’s appreciated enough outside of those circles or on the school’s campus. While these highlights were logged under Walker, who retired a few years ago and, unfortunately, died in early 2014 — the person who holds that position now, George Watts, is in the same ballpark of coaching and in the era of less money for scholarships is a proven success.

Watts and subsequent cross country and track and field athletes in ETSU’s future are missing that one element that could help them recruit and continue on with the school’s tradition of success: an outdoor track. How can they recruit top runners without a track? While the David E. Walker indoor track in the Minidome is nearby, it’s nowhere near as necessary as an outdoor track for cross country and track athletes and has been more and more used for football than anything else.

With the official groundbreaking of the track-less football stadium — that will cost nearly $27 million for the team that just finished 2-9 in its comeback season — it seems the money and direction is flowing, perhaps, in the wrong direction. ETSU’s football team has won many more games than two in a season years ago, before the sport went away, but that success, for now, appears to have been left in the past. Of course I’m not confused about the popularity of distance running versus American football.

Dr. Richard Sander, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at ETSU, said the cost of a proposed track would be somewhere in the thrower’s circle of $3.5 million, depending on the add-ons. He’s recently had meetings with Flynn, who’s part of an unofficial steering committee, and says they will be announcing a push to look for funding in the spring.

A track, Flynn said, is something, unlike a football stadium, that is accessible to all students. Relay for Life events, students going for a jog or every other sport needing a flat surface on campus to train upon are all uses for an outdoor track. Flynn said he’s a big fan of the football program and new stadium plan, but said putting in an outdoor track — especially for a university that’s had an internationally-known program — is easy, low-hanging fruit for ETSU.

The possibility of combining a track and a football stadium is now in the rear view mirror as Sander said there’s a trend in new football stadium builds where plans don’t include an outdoor track, and that’s a strategy ETSU is following.

Currently, ETSU is continuing its unfortunate strategy of piggybacking the athletic facilities of Science Hill High School for football and basketball games, and I know for a fact the college teams use the football stadium’s track, too. Johnson City’s Milligan College also uses this facility for track workouts, but they also have plans for potentially putting in their own outdoor track.

The moral of the story is: Johnson City needs at least one more championship-quality outdoor track. Aside from collegiate running, this area is ridiculously runner-centric, having been named one of the top running cities in the country in years past. There’s a thriving recreational and semi-competitive running scene here, and these thousands of people are all sharing the same track.

More glaring evidence of the need for an outdoor track is the on-ETSU-campus U.S. Olympic Training Site, which trains athletes for those games that only come every four years. ETSU has done extremely well with this opportunity since it came about in 2012. Currently, Manteo Mitchell — gold medalist at the 2012 World Indoor Championships for the U.S. men’s 4x400-meter relay team and silver medalist in the 2012 Olympic Games in the same relay — is training in Johnson City. It’s almost laughable that this master of the one-lapper is preparing for the upcoming 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero by running around Science Hill’s track.

We can do better than this.

Obviously, I’m biased. My opinions on this are my own and I don’t hide the fact that I see much more benefit in the world of athletics than I do on the basketball court or gridiron, but I think anyone should be able to recognize that ETSU needs to honor their track and field and cross country past with a look at the future and all the benefits a new outdoor track will bring.

When the athletic department and planners for the track get more serious about this project, I urge you to consider joining me in bringing together a wonderfully useful 400-meter track.

Email Tony Casey at [email protected]. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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