Over the last few days I’ve rolled out the College Dual Meet Hall of Fame. I’ve named the initial honorees in the categories of “Rivalry” (USC vs UCLA) and “Venue” (Hayward Field). Now it’s time to name a coach.
Obviously, you’d need a coach who won a lot of dual meets (and lost very few). You’d also need a coach who took them seriously, as seriously as conference or national championship meets. You’d need someone who thought that winning was the only thing and did everything it took to gain an edge.
The man who fits the bill is John Chaplin, the former head coach at Washington State.
Photo courtesy Washington State University
Chaplin is one of those people who would rather be feared than loved. Now chairman of USATF’s men’s track and field committee, he’s a controversial figure (and that may be an understatement). But there is no denying that he was probably the single most successful dual-meet coach in the history of college track, when all things are considered.
In his 21 years as coach at WSU, from 1974 to 1994, Chaplin’s dual meet record was 202 wins against 15 losses, an insane winning percentage of .931. His teams won six of Track and Field News‘ mythical dual meet national championships, once rolling to five straight undefeated seasons. The Cougars had more success in duals than in any other type of competition.
In April 1978, this is what he told the Eugene Register-Guard’s John Conrad after his Cougars beat Oregon for the national dual-meet title:
Chaplin, now with a chance to win them both, was asked his preference between the dual and NCAA championship.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I think for the dual championship to mean as much you would need more teams running dual meets. It isn’t emphasized in the east as it is in the west. The difference is in the NCAA meet you just sit back and appreciate tremendous individual talent. In a big dual meet, you’re biting your fingernails all afternoon.”
“I don’t think you could ask for much more excitement than this.”
Winning isn’t the thing that makes Chaplin stand apart in the annals of college coaches. There have been longer winning streaks and gaudier win/loss records, but no one put on a show like Chaplin. Not only did his antics take his opponents off their game, but it made for headlines and put people in the stands. He was more like an old-school football coach in this regard. Remember how Woody Hayes wouldn’t ever say the word “Michigan”, only “that school up north”? Chaplin had a similar attitude towards Oregon, the only team that beat his more than twice. The Oregonian’s Ken Goe:
I remember covering Oregon-Washington State duals that were all-out wars in the UO coach Bill Dellinger-WSU coach John Chaplin years. Chaplin, ever the showman, wouldn’t talk to reporters once he crossed the Columbia. He made exception once to chew me out on the infield at Hayward for what he perceived as my unfair treatment of Dellinger.
Photo courtesy Washington State University
In a three-part series on the Washington State-Washington dual meet series, Paul Merca dedicated the entire second part to Chaplin and the antics he would go through to put the Huskies off their game.
In 1981, I was in the WSU training room at Bohler Gym waiting on triple jumper Kevin Turner and another Husky athlete receiving treatment from our team trainer, when Chaplin, who had a reputation as a bit of a motormouth, plopped himself onto a treatment table and said loudly, “We’re kicking your ass today”, after which he picked himself off the table, and walked out of the room.
All of us looked at each other as if to say, “He did not just say that!” and “Thanks for telling us the obvious”, given that his team was loaded with world-class talent, and had beaten the UW earlier that season in Seattle 98-65.
Though Washington still lost in Pullman 91-72, Chaplin’s comment fired up several members of the Huskies, particularly those who ran poorly against the Cougars in the earlier meeting in Seattle that season.
During a break at the USA Track & Field convention in Reno in December, I reminded Chaplin of his antics in Pullman, to which he put his arm around me in fatherly fashion and said, “I was only trying to get into your heads.”
Like many great coaches, to the opposing team he was an asshole. But if you were on his team, he was your asshole.
Tomorrow, I get down to the real stuff and name five athletes. All were dominant, and all did amazing things for their teams in dual meets.