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Villanova, they're beautiful. They come in with one ticket: guts. They stand up and look you in the eye, although outnumbered about 10 to one and with blisters peeling the skin off both feet, and they say, laddies, out of our way or you'll have spike marks up your spines. Last weekend they mustered at the NCAA indoor championships in Detroit, and on paper Jumbo Elliott's handful of Wildcats figured to finish no better than third. Villanova? Against the power of Wisconsin, the muscle of Kansas, the talent of the University of Texas at El Paso, the speed of USC? You've got to be kidding. The Wildcats had only enough limping wounded to enter seven events.
So much for tangibles. You don't score any points with those. The stopwatch doesn't know a kid running in pain from a marble statue, and whoever hits the tape first wins, and an unemotional voice over the PA announces the next event.
As the voice boomed on the first day of the two-day competition, calling the field for the two-mile final, Marty Liquori, Villanova's trump card, smiled, shrugged and stepped to the starting line. Just an hour earlier he had breezed a 4:06.7 to qualify for the mile final the next day.
"We're hoping that Marty can get a third place," said Elliott, jotting a number in a notebook. The number was six, which is what you get when you win. Third place is worth three points. "It's asking a lot of him to double with only an hour's rest." Elliott looked at Liquori who was waiting for the starting gun. It was the look of a man watching his son about to attack an enemy bunker single-handed. "Can you believe anyone asking Marty to settle for third place in anything?" Elliott said.
A few days before the race Liquori had wanted to run only the mile. Before Jim Ryun's comeback, Liquori had been America's premier miler. Then, a month ago at San Diego, Ryun had tied the indoor record (3:56.4). Going into Detroit, Liquori had only one thought: break that record. Until Elliott called him aside and talked to him.
"I really didn't like the idea of doubling until Jumbo went over our possible scoring with me," Liquori said. "I'll still be embarrassed if I lose the mile, but I have to look at it this way. Very truthfully, I've won so many races I've forgotten most of them. If I win another one, or another two, it won't matter that much. I'll forget it one way or another in a week. I don't live in the past. But there are the other guys. For someone who isn't lucky enough to run a sub-four-minute mile, the team championship will mean something. If I can help them say they are members of a national championship team, then that's something else. And here's me, only wanting to run the mile and go for the record."
"Which record?" someone asked.
"Oh, any record," Marty said.
Figuring Liquori to be spent from his mile heat, last year's two-mile winner, Jerry Richey of Pitt, opened with a scorching pace. "He was trying to psych me out," said Liquori later. "I figured someone would."
Wayne Vandenburg, the youthful, exuberant UTEP coach, had to laugh at that. Vandenburg, whose team was very much in the running for the championship, has patterned his clubs somewhat after Elliott's. "You don't psych out those kids of Jumbo's," he said. "The backbone of his team is those tough-minded, Eastern-type kids who'll die before they let you beat them. Kids like Liquori. The type of kids we're looking for, the ones who know they're better than anybody they're facing and will bust their guts proving it. That Jumbo, when he talks, I listen. I may not agree all the time, but I sure will spend a lot of time thinking before I disagree. I love and respect that man, but I'd rather beat him than eat for a week."