Villanova, they're beautiful. They come in with one ticket: guts. They stand up and look you in the eye, although outnumbered about 10 to one and with blisters peeling the skin off both feet, and they say, laddies, out of our way or you'll have spike marks up your spines. Last weekend they mustered at the NCAA indoor championships in Detroit, and on paper Jumbo Elliott's handful of Wildcats figured to finish no better than third. Villanova? Against the power of Wisconsin, the muscle of Kansas, the talent of the University of Texas at El Paso, the speed of USC? You've got to be kidding. The Wildcats had only enough limping wounded to enter seven events.
So much for tangibles. You don't score any points with those. The stopwatch doesn't know a kid running in pain from a marble statue, and whoever hits the tape first wins, and an unemotional voice over the PA announces the next event.
As the voice boomed on the first day of the two-day competition, calling the field for the two-mile final, Marty Liquori, Villanova's trump card, smiled, shrugged and stepped to the starting line. Just an hour earlier he had breezed a 4:06.7 to qualify for the mile final the next day.
"We're hoping that Marty can get a third place," said Elliott, jotting a number in a notebook. The number was six, which is what you get when you win. Third place is worth three points. "It's asking a lot of him to double with only an hour's rest." Elliott looked at Liquori who was waiting for the starting gun. It was the look of a man watching his son about to attack an enemy bunker single-handed. "Can you believe anyone asking Marty to settle for third place in anything?" Elliott said.
A few days before the race Liquori had wanted to run only the mile. Before Jim Ryun's comeback, Liquori had been America's premier miler. Then, a month ago at San Diego, Ryun had tied the indoor record (3:56.4). Going into Detroit, Liquori had only one thought: break that record. Until Elliott called him aside and talked to him.
"I really didn't like the idea of doubling until Jumbo went over our possible scoring with me," Liquori said. "I'll still be embarrassed if I lose the mile, but I have to look at it this way. Very truthfully, I've won so many races I've forgotten most of them. If I win another one, or another two, it won't matter that much. I'll forget it one way or another in a week. I don't live in the past. But there are the other guys. For someone who isn't lucky enough to run a sub-four-minute mile, the team championship will mean something. If I can help them say they are members of a national championship team, then that's something else. And here's me, only wanting to run the mile and go for the record."
"Which record?" someone asked.
"Oh, any record," Marty said.
Figuring Liquori to be spent from his mile heat, last year's two-mile winner, Jerry Richey of Pitt, opened with a scorching pace. "He was trying to psych me out," said Liquori later. "I figured someone would."
Wayne Vandenburg, the youthful, exuberant UTEP coach, had to laugh at that. Vandenburg, whose team was very much in the running for the championship, has patterned his clubs somewhat after Elliott's. "You don't psych out those kids of Jumbo's," he said. "The backbone of his team is those tough-minded, Eastern-type kids who'll die before they let you beat them. Kids like Liquori. The type of kids we're looking for, the ones who know they're better than anybody they're facing and will bust their guts proving it. That Jumbo, when he talks, I listen. I may not agree all the time, but I sure will spend a lot of time thinking before I disagree. I love and respect that man, but I'd rather beat him than eat for a week."
To beat Jumbo, or anyone else, Vandenburg had a lot of tough-minded kids going for him, too. Early on the first day of competition his shotputters had finished 2-4, splitting Kansas' expected sweep and picking up six points for UTEP. It was Vincent Monari, out of Brooklyn, who had provided the surprise by finishing second with a toss of 65'8¼", just three-quarters of an inch behind Karl Salb.
"Does he get himself psyched up!" said Vandenburg. "A half hour after the shot was over he was snorting like a lion, running up and down, punching walls. I said, 'Relax.' He said, 'I can't. The adrenalin is still pumping.' And to think we almost didn't give him a scholarship. My assistant said he was nothing."
John Korky, the assistant, bristled. "Hey, cut that out," he said. "I was still a high school coach when I saw him. And he was a skinny kid with terrible technique. Now he weighs 270. Last year when I came to UTEP, I said, 'Is that Monari?' He looked like Superman. I figured he was a total transplant. They took everything out and replaced it with muscles."
"No," said Vandenburg, "he's just a Villanova kid in Texas. He wants to win so badly he'll break four legs doing it." Which, picking up the two-mile run, is almost what Liquori did, winning it in 8:37.1 after Richey faded. Instead of four broken legs Liquori came up with four blisters, two on each foot. "But they aren't functional blisters," he said. "They hurt, but I can still run."
In the meantime, Vandenburg and Elliott were watching Wisconsin, which had come into the meet with the most solid scoring potential. The Badgers were counting particularly on some big points from Grape Juice Johnson in the long jump.
"I guess I'd better go see what Grapefruit is doing," said Vandenburg, wandering off to the pit where Danny Brabham, the one-man Baylor team, was jumping. "Poor Danny," said Vandenburg. "Here all alone with no coach. Hey, Danny, I noticed on your last jump you...."
Brabham finished second, Johnson fourth, which was worse than expected. "I feel sorry for the poor guy," said Vandenburg. He felt sorry for himself, too. The word came down from the officials: Vandenburg, put one foot on the track tomorrow and your team will be disqualified. Vandenburg has a tradition of emotional encroachment.
"Yeah, I got the word," he said. "I'll sit up in the stands but, darn it, this upsets me. I want to be down with my kids. I'm no spectator. These are my kids and I want to be where they can hear me. There are too many old guys sitting up in the stands making up stupid rules."
At the end of the first day Villanova and Kent State were tied for the lead with 10 points. Wisconsin and Kansas were next with nine apiece, then came UTEP with six. Six of Wisconsin's points resulted from Mark Winzenried's win in the half-mile over Villanova's Chris Mason, whose left foot was more blister than skin. Going into the second day, Wisconsin looked like a lock.
"We've just got to win this," said Winzenried, who was scheduled to anchor the Badgers' sparkling two-mile relay team. "A championship would be something. You go to the West Coast or to the East and tell them you're from Wisconsin and all you get are blank stares. People always talk about Villanova and Kansas. We've always been one notch below. This year, this year I think we're one notch above."
They weren't. "You try to figure out points in a meet like this and you'll go nuts," said Jumbo Elliott. "It's like shooting craps. All you can do is throw the dice and see what numbers come up." Wisconsin threw the dice in the two-mile relay and they came up snake eyes. On the second leg Drake's Steve Johnson bumped into Michigan's Eric Chapman, who put out a hand to defend himself. Johnson went sprawling onto the track. Wisconsin's Chuck Baker tripped over Johnson and followed him to the boards. "I thought I was around him," said Baker. "But then he rolled over and stuck up an elbow and it caught me in the leg."
Winzenried, who would never get to run the anchor, walked from the track with tears in his eyes. "What a stupid, terrible way to lose," he said. "We had it won and now we're dead. Just think what this would have meant to the freshmen and sophomores."
Michigan's Chapman came over and apologized. "I'm awfully sorry," he said. "But he bumped into me and I was just trying to get him away from me."
Winzenried nodded and Chapman left. "That helps a lot," he said. "Aw, it wasn't his fault. Lord, I feel like running. It's inside me trying to get out. And now I can't do a thing."
"The pole vault is still going on," someone said. "Grab a pole."
"I said I felt like running," said Winzenried, smiling a little. "I didn't say I wanted to kill myself."
As UTEP went on to win the two-mile relay Wisconsin Coach Bob Brennan watched sadly. "The gods just weren't with us," he said. "Baker went four feet into the air trying to get over that guy. Then the kid stood up. It just wasn't meant for us to win."
At the moment it looked as though UTEP was meant to. Vandenburg's team had picked up three points in the hurdles, a quarter of a point in the high jump, two points in both the pole vault and the 1,000, plus the six in the relay. UTEP's total was 19¼. Villanova, with 13, still had Liquori in the mile, plus the mile relay.
Liquori won the mile in 4:04.7, completing a double accomplished only once before—by Jim Ryun in 1968—and Villanova had 19. The mile relay was announced. It was the final event.
"Hey, Wayne," Elliott said to Vandenburg. "Will you tell your assistant to stop screaming for all those other teams to beat us? He's doing it in my ear and I'm going deaf."
"He can't help himself," said Vandenburg. "All those guys running against you, they're brothers of his fiancée. She's got a lot of brothers."
"Well, tell him to go someplace else and root for her sisters," said Jumbo. Then he settled back and watched his relay team, which only needed to place fifth to win the meet, wrap it up with a third, giving the Wildcats 22 points. With his double, Marty Liquori had tied or beaten 111 of Villanova's 113 rivals.
"Someday," said Vandenburg, watching Elliott cross the infield to accept the championship trophy, "I'm going to beat him. All I need is one more tough-minded Eastern kid." He sighed and added, "Like Liquori."