As the 100-meter-dash finalists went to the blocks in LSU's palpably humid Bernie Moore Stadium last Friday night, it was obvious that the 1981 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships had, in no time at all, really cranked up. On this, the first night of finals, perennial team champion Texas-El Paso already had fallen an alarming 31 points behind Southern Methodist and faced the possibility of finishing third in the five-day meet (the first two days are devoted solely to the decathlon) behind SMU and either Arizona State or Tennessee. Olympic decathlete Tito Steiner of Brigham Young and Argentina had broken his own collegiate record by scoring 8,279 points, and a superb field of 400-meter runners had sifted itself out in the heats preceding what promised to be an exciting final the next evening. And within the hour, UTEP's Suleiman Nyambui, an eight-time NCAA track champion, would be running the first half of a 10,000-5,000 double that, if he were successful in either race, would enable him to surpass Jesse Owens and Gerry Lindgren for total NCAA track and field titles.
And then there was Houston's remarkable Carl Lewis, now lining up in Lane 6. Lewis, who was bidding to become the first since Owens to win both a track and a field event at the NCAA outdoor meet, had already finished first in two 100-meter heats and with a 27'¾" leap—made indoors because of rain—had taken his second straight outdoor long-jump title. He had so dominated the event that, despite passing up six of nine possible attempts, he had the three best jumps of the meet and had won by more than a foot. Lewis might have leaped even farther, but as his father. Bill, who had been up all Thursday night before traveling from Willingboro, N.J. to Baton Rouge, pointed out, "There's just no more pit."
Bill's wife, Evelyn, was more concerned about the 100. "The long jump is natural to Carl," she said. "Those sprinters are much...closer to him." She wasn't referring to the fact that Mel Lattany of Georgia, the runner two lanes to Carl's left, had spent part of Friday afternoon with her son studying the Bible. Rather, it was that Lattany had a 10.04 to his credit this spring, only .04 off Lewis' personal best, and had looked particularly strong in the heats.
Squeezed between Lattany and Lewis was another threat—Tennessee's massive (6'2", 205 pounds) Jeff Phillips, who everyone thought was a white football player, but, in fact, is neither. Phillips, seemingly the only Vol runner not on the school's football team, invariably is asked at meets, by some irreverent soul, how a white sprinter can be so fast; to which he patiently answers that his mother is white, but his father is black. Two of his siblings share his straight hair and fair complexion, while the other four are curly-haired and dark-skinned. "I've never considered it a problem," he says. Then, grinning, he reveals, "Reggie Towns, our hurdler, has nicknamed me 'Checkerboard.' " On the track, Phillips had beaten Lewis in 10.1 at a dual meet in March, and had run the fastest semifinal time of the NCAA meet, 10.11.
With the gun, Lattany shot out to a half-meter lead over Lewis, and fell into his distinctive sprinting style: head jerking forward and back like a time-lapse film study of a turtle poking in and out of his shell. "I knew he'd won," said Lewis later, speaking of Lattany's early lead. "It just seemed too much." But by 50 meters, Lewis and Phillips had drawn even with Lattany. Both had gone past Herschel Walker in such a whir that they caused the Georgia tailback to lose his form and eventually finish seventh (in 10.30) in the nine-man field. "They went by, but they didn't get lost," he said later.
Into the last five meters, Phillips and Lewis were still side by side, by now clear of Lattany. But just as he had done two weeks earlier at the Tom Black Classic in Knoxville, Lewis caught the tape first, on a better lean. Immediately, his arms shot up in jubilation—at the victory, and at what he knew would be an extraordinary time. "I felt strained in the last five meters," Lewis said. "I'd never felt that before."
The times confirmed it: Lattany third in 10.06, Phillips second, in 10.00, and Lewis, the winner, in 9.99—.04 off Jim Hines' 1968 world record of 9.95. But the wind, which in May had deprived Lewis of recognition for the second-best long jump ever, 28'3¾", had been 2.54 meters per second, .54 above the legal limit. Again an exceptional performance by Lewis would be disallowed for record purposes.
Not that Lewis seemed disturbed by the news. "Winning that 100 was probably the biggest thrill of my life," he said, though with Houston a nascent national power in track and field, Lewis next year may find himself with an even more rewarding challenge: scoring points in the 100, 200, long jump and 400 relay to help the Cougars win the team title. In Baton Rouge, had Lewis been his own team, his two firsts, worth 20 points, would have ranked him seventh in the team standings.
As always, the favorite team going into this year's NCAA meet was Coach Ted Banks' UTEP Miners, winners of 14 of the last 23 NCAA track and cross-country titles. But for once the African-dominated team looked vulnerable—as well as venerable, with many of its foreign-born athletes in their mid-20s. Banks' own premeet dopesheet forecast a blanket finish: UTEP 63, Southern Methodist 62 and Arizona State 60. The way ASU Coach Len Miller had it figured, his sprinter-rich squad would defeat the Miners 68-66, with SMU third at 63. "But what UTEP has is potential," said Miller. "They could score 90."
In Friday's 10,000, the Miners cashed in some of that potential, taking first, second, third and fifth to swoop to within five points of SMU. Banks had said that his team needed at least 35 points in the distance events; with only the 10,000 run, it already had 26.