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Stan Becton | | August 5, 2022

NCAA Video Vault: How George Mason interrupted a track and field dynasty in 1996

Men's Mile - 1996 NCAA indoor track and field championships

It took George Mason, a smaller conference school in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, to interrupt a track and field dynasty in 1996. But how did they do it?

As we go inside the NCAA Video Vault, we'll take a look at George Mason's 1996 indoor track and field title run.

The stage

Take a look at the men's indoor track and field championship history.

The Arkansas men's track and field team won 16 out of 17 indoor track and field championships from 1984-2000. The Razorbacks even won eight straight outdoor titles from 1992-1999. But what happened in the one season they didn't — 1996? 

Let's go back to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana, the home of the 1996 indoor track and field championship.

Arkansas entered the 1996 indoor championships with a 12-year title streak, the longest streak in the history of Division I athletics. While the Razorbacks lost a few of their top performers from the year prior, they remained the favorite entering the meet.

George Mason lurked below the defending champions after finishing second in 1995. The Patriots were a relatively new program, created in 1978, only six years after the school became independent. Yet, an early meet during the 1996 season helped boost George Mason's prominence.

MORE: How Clemson’s Brianna Rollins broke the 100m hurdles record TWICE in 1 meet

A star is born

George Mason hosted the Mobil Invitational track and field meet in 1996 during the regular season. While many in the meet came to see Olympian Michael Johnson run to his 50th consecutive win in the 400 meters for a world-leading time, George Mason saw a star of its own emerge in Julius Achon.

Achon, a sophomore, was known to some in the track and field world as the 1994 1,500 meter junior world champion, but his name didn't resonate with the casual fan. That was the case until Achon took the track slightly before Johnson and ran a world lead of his own.

Achon used a huge kick in the final 150 yards of the mile to win in 3:57.66, a world-leading, personal-best and Ugandan-record time. His Ugandan record broke his father's (Achon's father and brother were both Olympians) previous record of 4:01.

Elsewhere, George Mason's 4x400 meter relay team featuring Paul Henry, Barry Douglas, Ian Weakly and Greg Haughton won their race in 3:09.83.

MORE: How a dropped baton led to co-champions in the 2013 men’s track and field championship

The meet

Fast forward a few months and back to the indoor title meet, George Mason was ready to shock the masses. Head coach John Cook was "obsessed" with winning his first title and looked forward to indoor championships.

Instead, the Patriots were off to a rough start after Friday's events. George Mason was scoreless entering Saturday's events. It would need a big performance from its athletes throughout the final day of the competition.

MORE: The track comeback to end ALL comebacks

Saturday - The mile

One event that George Mason expected to score in was the mile. Julius Achon already ran a world-leading time once this season and entered as one of the best runners in not just college, but also the world.

But Achon's path to success wasn't without its challenges. While coach Cook discovered the 5-foot-7, 135-pound Achon at the 1994 junior world championships, Achon couldn't get into George Mason upon his first attempt as his SAT score came in too late. Achon instead went to Southern for a year before transferring to the Patriots in December.

Months later, Achon was ready for his title shot.

Here's the field for the mile:

Athlete School
Dave Sobolik Colorado State
Corey Ihmais Iowa State
Julius Achon George Mason
Andy Downin Georgetown
Jama Bile Northern Arizona
Michael Power Arkansas
Donnell Johnson Florida
Ibrahim Aden George Mason
S. Unberhagen Southwest Texas State
Jonah Kiptarus Nebraska

MORE: The race that put Olympic hurdler turned NFL player Devon Allen on the map

Staying in the back

Achon started the race with a slow start. For the first 150 meters of the race, Achon remained in last place. At a controlled pace, Achon moved slightly up from last to seventh over the next 250 meters. After the first quarter mile (400m), Achon was nowhere near the lead.

Achon remained in the back of the race over the next 400 meters, hitting the half-mile point at around 2:05. Halfway through, it was clear Achon was running tactically as he was yet to make his move.


Making a move

1000 meters. Achon finally made his move to the front of the race but still trails in second behind Nebraska's Jonah Kiptarus. From 1000-1200 meters of the race, Achon and Kiptarus battled for positioning, knowing the importance of entering the final 400 meters with the lead.

Kipatrus held him off for most of the sixth lap. Then on the sixth lap's homestretch, Achon moved to the lead. He ran the first 1200 meters in approximately 3:05.



When Achon took the lead into the final 400 meters, chaos ensued behind him.

Achon's teammate and the second-fastest collegiate miler of the season, Ibrahim Aden, tripped over Arkansas' Michael Power in the back of the race. Florida's Donnell Johnson also tripped. All fell and hit the ground.


Elsewhere, entering the second curve of the seventh lap, Downing and Kipatrus bumped as Downing forced an inside move, almost stepping off the track.


None of this impacted the leader Achon; he was far and away in front of the chaos behind him.

The final lap

After the chaos, it was time for the final lap. Achon's slow start worked to his benefit as he blazed through the final lap for the win. ​​Achon won the mile in 4:02.83, winning by about seven meters.


MORE: The greatest collegiate hurdle race we've ever seen

Saturday - The 400 meters

Men's 400m - 1996 NCAA indoor track and field championships

George Mason had another chance to score points in the 400 meters. The Patriots had a favorite in the event in Greg Haughton, the 1995 DI outdoor champion and a bronze medalist at the 1995 World Championships. 

To get to this stage, Haughton had to come a long way from his humble beginnings. Raised as one of four children supported by his mom in St. Andrew, Jamaica, Haughton had to go to junior college at Central Arizona to even qualify for George Mason where he won the 1994 national title in the 400.

But now Haughton was here, at the indoor championships needing a big performance to help his team. He headed to the starting line, with two laps around the 200-meter track ahead.

Here were the lane assignments:

Lane Athlete School
3 Marlon Ramsey Baylor
4 Davian Clarke Miami
5 Greg Haughton George Mason
6 Danny McFarlane Oklahoma

The first lap

As with most 400-meter races, the runners began with staggered starts. Haughton began in lane five and burst out of the blocks. By the time the runners made it to the second curve, Haughton had already made up his stagger. By the time they exited the curve, Haughton was in the lead.


In approximately 21.37 seconds, Haughton finished his first lap, leading the competition.

MORE: Kentucky's Sydney McLaughlin wins NCAA championship after a hail storm

The second lap

From there, Haughton controlled the rest of the race. There was a visible gap between him and the rest of the competition entering the homestretch.

That's when Baylor's Marlon Ramsey made his move. From the outside, Ramsey first moved from third to second, passing Oklahoma's Danny McFarlane. With less than 30 meters left, Ramsey was closing fast on Haughton. 

In the final moments of the race, Haughton was slowing up, almost at the finish line. Would his lead be enough to hold off Ramsey's final push?

The early lead was enough. Haughton won the race in 45.87 seconds to take home the title. 


The points

Haughton's win, combined with Achon's, would be the only individual event victories for George Mason at the meet. Together, the two wins combined for 20 points, more than half of George Mason's final point total. 

Every point was necessary for the Patriots to pull off one of the most shocking upsets in track and field history, defeating Arkansas and winning the title.

Here are the final team scores:

Place School Points
1 George Mason 39
2 Nebraska 31.5
3 Arkansas 29
4 Houston 24.5
T-5 Baylor, UTEP 24
T-7 Kentucky, Oklahoma 22
T-9 LSU, UCLA 20.5

MORE: Christian Coleman burns his way to the 100m record — in just the semis

Breaking down the performance

George Mason won its first championship in any men's sport with the 1996 DI indoor track and field title. It did so with the lowest winning score since Washington State's 25.5 points in 1977. 

In addition to Haughton and Achon's 20 points, the Patriots picked up two sets of points from the 800 meters thanks to Alex Morgan finishing second and Miklos Arpasi finishing eighth. In Morgan's second-place finish, he set a school and east coast record with his 1:46.70 time. 

While that quartet scored points, two other George Mason runners missed out on point-scoring opportunities due to disqualifications. Sprinter Barry Douglas was disqualified from the 55 meters after false starting. 

Meanwhile, Aden's fall in the mile led to him not finishing as he walked off the track. The NCAA rules committee saw this and determined Aden didn't give an honest effort, saving himself for the distance medley relay later that day. That led to the disqualification of George Mason's DMR, taking away six points from the Patriot total.

Luckily, the quartet of point-scoring finishes was enough to secure George Mason the championship crown before the 4x400 meter relay, the meet's final event.


However, George Mason added the icing on its point-scoring cake with a fifth-place finish in the 4x400 meter relay. Haughton ran the anchor leg in a race that saw Oklahoma set a then-collegiate record, as the team of Roxbert Martin, Ryan Kite, Justin Chapman and Danny McFarlane finished in 3:04.46.

EVENT Champion School Mark
55 Meters Tim Harden Kentucky 6.06
55 Meter Hurdles Darius Pemberton Houston 7.14
200 Meters Obadele Thompson UTEP 20.67
400 Meters Greg Haughton George Mason 45.87
800 Meters Einars Tupuritis Wichita State 1:45.80
Mile Julius Achon George Mason 4:02.83
3000 Meters Ryan Wilson Arkansas 7:51.66
5000 Meters Jason Casiano Wisconsin 13:50.08
4x400 Meter Relay Roxbert Martin, Ryan Kite,
Justin Chapman, Danny McFarlane
Oklahoma 3:04.46
Distance Medley Relay Miklos Roth, Alex Lamme,
Jonah Kiptarus, Balazs Tolgyesi
Nebraska 9:32.13
High Jump Michael Roberson McNeese 2.26 (7-5)
Pole Vault Lawrence Johnson Tennessee 5.65 (18-6½)
Long Jump Andrew Owusu Alabama 7.90 (25-11)
Triple Jump Robert Howard Arkansas 16.73 (54-10¾)
Shot Put Jonathan Ogden UCLA 19.42 (63-8¾)
Weight Throw Ryan Butler Wyoming 21.68 (71-1½)

Points aside, George Mason remains the last team to win the title that didn't hail from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC. The one national championship joined the 50-plus All-Americans, 13 individual NCAA championships from six athletes, and seven IC4A titles from 1989-1996 that were all won under head coach John Cook. 

The accolades were equally as impressive as Cook's bold championship team-building strategy.

NCAA T&F: Here's how the outdoor track and field championships work

International flavors

Cook's 1996 championship team was a deep roster full of international athletes. In the 21st century, this may seem like the norm, but Cook's team-building strategy came during a time when there was hesitancy and sometimes backlash toward the additions of international athletes to collegiate track and field.

Take a look at some of the diversity featured on George Mason's 1996 championship team:

Country Athletes
Jamaica Greg Haughton, Alex Morgan, Ian Weakly
Uganda Julius Achon
Somalia Ibrahim Aden
Hungary Miklos Arpasi

Those are just some of the international athletes across George Mason's 22-man roster that also included two from Canada, one from Kenya, one from Sudan and another Hungarian. Cook along with then-assistant coach Dalton Ebanks traveled the globe to find the talent to build the team.

What happened next

After the indoor season, George Mason attempted another run at a title during the outdoor championships in June. The Patriots fell just short, unable to win any individual events, yet still finished second, falling 55-40 to Arkansas.

🏆: Here are the DI track and field teams with most NCAA championships

What they said

George Mason head coach John Cook on what winning the championship meant to him: "This is kind of the culminating thing everybody in the street identifies with. I've done a couple of good things, but they haven't meant anything. It's been like having $950,000. You're still not a millionaire. This signifies some kind of identifiable success: the national championship." (Washington Post)

Mile champion Julius Achon on his racing strategy: "At the beginning, everyone is strong, so when you go with them, you waste a lot of energy. I need to reserve mine, so that at the end I am strong." (Washington Post)

Cook on his thoughts after Douglas' false start: "I thought everything was going to disintegrate. I didn't think it was meant for me to win the national championship. I've tried so hard. We've had national-championship teams, but we couldn't get 'em on the track. Couldn't keep 'em {eligible}. And when you try so hard, it sometimes becomes a monster. I don't know how many more years I could have put this thing together." (The Oklahoman)

Cook after finding out the Patriots clinched the title with one event to go "This thing is hard...I don't see how (McDonnell) won 12 and lived through it. We won one and I don't think I could ever live through another one. This is the hardest thing I've ever been through." (ESPN Broadcast)

Arkansas head coach John McDonnell after George Mason won the title: "It's the best college team in the country, without a doubt." (Washington Post)

George Mason school president Dr. George W. Johnson — who started at GMU the same year as Cook — on the track and field program: "The story of John Cook's track program is pretty much the story of George Mason University. A very rudimentary institution {at the start}, in exactly the right place at the right time. Very fortunate to have the right people, in the university's case John Cook, taking advantage of them." (Washington Post)

George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor (AD since 1994 at the time) on Cook's reaction to his initial request to coaches to win a national championship: "Some probably looked at me as though I were crazy. I don't think John did. I think John said: 'I can win.' And he did." (Washington Post)

Cook on assistant coach Dalton Ebanks' recruiting: "He's a great opener, I'm a great closer. Everybody at the Division I level can coach. It's just who you can coach." (Washington Post)

400-meter champion Greg Haughton on why he chose George Mason: "Right down to the colors," he added. "I've been running in yellow and green all my life. Grade school. High school. Junior college. Jamaica also has the same colors." (Washington Post)

In retrospect

I was able to catch up with Joe Lee, a member of the George Mason championship team, in August of 2022 to get his reflections on the title. Check out what he said below:

On George Mason's view of the Arkansas dynasty entering the meet: "They did appear beatable, but when you have a 12-time defending national champion, you know they're not going down without a fight... We felt we had some depth and diversity (in events participating in) that they couldn't match, but of course, we also knew that we were in for a fight because they weren't going to go away quietly."

On the Patriots having a must-win mindset entering the championships: "The feeling that we had was that there has to be a sense of urgency every time you get a chance to win a national title because you don't know when you'll get a chance to win it again. We didn't want to take for granted that it would happen again." 

On the team's morale after going scoreless on Friday: "I think we knew that we were playing to our strength on the last day. We felt pretty confident about the team we were putting on the track and the field. The meet had not yet seen our best."

On the team's international presence coming together to win: "This was during a time where it was frowned upon by some teams to recruit internationally... The great part about what it was that we did was that we proved that people could come together from different walks of life from across the planet and have a common interest (the sport) and a common goal (to be the best the sport has seen)."

On what winning the national title meant to the George Mason community: "I think it brought some national visibility to our school...(the win) really gave some credibility to a school that didn't have the traditional things that you would see at one of your more well-known universities."

Watch it again

Below, you can watch George Mason's two individual wins one more time.