At 8:24 last Saturday night, a tall, lithe Negro from San Jose State College named Dennis Johnson jogged easily in the dim light behind a wire fence set at the head of the 220-yard straightaway in Fresno ( Calif.) State College's Ratcliffe Stadium. When Starter Tom Moore called to the eight finalists in the West Coast Relays 100-yard dash, "Runners to your blocks," Johnson took off his sweat suit, stepped through a door in the fence and walked slowly to the starting line. The man who many now think may be the fastest runner in the world was the slowest to get ready.
Moore called the runners to a set position and Johnson, whose reluctance to rise to the same set as other runners has made him as controversial as he is fast (SI, May 8), for once came up quickly—perhaps too quickly, for he broke and was charged with a false start. Moore called Johnson back, and this time Jim Bates of the University of Southern California broke. Johnson, who wasn't going to get caught again, remained anchored at his blocks. The third try was a success. Coming to a set more slowly than the others, Johnson was last to get off. Immediately he started to make up ground. At 40 yards he was even with the leader, Doug Smith of Occidental. At 60 he had the lead. Striding gracefully and looking remarkably relaxed, he crossed the finish line a yard ahead of Smith to win his 11th straight race this year. His time was 9.4, his third 9.4 of the spring. He has also run three 100s in 9.5, four in 9.3 (tying the world record held by nine others) and, with an eight-mph wind behind him, one in 9.2. Once again San Jose State, noted for its speed
men, was out in front in the dashes.
Noted? Well, yes, although for many Americans, San Jose State is merely a vaguely recollected name, a memory of an Olympic year and a disappointing sprinter named Ray Norton. In point of fact, San Jose State is neither small (14,000 students and growing frantically) nor insignificant. Athletically, it has one of the best track teams in the country and the best sprint coach, Lloyd C. (Bud) Winter. But in some ways it is a wonder the college has a team at all. The track budget is $3,800, from one-fifth to one-tenth the size of budgets at other schools. The facilities would discredit the average high school: the track is often as hard and baked as a sandlot infield: the locker rooms, built in the 1920s, have been condemned several times; the permanent stands consist of a half dozen rows of splintery, sun-bleached wood, plus a few well-warmed and precarious seats on the tin roof of the locker rooms. Yet San Jose has turned out some notable track men: Pole Vaulter George Mattos, High Jumper Herm Wyatt. Javelin Thrower Bob Likens, Sprinter Norton and now Dennis Johnson.
A team with promise
This season San Jose has developed such strength in some events that Winter considers his team a real contender in the NCAA championships next month. Pole vaulters Dick Kimmell and Dick Gear have cleared 15 feet, Kimmell for the first time Saturday with a leap of 15 feet 1� inches. Willie Williams, the only man to beat Johnson this season, has run a 46.3 quarter mile leg in a mile relay. Ron Clark has covered two miles in 8:55. Both Dan Studney and Harry Edwards have scaled the discus over 173 feet, and Studney holds a 244 feet 4 inches mark in the javelin. Gene Zubrinsky has high jumped 6 feet 10, although he is just as likely to go 6 feet 2.
Winter's finest performers, are the 100-yard-dash men. Besides Johnson and Williams, he has Bob Poynter, who has been clocked in 9.4 and may be second only to Johnson when he is in condition. Out of competition and recovering from a back injury is Jimmy Omagbemi, who ran for Nigeria in the last Olympics and who is, at 31, one of the oldest sprinters in the world. Omagbemi, a cheerful, cultured fellow, ran a blazing 20.5 220 in the 1960 Pacific AAU meet, and has twice run 9.4 hundreds; one of those, in 1959, beat Olympic Champion Armin Hary. "I gave Hary a little surprise package," says Omagbemi with a wide grin. "We were running in his home town in Germany and everybody was watching him. No one even looked at me until the finish, and there I was—first. He's been afraid of me ever since."
Winter's success with sprinters dates back to Hal Davis at Salinas ( Kansas) Junior College. Winter himself, as a student at California, was an undistinguished dash man and a reserve end on the football team. He went to Salinas in the mid-'30s as journalism instructor, public relations man, track and football coach, and was well on his way to athletic obscurity when Davis arrived. Almost overnight Davis, Winter and Salinas became big names among track people. Davis ran the 100 in 9.4, the 220 in 20.4, and whipped the best sprinters of his time.
When Winter went to San Jose in 1942, the deal called for Davis to go with him. Davis, however, enrolled at California, where he ran against—and beat—his old coach's sprint men.
A recruiting zealot, soft-spoken but persuasive Bud Winter soon had a steady stream of fine track prospects flowing into San Jose State. Even Hary came under the Winter wing, for three hectic days. That was in August of 1959, when Hary and Dutch broad jumper Henk Visser came to San Jose for a look around. Winter had invited Visser who, Winter says, had in turn invited Hary. Winter, of course, knew of Hary, but he did not know of his educational philosophy. Visser and Hary apparently wanted treatment in the European manner—a big hotel, liberal charge privileges and no serious studies or outside work. San Jose's budget and principles could not tolerate this. Visser went off to Bakersfield Junior College and Hary went back to Germany, without even setting foot on Winter's track.
Before Johnson, Winter's finest runner at San Jose State was Norton. When he was running easily, there was no faster man in the world. But Norton often became tense. At such times he was just another very fast track man who could lose a race, as he did against Hary and four others in the 1960 Olympics. According to Winter, Norton was trying too hard, and that is the worst thing a runner can do.