Aggies track teams make history
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Following periods of draining heat and humidity -- followed by raining cats and dogs -- blissfully perfect weather settled in Iowa's capital city on the last -- and shortest -- day of competition at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships.
A couple of hours Saturday on the famed blue track at Drake University ended in a historic feat for one school after various twists, turns, cliff-hangers and record-setting performances had played out over the four-day meet.
It took until the final two races -- the 400-meter relays -- for Texas A&M to secure an unprecedented "triple-double:" winning both the men's and women's NCAA team championships for the third year in a row. "Oh, we didn't make it hard for ourselves," joked Texas A&M coach Pat Henry of the nerve-racking chase for the titles. "It's the other guys who make it hard. If they'd just leave us alone, we'd be OK."
For the men, Texas A&M's 55 points edged Florida State by one and third-place Florida by two. On the women's side, the Aggies won with 49 points, with Oregon at 45 and LSU at 43.5. Some of college track's bigger names had uncharacteristically subpar performances, which ended up being crucial factors in both team-title outcomes.
Florida's two-sport standout, Jeff Demps, entered the meet as the top-ranked collegiate men's 100-meter sprinter and anchor of the favored 4x100 relay squad. Demps, the Gators' football team's leading rusher last season, won the NCAA 100-meter title in 2010 and took the indoor 60-meter NCAA championships in 2010 and '11.
But this year's outdoor meet just didn't go his way. He failed to qualify for the 100 final, then the Gators had a baton-exchange problem and didn't finish the 4x100 relay final. Demps and his teammates, who won back-to-back NCAA indoor team championships this year and last, were crestfallen by not getting the school's first NCAA outdoor championship. Last year, the Gators were second outdoors to Texas A&M by one point.
Rather than Demps being this meet's men's star, the guy who stole the show was Florida State's Ngoni Makusha. The junior from Zimbabwe took home three NCAA titles: in the 100, the long jump and the 4x100 relay. His 100 time of 9.89 seconds on a rainy Friday night provided the individual highlight of this meet. He broke Ato Boldon's collegiate record of 9.90, set in 1996.
Makusha also won the long jump, an event in which he finished fourth in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In winning both the NCAA 100 and long jump titles in the same year, he joined a select group of men who've done that: Carl Lewis (1981 for Houston), Jessie Owens (1935-36 for Ohio State) and DeHart Hubbard (1925 for Michigan).
On Saturday, after helping FSU win the 4x100 relay title, it still hadn't really hit him that he is truly an elite sprinter. "I haven't realized it yet," he said. "I know I'm able to compete with the best athletes, but I'm just figuring that out. Maybe my perspective will change after this weekend when I take some time off at home to think about it. But right now, I'm still amazed by everything that's happened."
Meanwhile, Oregon's women -- like Florida's men -- won the past two NCAA indoor team titles and were second outdoors to Texas A&M last year and hoped in Des Moines to get their first outdoor championship since 1985. But just as it was a difficult week for Demps, it was the same for Ducks sophomore runner Jordan Hasay.
This outdoor meet was a continuation of a year-long dual between Hasay and Villanova junior Sheila Reid. The two battled in the NCAA cross country championships last November, with Reid prevailing as the individual winner and leading the Wildcats to the team title. Hasay finished third in that race.
Then at the indoor track championships in March, Hasay won both the mile and the 3,000, the latter in a neck-and-neck finish with Reid coming in as runner-up by just 15-hundredths of a second.
Friday night at Drake, they were at it again in the 5,000 meters, with Hasay maintaining a slight lead for much of a tactically slow race. This time, Reid had the winning kick as Hasay faded at the end to fourth place.
Saturday, Reid became the first woman to double as 5,000 and 1,500 champ at the same NCAA meet. The pace in the 1,500 was slow again, but Hasay couldn't take advantage, finishing eighth.
It was continued validation for the Canada native Reid, who missed her outdoor track and cross country seasons in 2008 after a serious hip injury she suffered stumbling over a tree root on a training run in March of that year.
It was a rough conclusion to this school year for the Californian Hasay, who seemed perplexed by her performances and especially upset that she hadn't scored more for the Ducks with better finishes. "I don't know what happened," Hasay said through tears. "All weekend, I just haven't had that kick. I don't know if we just didn't peak right or if I'm tired or what. We'll have to reaccess it. I'm more upset for the team thing; we needed some big points."
Hasay has two more years of collegiate track to remedy her disappointment. The emotion she displayed shows how much the team aspect means, even to athletes in a mostly individual sport.
Texas A&M's Henry is a big advocate of collegiate track and field trying to emphasize its team aspect even more than it already does. Henry looks at each Aggies team that has won these titles over the last three years as its own entity, with varying chemistry, personalities and leaders. Each group stands out very specifically to him. Obviously, though, he understands media and spectators think more in "dynastic" and "superpower" terms, and that's what Texas A&M has quickly become in the collegiate track and field world under his watch.
The Aggies -- and everybody else -- have quite a ways to go before ever catching the 14 outdoor championships of LSU's women (most of which Henry was architect for) or the 26 of Southern Cal's men (all won prior to 1977). But the Aggies have come a long way in a brief time under Henry.
It's part of the overall sports-culture upgrade of the last decade in College Station, Texas, starting when Bill Byrne took over as athletics director. In his tenure, A&M has become competitive in the Big 12 and nationally in virtually every sport. Along with the Aggies' NCAA track titles of the past three seasons, the school also won its first women's basketball national championship this year. Texas A&M won the men's golf NCAA title in 2009.
Byrne's first stop as athletic director was in 1984 at Oregon, the school that reveres track and field more than any in the nation. In 1992, he went to Nebraska, where Olympic sports programs such as track and volleyball continued to blossom. He relocated in December 2002 to the Big 12's southern-most school, Texas A&M, a place where -- like Nebraska -- football is worshipped but there exists a tangible alumni pride in all athletics accomplishments.
Byrne hired coach Gary Blair in 2003 to take over a moribund women's basketball program that at the time had never even been a relevant factor in the Big 12. The Aggies' ascent culminated with the NCAA title in April. Then in 2004, Byrne went after the most successful track coach in the country, LSU's Henry, and lured him to come oversee a program that had never won an NCAA indoor or outdoor title on the men's or women's side.
As part of the overall facilities upgrades that has occurred under Byrne's watch, the Aggies now have the state-of-the-art Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium. It has been host to two NCAA indoor championships, including this season's. The next major step for the Aggies' track juggernaut is a new outdoor facility to replace the outdated Anderson Track and Field Complex. By the time that happens in the next few years, the Aggies likely could have even more NCAA trophies to house there.
The two team titles they won Saturday had dramatic flair. Texas A&M senior Tabarie Henry, knowing the Aggies men had to win the 4x400 to be team champions, ran a powerful anchor leg and held off LSU challenger Riker Hylton.
Just before that, Henry's senior counterpart on the A&M women's side, anchor Jessica Beard, blazed to a NCAA meet-record split of 49.14 to overtake Auburn's lead in the 4x400 and win the race. Beard had previously won the individual 400 title here in 51.10.
"My goal was to develop another program, to be in the mix every year," Henry said of coming to Texas A&M after so much success at LSU. "Young people are young people -- doesn't make any difference if they play football, basketball, baseball, track. They talk to each other. And if the track team or any team wins, the other kids start looking at each other like, 'Well, we can win, too.'
"You've got to create an environment where one sports starts winning, because then another starts, too. And then another. Then you've got a whole department winning."
As he said that, Henry was handed a cell phone. It was Bill Byrne calling with congratulations.
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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