These Ties Have Bound A Dozen '70s Cross Country/Track Athletes: Part 2

These Ties Have Bound A Dozen '70s Cross Country/Track Athletes: Part 2

Lee Walter

As an Eastern graduate (B.S. in Communication in 1999) and a former undergraduate assistant baseball coach, I have always been intrigued with the history of athletics of my alma mater. I spent many years volunteering time at Eastern following my graduation and was fortunate to join the department as a university assistant in charge of the event staff in 2014. Since that time, I have decided to pursue my Master’s Degree in Sport Management and a career in athletic administration. As part of the program, I was required to perform an internship and had talked to sports information director Bob Molta about the possibility of working with him.

Above: Lee Walter

After getting everything in order to begin my internship in sports information in January, Bullet and I sat down to discuss many possible stories I would research and write during the following months. I was intrigued when  the idea  of writing this story about a group of cross country and track & field athletes and their coach who have been friends for at least as long as I have been alive, was pitched.  I have had many friends come and go in my 40 years, and I could not understand how this group of individuals was still getting together and staying in contact with each other after all this time.

Bullet had been in contact with Trenton Wright, a member of the group, about the interest in writing this story. Wright provided Bullet with a list of names and contact information for many members of the group. I took this list and began with contacting Mr. Wright and coach John Keleher to set up in person interviews, as these two individuals were considered the leading men in the rise of the programs.

After sitting down with both of these gentlemen in May, I came away impressed with their recollection of the early days of the varsity cross country program, as well as their burning desire to elevate a track & field club program to varsity status.

Following those interviews, I set out to contact by phone as many of the group members as I could in order to gather more information on them and the programs. Each member of the group was asked his for take on the primary factors in why the group as stayed together for all of these years.

It quickly became apparent to me that these individuals all had very different personalities, but that there were a few common threads that allowed this group to form such a time-tested bond. The common denominators were Misters Keleher and Wright, running in general, and the fact that they were all there when this whole thing got started.

While the cross country program had been elevated to the varsity level just prior to the arrival of many of these individuals, track & field began as a club almost immediately after the majority of the group came to Eastern, and everyone fought together to get the program elevated to varsity status.

After conducting my interviews -- and with the help of an historical reference booklet compiled by Wright from his undergraduate days as a columnist and sports editor of the Campus Lantern -- I set out to write their story.  Ultimately, to do this story justice and to include as much information as possible, I settled upon a four-part series (to be honest, there was enough information available to write a novel).

Through speaking with everyone I had the pleasure of making contact with, I almost felt like I was a part of the team back then (impossible since I was not born until many of these guys had graduated) and part of the group now. It is my hope that the story has been written accurately and in a way that at least partly describes how they felt to be part of the beginnings of the program and the group that still remains close today.

Part 1 of this four-part series – entitled The Coach -- examined the role played by John Keleher, the first head coach of the cross country and track & field programs. It focused upon the early years of the program, from Keleher’s arrival in 1970, to his early recruiting methods, to the institution of the cross country program in 1971, and  the track and field club in 1973, and finally, to Keleher’s departure following the spring season of 1977.

Part 2: From “Humble Beginnings” to “Too Good, Too Fast” examines the early years of cross country as a varsity program and the evolution of the track & field club to varsity status.

The varsity cross country program got its start with a 10-1 record in the fall of 1971 under the direction of head coach John Keleher. In beginning the program, Keleher spent his afternoons walking the hallways looking for students wearing running shoes, which was not the typical footwear of the day, and asking those people if they had ever run competitively before and wanted to join the team.


At right: With the likes of future E-Club Hall of Famers Steve Gates and Tim Quinn and ahost of solid teammates, the cross country program got off to a fast start in the early 1970s.

Keleher would also request the admissions department to provide him names of any prospective students who had mentioned running or jogging on their Eastern application. Those individuals would receive a “recruiting” letter to gauge interest in participating in cross country.

Early on, Keleher began traditional recruiting by reaching out to high school coaches in search of runners who were interested in attending Eastern. He would also show up at meets to scout out runners that he saw as a fit for his  fledgling Eastern program.

Bill Green was among the program’s first cross country runners. A junior on the 1971 team who would serve as a senior team captain in 1972, Green had been on campus prior to the program becoming a varsity squad. Green was joined on the cross country team in the fall of 1971 by freshmen Steve Gates, Guy Glover, and Dan Frye. The fall of 1972 saw a large freshmen class join the cross country and track & field programs in Rene Charland, Dan Coyle, John Gunning, Jeff Jolie, Steve Lord, John MacNaughton, Tim Quinn, Randy Wiederstrom, Eric Williamson, and Trenton Wright. In the ensuing years, other athletes to have made their way through the program included Bob Humpel, Vin Pillari, Rich Zadroga, Pete Nystrom, Bob McKay, Rick Colby, Albie Pokrob, Jim DeFrancesco, and Dan Gould.

At left: Spending many hours pounding the pavement were (from left in foreground) Tim Quinn, Guy Glover, Eric Williamson, and (background) Dan Coyle.

Each of these individuals came to Eastern following varying degrees of success at the high school level. However, through a lot of hard work, the team quickly moved from what they described as humble beginnings  to becoming too good, too fast.

With all of these distance runners quickly jumping on board, Keleher knew there was going to be a need to keep the team busy throughout the year and not let them become bored.  While a track & field club was formed in the spring of 1972, the runners began clamoring for varsity status.  Before upgrading the program, however, it was mandated by Director of Athletics Dr. Dana Clark that the track club first prove  that it could be successful.

The track & field club elected Quinn president for the 1972-73 season when it began competing indoors in the winter and outdoors in the spring. Following two years of constant urging, track & field was elevated to varsity status for the 1975 season.

With no facilities to call home, the cross country and track & field athletes felt slighted and perhaps had a bit of a chip on their shoulder with regards to the attention other teams on campus received. Track & field had it especially tough, having to practice at nearby Windham High School when the track was available, and only occasionally practicing indoors at the University of Connecticut, thanks Keleher’s alumni connections.

 

At left: Despite limited numbers and the lack of a home facility, the track & field club was competitive right from the start. The team is shown at left practicing at Windham High School.

Early on in the 1972 season, the cross country team was participating in a meet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London. Prior to the meet, the team went on the customary pre-race walk around the course. However, this was not your ordinary walk-through, as the Eastern runners were brought through the course at a brisk jogging pace on a warm day. When the team returned to the starting area, they were told the event would start in about 20 minutes. With no time to cool down and rest, the team was shut out (i.e. the top five runners across the line were from Coast Guard). Afterward, Keleher admonished the team, informing them that the result was unacceptable and that it would never happen again.

In a year that saw a young, and essentially brand new program, take huge strides, the Warriors had several surprisingly high results in traditionally tough meets.  Bouncing back from the Coast Guard meet, Eastern went 1-1 in a triangular meet, defeating Rhode Island College and losing a close call to Bryant College. The team then easily defeated Salem State in a storm that produced heavy winds and a driving rain. In the last home meet of the season, the Warriors destroyed Nichols and Quinnipiac, with Gates, a sophomore, besting the course record by 14 seconds. In this meet, Eastern runners finished in the top five spots,  as well as 7-8-9 and 11.

The Plymouth Invitational was a pivotal meet that saw the Warriors place third in the team standings. Eastern also took third in the team standings at the Barrington Invitational. The only teams to finish ahead of Eastern in these meets were the traditional powers of the time, Plymouth State and Worcester State at Plymouth, and Southeastern Massachusetts (now UMass Dartmouth) and Bryant at Barrington. Eastern followed by placing third at the NESCAC Championships behind Plymouth State and Keene State.  At the NAIA District 32 Championships that November, the Warriors finished with a solid fourth-place tie with Bryant, trailing only Boston State, Southeastern Massachusetts, and Worcester State.

Eastern finished that 1972 fall season with an 8-5 record. Expect to return six of its top seven runners the following year, optimism was high that the 1972 campaign could be a great one.

Within two years, the cross country program was qualifying for the NAIA Nationals, living up to Keleher’s words. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, the team was unable to attend the national meet in its first season as a qualifier. The team members were furious (and many remain that way to this day). However, the team qualified for the nationals again the following year, and did attend this time, but many fell short of their best performances.

Following a successful cross country season in the fall of 1972, the track & field club began the indoor season at UConn against Westfield State and the UConn JV. No official score was kept for this meet, though Eastern athletes had some success, with Pillari winning the shot put and Quinn winning the 2 mile race. Eastern also had a “memorable” meet at UMass that started 15 minutes late, with only one official in attendance to run the meet. There were no official timers available, yet the worst part of the meet for the athletes was the condition of the track itself. The way the track was laid out made for running in more of a rectangle or square than a traditional oval. It took 10 laps to make a mile and the running surface was made of thick wooden boards, many of which were warped. Despite these conditions, Gates, Coyle, and the relay team of MacNaughton, Lord, Wright and Glover performed well.

The final indoor meet took place at UConn and the competition included UConn, and additional Division I competitors Rhode Island, and Central Connecticut. The distance medley team of Gates, Glover, Williamson and Quinn destroyed the team’s two-week-old record. The mile relay team of Lord, Wright, Glover and MacNaughton won their heat. Quinn was the top Eastern runner in the open 1500 meter run, followed by Coyle, Frye, and Williamson. In the field events,  Pillari placed third in the shot, setting a school record. Pillari also had an excellent javelin throw.

At right: E-Club Hall of Famer Steve Gates gave the Eastern track & field program instant credibility, clocking a program-record 4:09.1 mile at the 1975 national championships.

The first outdoor meet in club history in 1973 saw 13 athletes head to Bryant. With so few athletes on the team, there were many events the team could not enter. Individuals participated in other events in an attempt to gain as many points as possible. The team was competitive despite these conditions, winning against Rhode Island College and losing to Bryant. Pillari won the shot put, placed second in the discus, and was third in the javelin, providing his team with 10 total points on the day. Lord also had 10 points, winning the 100-yard and the 220-yard dashes. Other top performers on the day were Williamson and Gates --who placed second and third, respectively -- in the mile. Williamson also placed third in the at 880 yards. Wright won the 440-yard dash, with Glover finishing second in the same event.  Coyle was fourth in the 2-mile run. The mile relay team of Lord, Wright, Glover and Humpel won a close race over Bryant, breaking the record in the process.

At the end of the 1973 outdoor season, Eastern travelled to Southeastern Massachusetts for the NAIA District 32 Championships. At that meet, Pillari won the shot put, setting a meet record of 48’3”. Gates finished third in the 880, falling just shy of the school record he had set the week prior. Wright placed third in the 440-yard dash, setting a school record of 51.6 seconds. The mile relay team of Lord, Wright, Williamson and Gates ran a school-record time of 3:33.5 while finishing second to Worcester State.

The fall of 1973 Cross Country season saw the rise of the “Fantastic Four” of Tim Quinn, Guy Glover, Eric Williamson, and Steve Gates, who not once, but twice crossed the finish line at the same time to win races. The first such happening came against Barrington College in a dual meet that also saw Dan Frye finish seventh overall as the fifth Eastern finisher. The second occurrence came against the University of New Haven, this time with Rene Charland finishing fifth for Eastern and fifth overall.

 

At left: Teamwork defined the Warriors in the early 70s, with (from left) Steve Gates, Guy Glover, Tim Quinn and Eric Williamson sharing first place at an on-campus cross country meet.

The 1973 team went on to finish the season 9-4, placing a remarkable second place at the NAIA District 32 Championships after taking third at the NESCAC Championships. The third-year program had already begun to establish itself as a top regional team, with Keleher compiling a 27-10 dual meet record in that time. Keleher said at the time that he was pleased with the fact that every runner improved considerably on the previous year’s home course time. Every member of the program was scheduled to return the following year, as well.

When the track & field club finally made its debut as a varsity team on April 9, 1975, it did so with a double victory over Fairfield University and the University of New Haven. Gates was a double winner with victories in the mile and the half-mile; Colby finished in the top three in four different events, including a first place finish in the triple jump; Pillari finished second in the shot-put and discus; Quinn won the two-mile run and finished second in the mile; Glover was third in both the half-mile and 440-yard run; Wright was second in the 440-yard; Zadroga won the high jump, and Ron Olson was second in the javelin.

The Warriors capped their first varsity season by repeating second-place finishes in the NAIA District 32 Championships and third-place finishes in the NESCAC Championships. At the NAIA meet, Gates once again won the mile, Wright won a photo finish in the 440, and Pillari was again victorious in the shot. Members of the winning mile relay were Wright, Coyle, Williamson and Glover, who ran well on a windy and cool day. First place finishers in the NESCAC were Pillari in the shot and the discus, and Gates in the mile.

COMING SOON: Part 3

“The Mouthpiece and Ringleader” outlines Trenton Wright’s role in the elevation of the programs, from his feats as an athlete to his promotion of the teams as a columnist for the school’s weekly publication, the Campus Lantern.