The University of Minnesota hosted the NCAA track and field meet at Memorial Stadium in June 1948. Southern Cal, led by the great sprinter Mel Patton, was considered a cinch to take away the team title.
Fortune Gordien was a muscular young man from Minneapolis Roosevelt and a future world record-holder in the discus throw for 10 years. He won the discus and finished second in the shot put for the Gophers, and other points were found here and there, and late on the second day, it came down to the last event:
Now a staple as the triple jump, it was known as the “hop, step and jump” and was contested at the NCAAs only in Olympic years. It was so novel to Minnesotans that track expert Sid Hartman offered a two-paragraph primer on its components in the next day’s Minneapolis Sunday Tribune.
This was necessary because Loyd LaMois, from Akeley, Minn., pointed toward the event by coach Jim Kelly, hopped, stepped and jumped 43 feet, 10 inches, to win the event and the NCAA championship for the Gophers.
“This was the first time I jumped from a board,” LaMois said. “I tried the hop, step and jump for the first time in practice last week.”
Of such resolve have been Gophers trackmen, before and for 72 years since, although not for much longer.
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The acreage occupied by the University of Minnesota’s track and field facility behind the Bierman Building was sacrificed for the massive Athletes Village that would cost $170 million, primarily to boost the football program.
Athletic director Norwood Teague seized the land with no plan for replacing the track and field facility. Those athletes were shipped over to Hamline’s track facility and that resulted in a federal Title IX complaint from the women’s program.
Mark Coyle became the AD in May 2016 and, four months later, announced a plan to build a track and field stadium and facility — east of Siebert Field — that eventually would cost $19 million.
“It is important for us to have an NCAA-level track and field facility on campus,” Coyle said to university officials in early September 2016.
Two years later, in July 2018, the university’s recreation department and its facilities management office announced that a $7.4 million renovation would take place to vastly upgrade the ancient U of M Field House on University Ave.
The Field House receives much general usage and has been the primary home to indoor track and field. There are three large meets scheduled for the Field House this winter, starting with the Minnesota Open on Jan. 11.
This aggressive approach to track and field facilities seemed to indicate a solid future for both genders of the former Hamline orphans. With the men in 2019-20, there were 71 athletes splitting 12.6 scholarships.
Solid deal for the U, it seems, when you also consider track athletes as a whole are outstanding academic achievers, and the men’s program is a true link to the East African community that has been a growing part of the Twin Cities metro area.
This started with the great Hassan Mead, born in Somalia, who came here with his family, and ran at Minneapolis South as a high school senior, and there were other Gophers distance runner of renown, including Garry Bjorklund, Steve Plasencia, Buddy Edelen, Don Timm and on through the decades.
The Gophers’ last NCAA champion in men’s track was Obsa Ali in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in 2018. He was raised in Ethiopia by a grandmother and moved to Richfield in 2007.
I interviewed him for an hour a couple of weeks before that steeplechase triumph in Eugene, Ore. Bright, committed, successful, grateful to the university and the Gophers coaches for their belief in him.
Coyle took a look at the costly new facilities and renovations, and the legacy of recent athletes such as Ali and Mead, and a week ago he announced that men’s track and field was being dropped, along with men’s tennis and gymnastics, starting in 2021-22.
Plasencia was a spectacular distance runner for Gophers coaching legend Roy Griak in the late ’70s. He ran for Nike in Oregon and for the United States in two Olympics (1988, ’92) and four world championships. Then, he came back to Minnesota in 1996 to replace Griak as the cross-country coach.
He has been coaching at Minnesota for 24 years, and for now, his men’s cross-country team — with 17 current athletes and five planned scholarships — has survived the 2021-22 shutdown.
We talked for a few minutes this week, with the understanding no negative remarks would be made toward his bosses. Yet, the emotion of what’s taking place was evident, as Plasencia took a brief break to compose himself.
I had asked about academics and later he texted this: “Our men’s team for the 2020 indoor season led the nation with 16 individual All-Academic awards from the [U.S. Track and Field and CrossCountry] Coaches Association. There were only five other programs with more than 10.”
OK, that’s dandy, but we need 10 more walk-ons, and five more assistants to the assistant coaches, and three more trainers, and anything else football can find on which to waste its profits, so sorry track guys … we can’t have you cluttering up the study areas at the Athletes Village.
There are video games to be played in there.
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