The year was 1965. The location was Detroit, which at the time sported a population of roughly 1.5 million, making it the fifth-most populated city in America.
On a March weekend, the best college track and field athletes convened for the first time under one roof to determine the finest individual performers and the best program.
The NCAA Men’s Indoor Track and Field Championship was born, and as it enters its 50th year of competition, the annual event has grown from humble origins into a two-day extravaganza that showcases some of the best athletes in the world.
In that first championship, men representing 46 universities from across the country competed for two days in 10 track and four field events at Cobo Arena, named after Albert Cobo, a former Detroit mayor. The arena, part of a $56 million convention center, seated 9,500 spectators when utilized for track events, with that year’s championship being the first held at the arena built in 1960.
The track events were contested on a brand new surface made of spruce, which The New York Times reported had been donated to the city by The Detroit News for a homely sum of $31,000. However, Frank Litsky of The Times wrote on the first day of the event that “it was quickly obvious to the spectators that the place wasn’t built for track,” with parts of the races being obscured from many seats.
After competitions in the 880- and 440-yard runs, the broad jump, the pole vault and other events, the Missouri Tigers were crowned 1965 NCAA Men’s Indoor Track and Field champions. The Tigers, coached by Tom Botts, managed the title even though they won only a single event in the second day’s 14 contests -- Robin Lingle’s 1,000-meter title.
Since that March weekend in 1965, the annual event has continued to evolve as it has added events, retired races, added a women’s championship, and now sports 34 men’s and women’s competitions over the same two-day period. From just 46 colleges and universities in 1965, the championship included 190 schools in 2013 with more than 840 student-athletes chasing their dreams of becoming a national champion and winning a team title.
After a 17-year run in Detroit, the championship moved to Pontiac, Mich., for two years in 1982, where 60 schools competed in the men’s championship. Out of those 60 schools, UTEP capped off a run of winning seven championships in nine years. Most of those titles were under the helm of coach Ted Banks, who had resigned a month earlier to take a promotional job at Converse.
John Wedel, who took over for Banks, in an interview with Sports Illustrated, compared the task to replacing John Wooden, the Hall-of-Fame basketball coach at UCLA.
The indoor championships have showcased world-class athletes, including those who have gone on to become future Olympians, professional athletes, and politicians.
At that 1982 event, in front of 14,107 spectators, future NFL running back Herschel Walker competed for the University of Georgia in the 60-yard dash that was won by Rod Richardson of Texas A&M. A four-time indoor champion and 1966 Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year,” Jim Ryun of the University of Kansas went on to serve in the United States House of Representatives for 12 years after setting numerous world records and taking a silver medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Following the two years in Pontiac, the championship was held in Syracuse, N.Y., and Oklahoma City before settling in Indianapolis and the Hoosier/RCA Dome in 1989.
At the time, the event was only planned to be held in the Circle City for three years, but that turned into an 11-year stay, with Arkansas winning all but one of the championships.
College Station, Texas, and Boise, Idaho, have hosted the event since the turn of the century, but 11 of the last 14 indoor championships have resided in Fayetteville, Ark., home of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
There is a reason for this.
When you enter the city limits of Fayetteville, nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, you won’t see signs proclaiming it the home of the 1964 national football champions or the 1994 Division I men’s basketball champions. Instead, you’ll see a sign welcoming you to the city – and university – that has claimed 42 track and field championships since 1984, 20 of them indoor championships.
All but one of those 20 championship teams were led by John McDonnell.
McDonnell retired in 2008 following a career that included coaching Olympians, world and NCAA champions, All-Americans and other top runners. Included in his stable of elite student-athletes were: Olympic gold and silver medalist in the triple jump, Mike Conley Sr.; six-time NCAA indoor champion in the long and triple jumps Erick Walder; NCAA 200-meter record holder and multi-time Olympian Wallace Spearmon, Jr.; three-time NCAA 5,000-meter champion Alistair Cragg; and NCAA 1,500-meter record holder Paul Donovan, just to name a few.
McDonnell, who admired fellow coaches Bill Bowerman of Oregon and Villanova’s Jumbo Elliott, talked about the first Arkansas national title being his favorite moment.
“The big thing for me was winning the NCAA indoor title in Syracuse in 1984,” McDonnell told The New York Times. “It was our first NCAA title. When you kick down the door, something else might happen, and it happened for us.”
Starting with the 1984 championship, Arkansas would win 16 of the next 17 indoor titles.
Though the indoor competition has been largely dominated by the likes of Arkansas and UTEP, who own 27 of the 49 championships, there have been plenty of noteworthy programs to rise up and claim a piece of history.
Including Missouri’s title in 1965, there have been 16 men’s programs that have won a team championship. Following Arkansas (20) and UTEP (7), Florida, Kansas and Villanova each have three titles and LSU and Southern California have claimed two.
Arizona State, George Mason, Manhattan, Missouri, Oregon, SMU, Tennessee, Washington State and Wisconsin each won one.
For anyone who has attended an indoor track national championship there is one thing that is certain and that is times and marks will be great, and there is likely to be at least one record set. Of the 17 men’s events that are currently contested at the championship, 14 have had their records set since the turn of the century with eight coming in the last five years.
Only two records date back more than 20 years and those are four-time Olympian and nine-time gold medalist Carl Lewis’ long jump record of 27 feet, 10 inches from 1981, and two-time Olympic medalist Hollis Conway’s high jump of 7-9.25 from 1989.
Following Conway’s record-setting performance, he would tell The Indianapolis Star, “technically it wasn’t that good of a jump, I lost momentum on my plant and died in the air. I brushed the bar with my foot and was surprised that it stayed there.”
In addition to the numerous collegiate and meet records that have been set over the years, few that were in attendance on March 12, 2005 in Fayetteville, Ark., will forget what they witnessed in the 400-meter dash. That evening, Florida’s Kerron Clement stepped to the starting blocks as the man to beat, entering the final with the fastest qualifying time during preliminary action. Just 44.57 seconds later, he crossed the finish as not just a NCAA champion but as a world-record holder, blistering the Arkansas track and setting the world standard by 0.06 seconds. Clement continues to hold the world indoor mark to this day.
From its humble origins in a converted basketball arena, the indoor championship has blossomed into a must-see event every March in facilities designed specifically for track and field. Thousands of fans flock to the championship site and even more catch the television and web streaming broadcasts to see who might be the next breakout star.