San Jose track coach Bud Winter was the finest maker of sprinters of his generation. "A humanitarian," says Smith. "This white, middle-aged gentleman coached Lee Evans, John Carlos, Ronnie Ray Smith and me at a time when we were all quivering with the beginnings of the politics of the black athlete, and he never said a word to us about any of that. He simply coached us and left us free to live our lives creatively."
Winter asked his teams to perform killing drills designed to keep their form unshakable over the final decisive yards. "The high-knee drill, the LaBeach Reach, the perfect lean, you could feel them working," says Smith.
Winter sent his sprinters out to race with unaffected ease. "The key in competition is to push exactly to the point of tiredness or tightness," says Smith. "Push any harder and you stop."
As a sophomore in 1965, Smith pushed elegantly to a 20.0 for the straightaway 220, tying Frank Budd's world record. He was memorable for his acceleration—dubbed the Tommie-jet gear in the press—and for wearing dark sunglasses in races. He maintained that shielding his eyes from the sun kept him relaxed. (Nebraska sprinter Charlie Greene coolly responded by terming his own glasses reentry shades.) "Tommie loved those dark glasses because he was so shy," says Linda Huey, the lone female in Winter's sprint stable, who would become a lifelong friend of Smith's.
The rewards of Smith's performances and renown were largely spiritual. There was no money. Summers, Smith scrubbed floors at Lemoore Naval Air Station with his father.
Quarter-miler Lee Evans, 2½ years younger than Smith, transferred to San Jose State from San Jose City College in 1965. Evans, too, had been seasoned by farm labor. "We think we saw each other in the Valley when we were kids," says Smith. "Cutting grapes."
"Tommie was my example," says Evans. "He went to class."
Otherwise, they were a contrast. Smith was contained. Evans was funny and bold. Smith was liquid grace. Evans was burly, head-rolling determination. "He was strength, I was speed," says Smith. When Smith and Evans became teammates and close friends, Winter kept them apart. "Subtly," says Smith. "He never said anything about it. We just always found ourselves in different events."
In 1966 Evans ran the 400 in 45.2 and was ranked first in the world at the distance. Smith set a world record of 19.5 for the straightaway 220. "One day in the spring of 1967," says Smith, "Bud said, 'Tom-Tom, in three weeks I'm going to put you in a quarter with Lee in the San Jose Invitational.' Lee and I both said, 'O.K.,' but we both meant, Oh, god!"
"I think that was a race they had secretly agreed never to run," says Huey.