Even after a decade of dominance, LSU seems an unlikely home for a women's track and field dynasty. South Louisiana is smitten with college football, and attendance at meets in LSU's 5,680-seat Bernie Moore Track Stadium averages less than 1,000. Last spring, after the Lady Tigers won the NCAA outdoor title for the 10th consecutive time—a streak unmatched by any other Division I women's team in any sport—they arrived home in Baton Rouge to find an empty airport. And two years ago the LSU athletic department was sued by five female students for dragging its feet in adding women's soccer and Softball as varsity sports; a U.S. district judge found LSU in violation of Title IX.
"We have two strikes against us," says Eureka Hall, a junior sprinter from Phoenix. "We run track, and we are women." Hall's attitude sums up the LSU dynasty, which could have ended because of any number of factors over the years: the loss of seemingly irreplaceable sprinters; a tumultuous coaching change eight seasons ago; rival teams that appeared to be faster and stronger. Instead, LSU kept winning—and shrugging off its doubters.
In addition to their 10 outdoor titles the Lady Tigers have won eight NCAA indoor championships, including the last five. Only the Arkansas men's track team, which won 12 NCAA indoor titles from 1984 to '95, has a longer Division I streak. LSU will try to make it 11 at the NCAA outdoor championships June 4-7 in Bloomington, Ind.
"There are days when you are running and you feel so sick you are out there throwing up," says LaTarsha Stroman, a senior LSU quarter miler from El Paso. "But we say, 'Come on, this is for number 11.' " That LSU ever became competitive in women's track is itself a surprise. In the early 1980s, when UCLA ruled the sport, the Lady Tigers lacked proper field equipment and a weight room. Their program was so moribund that in 1984, after Dan Pfaff left Texas-El Paso to become an assistant at LSU, he sat in the bleachers of the track stadium, thought about how far the program had to go and was, he recalls, "in shock. I wondered, Why did I come here?"
Things soon changed. Pfaff, fellow assistant Loren Seagrave and coach Billy Maxwell began signing athletic sleepers when no star recruits would consider LSU. In 1984 the Lady Tigers finished 68th at the NCAA outdoor meet. The next year they finished in a tie for second with Florida State. Two years later LSU won the first of its 10 straight titles. In 1988 Maxwell left for Texas, and Pat Henry, who had coached Blinn ( Texas) Junior College to the NJCAA indoor and outdoor titles the year before, was hired as coach of both the men's and women's teams at LSU. Then everything nearly fell apart.
In 1989 Seagrave was fired amid allegations that he had had an affair with one of his athletes the previous summer. Some in the track community felt the decision was unjust, but many supported it, believing Seagrave had always pushed the limits when it came to relationships with athletes and to NCAA rules. The LSU administration wished the spotlight would stay on the Lady Tigers' glorious streak, but shortly after Seagrave was fired, he sued athletic director Joe Dean and the university for wrongful dismissal and defamation of character. The suit is still pending, and the 45-year-old Seagrave, who is a co-owner of an athletic consulting firm in Atlanta, is seeking damages of $6 million.
The Seagrave fiasco could have returned the Lady Tigers to their humble origins, but instead Henry held a fractured program together and nursed it back to health, keeping the athletes focused on their work. At the 1989 outdoors, LSU competed with a vengeance. Led by Dawn Sowell, who won the 100 and 200 meters and ran second for the winning 4x100-meter relay team, LSU scored 86 points. Runner-up UCLA had 47.
The 45-year-old Henry, who also directed the LSU men to outdoor titles in 1989 and '90, is a tireless worker with a coaching pedigree. His grandfather Gwinn Henry won the 100-yard dash in then record time at the 1911 National AAU Championships and later coached college football at Kansas, Missouri and New Mexico. Gwinn Bub Henry, Pat's father, was assistant track coach at New Mexico in the 1960s.
Henry is quiet and unfailingly collected in public. What is he like with the team? "He is quiet and monotone," says D'Andre Hill, who ran for LSU from 1993 to '96 and is one of the best sprinters in school history. "After four years, we knew his motivational speech by heart: 'Everybody needs to have a good day, all on the same day....' "
An excellent recruiter, Henry has stayed ahead of powerhouses such as Florida and UCLA by focusing on sprinters. (The heat and humidity in Baton Rouge scare away many distance runners.) But LSU teams are rarely one-dimensional. They have included champion heptathletes, jumpers and middle-distance runners. LSU has never had a sprinter as famous as Gail Devers or Gwen Torrence, but the list of former Lady Tigers sprinters is full of stars: Sheila Echols, Esther Jones, Dawn Bowles, Cheryl Taplin, Sowell and Hill.