Saying Goodbye to the Track at KU’s Memorial Stadium

kutrackThe University of Kansas removed the track from their Memorial Stadium this week. They were the last BCS conference school to do so. It’s bittersweet to see the track torn out. I have a lot of personal connections to that facility — from both my academic and athletic careers.

Growing up in Kansas running cross country and track, KU was held in high esteem. The University hosted annual cross country and track meets for the region’s best high schoolers each fall and spring. The fall cross country meet predated the state meet and served as a de facto championship for several years. Those early meets were held on the hills surrounding the stadium (now it’s held at Rim Rock Farm, a beautiful cross country course north of Lawrence). But the track meet — the Kansas Relays — was the granddaddy of them all. It lasted three-days and hosted athletes competing at the high school, college, and professional levels. It was a major event that attracted thousands of spectators. As recently as 2006 I remember their being as many as 30,000 spectators — enough to fill half of the stadium.

The meet has been held annually for over 80 years. It’s been an important meet in the history of the sport, too. During track and field’s heyday Relay Carnivals became common and extremely popular. Nationally there are four major relay meets: the Penn Relays, Texas Relays, the Drake Relays, and the Kansas Relays. The Kansas Relays are continuing on, of course. Track and Field has long been one of KU’s marquee programs and they built a brand-new, state-of-the art facility, which the program badly needed.

My sadness in seeing the track go is strictly nostalgic. By most accounts the Memorial Stadium track wasn’t great. It was one of the few facilities that I ran on still measured in yards instead of meters (because, as the rumor goes, they didn’t have the room to expand it). I always remember it being a little hard, uneven and patchy. But the surface didn’t matter to me and thousands of other athletes. It was an honor to be running at KU, dwarfed by the towering walls of the stadium under the bright lights, with a rowdy crowd cheering you on. The atmosphere of it all was great.

Of course, beyond that atmosphere was the history. The Kansas Relays and the University of Kansas track and field program has an illustrious past (and present). KU has won a handful of NCAA team championships in the sport (including the women’s last year). They team has also developed several Olympians and world record holders. As a distance runner I was well versed in this history growing up. Glenn Cunningham held the mile record in the 1930s, Wes Santee held it while chasing the 4-minute barrier in the 1950s, and Wichita East high school phenom Jim Ryun set his mark before matriculating to KU in the 1960s. Billy Mills won the 1964 Olympic 10,000m after graduating from KU and later held the 6-mile world record. Al Oerter, another KU alum, won four Olympic gold medals in the discus. They all competed and practiced on that track. Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain even competed for the Jayhawk track team.

When I was in college I competed in the 4-x-mile relay at the Kansas Relays. I recorded my career fastest mile time as a split in one of those races. I don’t know if it was the lights (the race was after dark), the crowd, the adrenaline, or just the history, but I’ll never forget that race. I was a pretty mediocre runner throughout my career but I always felt world-class at the Kansas Relays because I knew I was running on the same stretches as my heroes, my feet landing in the same places as theirs.

Saying goodbye to a track with that much history is hard, but the decision is the right one. Almost all major track and field programs now have their own track specific facilities that feature pristine running surfaces, jumping pits, and throwing rings. The nostalgia of Memorial Stadium held KU back in improving these areas. The new improvements will help KU attract top athletes and maintain a high level of success that matches the program’s history.

The sport of track and field has already experienced its decline in popularity. This has been a half-century long process. My own theory blames an increasing move away from team-centered programs towards. It’s rare to find a team that is strong in all facets of the sport — sprinting, jumping, hurdling, throwing, and distance running. Likewise, the sport has increasingly focused on individual marks. As an a former athlete and coach, I admit that these developments have been great for improving performances and developing talent, but as spectator, they make it harder to follow the sport.

In track and field’s heyday the sport centered on weekday duals and weekend meets. Duals required that both team put 2 or 3 individuals in each event. The dual was then scored giving points to each team based on where they placed. Every race mattered. At the end of the dual you had a clear winner and a tidy box-score (like baseball) of the performances for the newspaper. On the weekends, meets operated similarly but with more teams. Winning a meet was a major accomplishment and the goal of many coaches. Fans could follow these results — both in the stands and through newspapers — to measure how well a team was doing.

As I said earlier, the sport has evolved past this. Today some programs focus on training only a handful of event groups. Dual meets rarely exist and team scores aren’t standard at lots of meets. Coaches and athletes are focused on getting certain performances standards to qualify for regional and national meets, not winning team titles. This evolution has been really good for the athletes and has greatly enhanced the quality of the sport. A lot of coaches believe that the old system encouraged over-racing that complicated training schedules making it difficult to achieve peak performances. For example, Wes Santee once remarked that he may have broken the four-minute barrier first, but he was always running 3 or 4 events in meets and never really fresh.

Track and field is a different sport now. And, in a lot of ways, it’s a better sport now, too. The removal of the track from Memorial Stadium at the University of Kansas is a part of the sport’s evolution. It’s actually fairly remarkable that KU kept its track inside of stadium this long. But those of us versed in its history know why they did. That’s why the news this week tugs at the hearts of those of us who are nostalgic for the large crowds of yesteryear, but also excites us as we see KU moving forward to build on its tradition in the new world of track and field.

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