So What HAPPENED to Oregon Track?

The title is a natural question for many of us Oregon fans after watching the Ducks struggle to a seventh place finish in the women’s T&F and a stunning 35th on the men’s side at the recent NCAA championships at Hayward Field. What happened, and where is Oregon going in the sport that is the most successful of any the Ducks compete in?

To answer those questions, I turned to Ken Goe, who writes daily about Oregon Track & Field for the Oregonian/OregonLive from February to July and Bruce Nelson, an Oregon Track & Field aficionado and past writer for FishDuck.com. These two are wired into both the men’s and women’s programs at a level equivalent to, or higher than, our football coaching consultants, and their T&F analysis and insights were helpful and surprising.

What Happened in the NCAA Championships this Year?

Ken Goe:

Many of the women who would have been challenging for individual national championships were not on the team, and not because they graduated, but because they left early to go pro. (Rare in track)

Gary Breedlove

Raevyn Rogers was missed–big time.

“The Ducks missed potential points from competitors such as Deijah Stevens (an Olympian), Hannah Cundliff (who set the indoor record in the 60) and Raevyn Rogers, who won the Bowerman (the T&F equivalent of the Heisman Trophy) last year.  Those are three really difficult people to replace and, usually, they would have been around this last season. I give the women a bit of a pass this year … and I think the women have recruited well for the future.”

Bruce Nelson:

“The women lost a ton of star power from last year and, while they had a chance, the pundits were picking them 3rd at best. There was a slew of poor final day performances after it looked like the women might pull off a miracle, but an injury to MacKenzie Dunmore in the 400 pretty much sealed their fate.”

Both Ken and Bruce explained to me that Katie Rainsberger was a potential national champion in two events, but she was injured. Arianna Washington was a former two-time national champion, and it is not clear what happened there, as she did not perform at her former levels, nor did Sara Baxter, who was a high profile recruit (one of the top recruits in the nation).

Listening to both gave me the impression that the potential was there for a national championship in the outdoors — even with the pro-departures — but that this was Oregon’s bad luck year with injuries for the women.

Thoughts about the Men’s Program …

Ken Goe:

“The men actually started trending down last year before this year’s 35th place finish … Ches was hurt in the spring and they really dropped off.

The men — they have some really good mid-distance runners, but replacing Edward Cheserek, a 17-time NCAA champion, is a bear.  For whatever reason, whether it is where they gave scholarships or an inability to recruit as well as they hoped, the talent wasn’t there. They don’t have the throwers they’ve had in the past, when the Duck men were strong, including two-time national champion Sam Crouser in the javelin, for instance.

And they are not getting the same help from the football team that they have in the past, and I am not sure why that is.  I don’t know if that is the football coaches, how the dates line up with Spring Football or the athletes themselves choosing to not take part in track. All could be a factor with the men … and in all sports,  it’s hard to be good every year, and every now and then you are going to have a down season.

There are 18 Scholarships for women and only 12.6 for men, thus it is much more difficult for the men and necessitates the need to be precise. You can’t make mistakes. But they’ll be fine over the long haul …”

Bruce Nelson:

Bruce Nelson

Bruce Nelson

“On the men’s side, I guess we could call it rebuilding, but the handwriting’s been on the wall. Take Cheserek out of the picture these past years and the Ducks haven’t looked all that good. Once he left, there didn’t seem to be anybody to step in and fill his shoes. There seems to be a transition toward the sprints on the men’s side, and our male sprinters did well this year. With the great success of the women’s sprint program in previous years, it makes some sense to go in the same direction with the men.

A good 1500 runner might score in the 5000 and won’t run a relay outdoors. Whereas a good 200 meter runner might run the 100 and/or the 400 and possibly be a factor in both relays. With great luck, such an athlete might also be a good long jumper (Remember Jenna Prandini, who won 100s, 200s, relays and the long jump?).

The NCAAs have nothing to do with having a good team, but rather with having great individuals. The Duck Men’s team clobbered USC in the Pac-12 meet, but SC’s talented 400 and 400 hurdlers scored a ton of points at the NCAAs. The Duck men have some good recruits coming in for the middle distances, while several sprinters return. Next year can only go up …”

The Future of Oregon Track & Field

Andy and Maurica Powell, two of Oregon’s most successful assistant coaches, left to head up Washington’s programs. Maurica Powell was the primary recruiter for the women distance runners that achieved the only triple crown in one year ever –Cross-Country, Indoor Track and Outdoor Track National Championships (2016-2017).

That is huge hole in coaching staff, and this was a big hire for Head Coach Robert Johnson. A number of the good distance runners in the women’s program are young, so if they don’t care for the new assistant coach, they could transfer to the Huskies!

From Video

Ben Thomas at Virginia Tech

The hiring of Ben Thomas as associate head coach for Oregon (who was in charge of the middle distance and distance runners at Virginia Tech), appears to be a superb choice, considering how he built them into a national power in distance. He was named the National Men’s Assistant Coach of 2017, the first coach in the entire history of the ACC to achieve that award, and he was instrumental in creating the dozen ACC track titles during his 17 years with the Hokies.

It was announced on Monday that Oregon has hired Helen Lehman-Winters as Associate Head Coach for Cross Country in addition to Track and Field. After being head coach at the University of San Francisco for 15 years, she took the Dons to a No. 2 National finish in Cross Country last fall. Her resume’ is impressive, and she is known as a great recruiter.

I asked Ken Goe if the upgrade in facilities that is underway will help the new coaches attract elite athletes.

Ken noted that, “I don’t know that the recruiting is going to be that much more affected by the new facility, as we already have Hayward Field. It is like Alabama knocking on the door in football. Very few schools have the track tradition that Oregon does. If you’re a distance runner and Oregon calls, you’re going to take the call. The distance coaches simply say, “Steve Prefontaine, Edward Cheserek, Galen Rupp, Hayward Field and people sit up and take notice.”

Concerns about the Sport …

Ken has written recently about how covering the College World Series brought into sharper focus for him what track and field isn’t doing. He fears track’s inability to attract a mainstream audience and wonders about the viability of the sport post-collegiate level if those who lead it won’t try new ways to attract fans.

The number of in-depth track fans is a very small percentage of the overall sports fan-base, and they’ve lost people who are not hardcore fans for several reasons. First, it is hard to follow the meets. A lot is going on, it goes on all day, and if you are not a track nerd, it is hard to break it down into something that is watchable.

There are not many home meets, and the Ducks only had two last year, while Vin Lananna had five home meets for many years. The regular season is a nightmare. Some of the big meets are distance carnivals, where they run races for hours and hours and hours. Some track fans can get into it, but not most. If you don’t know what the NCAA or World Championship qualifying standards are (which is what those meets are set up to create), you’re just watching people running circles around the track.

Not very entertaining …

The Impact of the Improved Hayward Field

Ken Goe

Ken Goe

Ken noted that, “It is going to be a tremendous facility, but I question some things about it. Hayward really wasn’t that big at only 8,500 (Ken counted them last fall), and that was rarely filled. Even the NCAAs didn’t always fill the stands. The new capacity will be 12,400 as a base facility, and I question how well that will play when you only have 2-3,000 showing up for a regular meet.”

“I don’t think that is going to be very good visually …”

“The process they used to plan that stadium really alienated a lot of the hardcore Oregon Track fans (the old-timers who go there rain or shine), and they just got steam-rolled by Howard Slusher and Phil Knight. The process hurt relationships with some important people in Oregon’s track history such as the Jaqua family, the Bowerman family and Tinker Hatfield, whose viewpoints should have been listened to and respected.  These are the people you are going to need to help fill the new facility. They have that influence on other core track fans. They are going to need to do some fence-mending to get the Oregon Track Community united again.”

I am grateful for the time that Ken Goe and Bruce Nelson gave me. I learned so much about the program and what to watch for in the sport in the near future. I, like so many other Oregon fans, thank them for so much information about our Beloved Ducks.

Charles Fischer   (FishDuck)
Eugene, Oregon

Top Photo by Gary Breedlove

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