The Tennessee track and field program is one of the most storied in all of college track. In fact, through the 90s and a good part of the 80s, Knoxville was arguably a more important place in the scheme of things than Eugene.
Besides the Volunteers’ six NCAA team championships, the Vols men’s program absolutely dominated the SEC for a very long time: fifteen straight conference championships (1964-78), and never finishing lower than fourth in the SEC for an astonishing 45 years in a row (1964-2008). Doing that in a conference as tough as the SEC is an amazing feat.
I’ve been a Tennessee track fan almost as long as I’ve been a track fan. Back in the day they had big stars across a range of events, like Willie Gault and Sam Graddy and Todd Williams. I ran at the huge Volunteer Track Classic high school meet, and it was the first time I’d ever seen such a high-class track-only facility as Tom Black Track. It didn’t hurt my interest in Vol track that one of my high school teammates ran there, along with another guy from our crosstown rival school. In later years my brother came away from Knoxville with a Ph.D. and a wife, and the surrounding area and national park are some of the most beautiful scenery in the eastern United States. Throw in “Rocky Top” and a checkerboard endzone and you’ve got a place that just isn’t quite like anywhere else.
Lately, though, things have not been going so well with the Tennessee track program. First off, the men’s program has been 8th, 9th and 8th in the last three SEC Championships; JFK was still alive the last time they did so poorly even once. The women’s program hasn’t been all that great either, finishing in the middle of the road or worse over the same time span.
Now there’s more, as John Adams tells us at GoVolsXtra.com:
J.J. Clark, the director of men’s and women’s track and field, fired two veteran men’s coaches – sprint coach Norbert Elliott, and cross country coach and track assistant George Watts, a UT alum who had been at the school long enough to remember when the men’s teams competed for national championships.
The dismissals came a day after UT All-American Dentarius Locke created headlines with something other than his 200-meter time. He told a Florida newspaper he wanted to leave UT but was denied a transfer.
“The program is changing here and it’s not the way it was when I signed,” Locke told the Tampa Tribune. “I didn’t come here to be part of a rebuilding process. And the worst part is, the coaches here just don’t get along. I have one coach telling me one workout to do, and another coach will tell me something totally different.”
It’s often hard to separate a coaches’ accomplishments and awards from their recruiting and ability to make friends within the coaching community (and thus figure out who’s really good from those who can make themselves appear good), but by all accounts these two were some of the best assistants around. Their being forced out is a sign of bad blood running through the coaching staff.
Locke isn’t the first athlete who wanted out, just the most vocal who didn’t get what he wanted. Two other blue-chippers, Nia Ali (NCAA 100H champ) and Jeneba Tarmoh (NCAA 200m runner-up), left Tennessee in recent years.
Looking around the interwebs, a lot of blame has been placed on J.J. Clark. After guiding the Volunteer women to two NCAA Championships, he was promoted to Director of Track and Field two years ago when the men’s and women’s programs were combined. I’ve briefly met Clark but don’t really know him or the inner workings of the program, so I’ll at least come to his defense by pointing out that the rest of the Tennessee athletic program has gone in the crapper too. Note that the headline of Adams’ article was “Track now part of UT’s sports woes”.
Here’s how I can tell that problems were coming down the pike: Tennessee doesn’t give their fans much to see anymore. Last year they had just one college meet, the Dogwood Sea Ray Relays. That meet has been poorly attended in recent years. The Volunteer Classic high school meet traditionally included a couple of college relays, but Clark pulled them out. Knoxville once packed 9,000 people into Tom Black Track to see the Vols, but these days that might be the total attendance over four or five years.
This is part of a trend at Tennessee of withdrawing from the local community. Over the years the place hosted two NCAA Championships, two USATF Championships, an NCAA regional, two USATF Youth Championships, and two AAU Junior Olympics championships. Lately, nothing.
Tennessee managed to do all of this because it leans on a vibrant road running and track and field organization, the Knoxville Track Club. It is very much like the Oregon Track Club, in that it’s not just a participation-oriented road runner’s club (although it has a lot of that), but one that also puts on track and field events for every age and level and has a large and accomplished group of officials. Those big meets like the NCAA and USATF and Junior Olympics just couldn’t have been done without the KTC.
The KTC was created in 1962, two years before Tennessee track got big. Chuck Rohe was the man who put the Vols on the map. He was hired in 1963, the year before their amazing streak of success began, and he got involved in the KTC the moment he came to Knoxville. Like Bill Bowerman at Oregon, he knew that connecting with the larger community and bridging the gap between “town and gown” was one of the keys to long-term success.
I can only assume that the present Tennessee track program does not fully appreciate what kind of asset it has. Charlie Durham, one of the founding members of the Knoxville Track Club, had this to say:
“Being an old track guy, it’s just disappointing for people like me to see the program go down the drain,” Durham said. “We worked hard to be the best in the United States. In a period of two or three years, we’re eighth-best in our conference. When you end up eighth in the SEC outdoor meet, that’s just totally ridiculous.”
That doesn’t sound like a guy who is happy with the program or its leaders.
One of the things that has always amazed me is how few college programs reach out to their local road runners’ clubs. You have a large community of people who understand exactly what you’re all about, and many are alumni of your university (and even your team). The only thing worse than ignoring those who can help you is to push away the people who already have been helping you. This is not the cause of Tennessee’s track programs, but it’s one of the symptoms of a disease.