I remember the good old days of track and field in Illinois, when the Chicago Public League was an annual contender for the state championship, when the city, suburbs and Downstate produced Olympic sprinters, hurdlers, distance runners and jumpers. But that era has passes as swiftly as the stopwatch.
I was a freshman baseball player at Blue Island (now Eisenhower) in 1955 when Willie May emerged as the most dominant hurdler in state history.
Whenever Willie was scheduled to compete in the highs or lows on the adjacent track, everything and everybody would stop what they were doing. "The gun's up, Willie's gonna run," someone would shout. And baseball practice would stop while everyone watched Willie run. Nobody ever caught him.
It was a magical year. Willie, Paul Fuller, Ron Helberg and Robert Rechord, the 880-yard relay team, won the state championship by scoring 18 points to New Trier's 14 1/3. Willie swept the high and low hurdles, the 880 relay won and Rechord was third in the 220.
The state has known other magical years, great teams and great athletes in track and field. Ralph Metcalfe, Ira Murchison, May, Mike Conley, Sunder Nix, Rick Wohlhuter and Greg Foster became Olympians.
Bloom, East St. Louis, East St. Louis Lincoln and Thornwood each won four state titles in a row. Evanston won three in a row.
There were great individual performances from Bloom's Leroy Jackson, Evanston's Howard Jones and Bob McGee, Luther South's Mike Conley, Leo's Ryan Shields, Zion-Benton's Quiande Moore and Wheaton North's Adam Harris.
Conley won four individual titles in 1981 but Luther South lost to Leo 46-40. Conley's triple jump of 51-11 1/2 in 1981 remains the longest leap in state history.
Three state records established in the 1980s still stand. In 1985, Mount Carmel's Harold Leonard won the 400 in Class AA in 46.51 seconds and Stevenson's Mark Deady won the 1,600 in Class AA in 4:07.45. In 1986, Kenwood's Steve Thomas set a Class AA standard by running 100 meters in 10.37 seconds.
In 1973, Lebanon's Craig Virgin set a then national record of 8:38.7 in the 3,200--on the same day that Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 32 lengths--and Mike McFarland of Parker (now Robeson) set an all-time best of 20.7 seconds for 200 meters in 1974.
Evanston and Lane Tech each scored 27 points to tie for the state team title in 1974, the last time a Public League representative has won a state crown in track and field.
What happened? Why is the Public League no longer competitive in the state meet? Why aren't there any more great sprinters or hurdlers being developed in Illinois? Why has track and field ceased to be an exciting and compelling sport?
One reason is the great athletes no longer choose to compete in track and field. Instead, they play basketball on a year-round basis. Or they lift weights and train with speed coaches in the offseason and concentrate on football. The caliber of the major spring sports, track and baseball, has suffered significantly.
But Skip Stolley, who track and cross-country at Proviso West, Thornwood and Thornridge, then coached at Indiana State and later became an elite club coach in California, has another view. He insists his sport's decline in Illinois isn't because of year-round basketball. "Quite simply, it is because track and field is a coach-driven sport," he said.
"Today, some two-thirds of Illinois' high school track coaches are walk-ons, non-faculty coaches who come on campus at the end of the school day to coach. The need for walk-on coaches was created by the elimination of physical education as a high school graduation requirement.
"So today, high school athletics is carried on the backs of walk-on coaches in almost all sports other than football and basketball. This is not to say that there aren't some great non-faculty coaches in sports like track and field. There are. But being a walk-on coach makes recruiting and promoting your program in the hallways and classrooms almost impossible.
"It is not surprising that today most schools have a new track coach every three years--and that is not how you build a program and develop great teams and great athletes."