To my wife's surprise I just finished reading a book. A big book called The Men of Oregon, written by marathon runner and Sports Illustrated reporter Kenny Moore. The book is a biography on the legendary University of Oregon's cross country and track coach, Bill Bowerman. Bowerman produced countless All-Americans and Olympians for nearly a quarter-century before retiring in 1972. The renowned distance running tradition he established at Oregon remains today. (By the way, he also helped founded a tiny shoe company called Nike.)
I was able to finish a big book like this because it honed in on a guy who did so much to advance the sport of distance running in America. It was a page turner because I was able to recall some of my own experiences running cross country and track in college. Recalling personal experiences is something that I am fortunately able to do but potential runners currently attending my alma mater cannot. You see, I graduated from Cleveland State University in downtown Cleveland, Ohio nearly 20 years ago. I finished my studies three years before the school pulled the plug on men's cross country and track. CSU still fields a women's cross country team which competes in the Horizon League. But due to state budget cuts in the early 90s and being compliant with Title IX which requires NCAA schools have an equal number of female athletes as males, Cleveland State stopped competing in men's cross country and track after 1993.
Keep in mind that I love my alma mater. I attend at least a dozen athletic events on campus a year and I proudly wear my forest green and white CSU sweatshirt to every one of them. This past year Cleveland State, as a small Division I school, compiled an impressive list of accomplishments like sending their women's volleyball and women's basketball teams to the NCAA Tournament. And the men's tennis team went to their NCAA Tournament as well. Sure they all lost in the first round, but it may take a few more years before David is able to beat Goliath. Let's also not forget that the men's basketball team played in their first Horizon League Championship final and made it to the NIT for the first time in two decades.
Win or lose, I am there for my Cleveland State Vikings. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to represent them as a cross country and track athlete back in the 1980s, but saddened that a program with such a rich distance running tradition was canceled.
I started running cross country and track when I was a freshman in high school. I stood 4' 10" and weighed 74 pounds (84 if you count running with ankle weights). Despite pressure from the football coach to join his team and become his star linebacker, I opted for cross country instead. Before long I was winning some races and started making a name for myself. Which was a good thing because guys my size run the risk of getting stuffed in lockers every day. My running talent "bought" me protection from school bullies. They thought my head was not screwed on right because every time they saw me I was logging some serious miles. "Don't mess with that guy - he's crazy," said the school bullies.
Soon I shot up to 5' 9" and was a few pasta dinners away from 120 pounds. I continued to excel in cross country and in the 2 mile in track for my high school. To maintain a competitive edge I entered many 5K and 5 mile road races throughout northeast Ohio. It was at the road races where I got my first glimpse of where I wanted to one day go to college if I were ever going to amount to a true distance runner after high school. Members of the Cleveland State cross country team were dominating the road racing scene all around me and taking home all of the shiny trophies! I did some investigating, which in those days meant going to the library and looking at old sports page clippings from the Plain Dealer. I had to become part of this tradition and prayed that one day their coach would recruit me.
Senior year of high school was exciting. Coach Dave Burger of Cleveland State was finally recruiting me, but so were many other schools. This made it difficult. One day I was going to one college, the next day I was going somewhere else. One thing is for sure, Coach Burger provided the most interesting campus visit. One that included a 10 mile run dowtown and around the flats with a member of their team; followed by a trip to the infamous Chinese restaurant Chins on St. Clair Avenue for some Chicken Chow Mein; and concluded with a tour of his office adorned with pictures of many CSU runners past and present. Runners like two-time All-American cross country runner Marc Hunter, All-American Don James, and local road racing heroes Ted Rupe and Dave Brehmer. And a future Hall of Famer named Corey Frost.
Despite the enjoyable campus tour of Cleveland State, I ended up at cross-town John Carroll University for my freshman year. My brother was a student there, my grandfather went there, and my parents liked the idea of me going there. We are Catholic and all of my siblings were attending Catholic schools and I did not want to be the one to break tradition.
I immediately embraced my new role as a college student-athlete. I trained hard and competed in cross country and track for the John Carroll Blue Streaks. School was going well, running was fun, but something was missing. And it did not feel right competing against Cleveland State at the City Championship Meet either. After a year at John Carroll, I cautiously walked up to my parents and informed them that I wanted to transfer to Cleveland State, that is, if it was okay with them. I told them John Carroll was nice, but I felt like I would fit in better at Cleveland State. They are Division I and my friends were going there. They questioned my reasons for transferring but gave me their blessing anyway.
So after a slight detour I entered the very college I had wanted to attend since the 10th grade as a full-fledged college sophomore. For the remainder of my college career I would run lots of road races and even spend some time as a proud member of Coach Burger's cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track teams.
I would never become a Marc Hunter, Ted Rupe, or Corey Frost, but I had the experience of a lifetime. Something you would not expect to hear from a serious cross country runner attending an urban campus surrounded by so much cement. I mean, come on...cross country running...in Cleveland? Where are all the corn fields, the woods, and the marshy areas? How can anyone become a true cross country runner at Cleveland State?
Simple. You fall in love with the streets and bridges of downtown Cleveland. You embrace that pungent smell from the fish factory on the west bank of the flats because to CSU runners THIS IS altitude training. You learn to accept that running for your life from large stray dogs when getting temporarily lost in one of Cleveland's many fine neighborhoods is simply called speed work.
The fact of the matter is, I don't know how Cleveland State built such a fine distance running tradition, but they did. The program was started by Coach Burger in 1965 shortly after Fenn College became Cleveland State. The program ended after the 1993 track season. In between many great things happened under the tutelage of one coach.
The "dynasty" era of those 28 years took place during the 1970s when Cleveland State was ranked in the Top 20 three times. The "Running Boom" was spreading like wildfire throughout America but nobody expected someone from Cleveland State to make it big on the national scene. But make it big someone did. CSU's Marc Hunter ran his way to a 4th place finish at the 1977 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship, just seconds away from Kenya's national champion, Henry Rono from Washington State. The University of Oregon won the team title that year but Marc Hunter beat all seven of their runners including somebody by the name of Alberto Salazar. The same Alberto Salazar that would go on to win the New York City and Boston Marathons and set an American record of 2:08.13 in the marathon a few years later.
The prominence of Cleveland State's distance program enhanced its recruiting clout and annual schedule. Runners from my generation got the chance to compete in prestigious meets like the Notre Dame Invitational, Drake Relays, and LSU Relays because runners like Marc Hunter put Cleveland State on the map. The very successful and world-class Cleveland Revco 10k and Marathon started and ended at Cleveland State University throughout the 1980s and early 90s. Distance running at Cleveland State was a staple on campus, much like Rascal House Pizza.
It was only fitting that Coach Burger was able to capture the Mid-Continent Conference (formerly AMCU-8) cross country title in 1992, the last year of the program. I was not around then but I can only imagine the mood. Do all good things have to come to an end? Or is this merely a break until Cleveland State reinstates the program. Until then, runners of the CSU community should check out the Hall of Fame plaques of Coach Burger, Marc Hunter, Don James, Ted Rupe, and Corey Frost the next time they visit the Wolstein Center on campus. And never forget that men's cross country (and track) used to exist at Cleveland State. Maybe someone will blog about it one day.