Track Glory at Cole Field House

On March 13, the NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships will begin at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. This year the Terps are sending two athletes, Amber Melville and Thea LaFond to compete in the high jump and triple jump against the nation’s best collegiate competitors! But did you know that Cole Field House has seen some memorable track and field performances in its day too?

For decades Cole Field House was home to a handsome four lane wooden track.
Cole Field House’s handsome looking track was wooden, 1/11th of a mile around.

It may seem hard to believe today, but Cole Field House used to have an indoor track on which some of the all-time great names in track-and field competed. From 1970 to1983, Cole hosted the annual CYO National Invitation Indoor Meet. It was the first major track meet of the year in early January and Sports Illustrated featured it each year. Dozens of Olympians, including Maryland’s own world-champion hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, came each year to compete and test themselves against the world’s best. In 1973, the meet included five different gold medalists from the 1972 Munich Olympics!

Buerkle defeats Prefontaine in the 2 mile run in 8:26.2. Cole Field House 1974.
Buerkle defeats Prefontaine in the 2 mile run in 8:26.2. Cole Field House 1974. Photo Credit: villanovarunning.blogspot.com

The 1975 meet was one of the most memorable. On January 10, some of the best middle-distance runners in the country toed the line against each other in the mile run. Steve Prefontaine, the legendary Oregon runner, was hot off a successful 1974 season where he set five American records in the 10,000 meter, 5000 meter, 3-mile, and 2-mile runs. “Pre” also came into the race looking for vengeance- the previous winter he had lost a 2-mile race to Villanova’s Dick Buerkle on Cole’s track. “Pre” rarely raced on the East Coast (he usually stuck to the Oregon area or world-class meets abroad), but a win in Cole Field House was too tempting a prize to pass up.

Joining “Pre” in the race was Tony Waldrup, a University of North Carolina ace who was the holder of the world’s fastest indoor mile at 3:55.0 and the defending NCAA champion in the same event. The formidable six-time All American was no stranger to Cole. He had won the mile run in the 1974 ACC Indoor Track Championships in a blazing 3:56 and set the world record later that season on the same track.  Also on the starting list was Marty Liquori, a Villanova star and Olympian with a personal best of 3:54. Liquori had two NCAA titles in the mile run and established his speed and racing skills in the late 1960s when he became the youngest runner ever to make the Olympic finals in the mile. Also entered among the seven runners was Villanova’s Eamon Coghlan who would go on to be one of the most successful indoor milers of the 1970s and 1980s and the first man to run a mile under 3:50.

Shortly before the race, Waldrup decided to drop out, but that didn’t stop 11,721 track fans from crowding into Cole that Friday night to see six of the world’s best middle-distance runners vie for sub-four glory. World records had fallen each year at the CYO meet in Cole, and it looked like history might be made that night as well. Cole’s tiny wooden track took 11 laps to the mile, and there wasn’t much room for runners to maneuver or relax. The winner would have to run fast and smart, and need a bit of luck too.

“Pre” took the lead from the starting gun. He had a reputation for running an aggressive race from the front and never liked being behind anyone. The rest of the runners were strung out behind him in a loose pack. According to Louis Nagel of the Diamondback, “Pre” still held a slim lead at the half-way mark, clocking in at 2:00-right on pace for four flat. Could he run even faster in the next half to go under four? Would anyone challenge “Pre” for the win?

Fortunately, a fan in the stands recorded this awesome race, which is available here! Not to give the ending away, but the winner would be decided by a fraction of a second, as two runners dipped under four minutes and under the previous meet record.

Was this a duel of milers, or a battle of mustaches?
Was this a duel of milers, or a battle of mustaches? Photo Credit: flickr

With less than six hundred yards to go, Bruce Fischer of the University of Chicago Track Club came from last place and shot to the lead. But “Pre” and the rest of the field never wavered and stuck right behind him. After another lap, “Pre” shot back to the front, followed closely behind by Fischer and Liquori. Almost as soon as he regained the lead, a late-charging Liquori passed “Pre” and Fischer and managed to hold off a last charge from “Pre” in the final lap. Liquori clocked in at 3:57.7, just eight yards in front of “Pre,” who finished in 3:58.5. Fischer fell just short of a sub-four performance, clocking in at 4:00.1.

Here are the final results:

  1. Marty Liquori (NYAC) 3:57.7
  2. Steve Prefontaine (Oregon TC) 3:58.6
  3. Bruce Fischer (University Chicago TC) 4:00.1
  4. Juris Luzins (Florida TC) 4:00.1
  5. Eamon Coghlan (Villanova-Eire) 4:04.2
  6. Ken Popejoy (University of Chicago TC) 4:06.3

For see more on the race and the rest of the meet, see the 1975 Diamondback‘s Meet Recap or the 1975 Terrapin yearbook’s account.

The race would be Prefontaine’s last in Cole Field House; he would never actually win a race in College Park. After winning his next five races and becoming the American record holder in every event from the 2,000 to 10,000 meter runs, he was tragically killed in a car accident in his native Oregon. Liquori continued his successful running career after his win in Cole, lowering his personal best in the mile to 3:52 later that year. He retired from running in 1980.

There are no more indoor track meets in Cole Field House, or even a track for that matter. But the memories of great athletic competitions like the 1975 mile race between Liquori and Prefontaine will always be part of Cole’s proud history. Next time you walk by, see if you can imagine the electrified crowds and the unforgettable competitions that happened every year in College Park’s most famous field house!

To see photos of track and other athletic competitions in Cole Field House, you can visit University AlbUM, a digital collection of material from the University of Maryland Libraries.

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