Year after year the NCAA Track and Field Championships present a contrast in big men vs. big teams. In most respects the 45th annual renewal, held last week on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, was no exception. On hand was Randy Matson, the world record holder in the shotput and a Texas A&M junior who was competing in this meet for the first time. On hand was Gerry Lindgren, the wispy distance runner from Washington State, another athlete of international reputation who was also competing in the NCAA for the first time. On hand, too, was a 15-man aggregation from UCLA in Los Angeles, determined to win the team title.
There was one other big man last week, but he differed from Matson and Lindgren in an important respect: he came from a team with title hopes. He was a tall, long-legged sprinter from San Jose State named Tommie Smith. Four times in the last six weeks he had broken world records. Now, far from the bright days and fast tracks of California, he was going to show the rest of the world why those who claimed he was the most exciting sprinter ever to hurtle through a stretched-out piece of yarn were right. And he might upset UCLA.
True to form, Matson produced a meet record in the shot (67 feet 1� inches) and another in the discus (197 feet). True to form, Lindgren won both the three-and six-mile runs easily. And, true to form, the pale-blue uniforms of UCLA were everywhere, but generally in front as its wearers compiled 81 points and won by a record margin of 48 over second-place Brigham Young.
But at the end there was one form that was having no part of the familiar hand-pumping and congratulations that are so much a part of track. It belonged to Tommie Smith, who lay in pain in a medical tent behind the stands, staring gloomily through dark glasses at the canvas ceiling. In the final of the 440-relay an overworked hamstring had blown out, and Smith, who should have been the biggest man in the meet, was still waiting for the recognition that could someday be his.
Smith, unfortunately, was the victim of team competition, which is the essence of the NCAA meet. He was scheduled to step out on Indiana's new, all-weather Grasstex composition track and, in a virtual one-man attack on UCLA, run seven times. He was also to broad-jump into Indiana's heavy sand pit on two consecutive days. But if he had known what was in the mind of UCLA Coach Jim Bush, he might not even have tried. Before the meet began Bush had said: "If we just get average performances from everybody, we should win by 20 to 25 points."
Bush has brought to track coaching the same clean-cut, well-pressed executive image that Darrell Royal has inspired among college football coaches. His blond hair is trimmed to a neat crew cut, his manner is friendly but firm and even his most bullish statements are based on research that would please Merrill Lynch and the rest of the firm.
Smith's coach at San Jose, Bud Winter, belongs to an older, more rumpled era, and he is a man who believes that no malapropism is too good for the star member of his team. "It will take a miracle to beat UCLA," he said, "but Tommie has got so much he may be a revolution in sprint form. This spring he looked so good just running relays that he got standing innovations."
Between standing innovations Smith set world records: 19.5 for the 200-meter and 220-yard dashes down a straight-away, 20.0 for the same distances running through a curve. He is all leg and very little torso. When he runs, his knees come up so high that if he were not moving forward at such a terrific clip an observer might think he was bounding up a steep flight of stairs. His only problem is his slow start. He reminds you of those first few seconds of a rocket's takeoff. You do not believe that he will ever get started, but once he does he is all excitement, floating into top speed at precisely the moment his opponents are running out of old-fashioned steam.
He was pure excitement in the early moments of the meet in Bloomington. On Thursday he qualified easily for the broad-jump finals the next afternoon and won his heat in the 100 in 9.3, tying the meet record.
"We're not too pertinent in the broad jump or in our starts," explained Coach Winter. "If he practiced those things too much he could get hurt. After all, you don't want to drive nails with a Stradivarius. Right?"