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Rearview Mirror: On Cross Country and Track

Going to get the non-rev features underway, since there’s not much non-rev to chat about over the summer.

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The start of 100m sprint on Tech’s first track - Tech Tower Lawn. Bill Moore Student Success Center and the Upper West Stands replaced the Knowles Dormitory in the background on the right.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/7737)

I faced a quandary this summer with not much having been able to play out for a lot of the non-revenue sports this past academic year. And, rather than re-tread the series we rolled with the past two summers recapping and previewing each sport, this year we’re going to take a look at the long-frame historical window of each of these sports.


When digging into the historical record, especially when we’re talking about sports that are off the well-trodden path, it’s seemingly pretty helpful when one of these obscure sports gets closely tied into events more significant to long-standing campus lore. Much as drownproofing is to swimming, the Freshman Cake Race is that for cross country, and, by extension, track and field. But, here’s the thing — when all the attention is on that one aspect, that one critical moment, it sucks up all the attention from everything else around it. No one talks about the reasons why Coach George Griffin (one the campus jack-of-all-trades’ earlier roles) needed to run a recruitment race to the Atlanta Waterworks and back in the first place. How old was the team? Was it doing alright? Was this for campus promotion? Did it work? I hate rhetorical questions, but these are the types of things to be asking, and, honestly, I don’t think they’re rhetorical considering I have no idea if we’ll find any answers to them.

So, we’ll use the Freshman Cake Race as a starting point. And there’s no better place to start looking for information on that than to dive into the Rearview Mirror Archives:

The first running of the Freshman Cake Race was in 1911. Of course, it wasn’t called that back then since neither name really applied - there were no cakes, and members from any class could run the race....By the 1913 edition, the tradition of baked goods given to the winner had sprung up, with the faculty wives, along with mothers, sisters, and sweethearts of the students, baking the first cakes for the winners....In those early days, the race was truly a cross-country excursion. Though at first it ranged from two to four miles, from campus to the Atlanta Waterworks, the event slowly morphed into the contemporary half-mile race run every homecoming nowadays....It was not a well-kept secret that Dean George C. Griffin...regularly staked out the race to scout young men for the track team....Many a “country boy” was turned into a Tech athlete because he was found at the Freshman Cake Race. (From the Rumble Seat, 2018).

The thing is, though, that wasn’t the start of this story. George Griffin wasn’t the coach. Heck, he probably wasn’t even the first coach of the team that you’ve heard of before. That man would be John Heisman.

In 1904, Heisman was hired away from Clemson with the promise of a better salary and a portion of gate receipts. The allure of cosmopolitan Atlanta had some appeal, too, as Heisman was a closet Shakespearean well-versed in eloquent prose. Once on campus, he got to work rounding out the rest of Tech’s athletic program. Up to that point, football had been the main game in town, but the team was more or less terrible, for about a decade before it was joined by its little brother, baseball, a team we will talk about in this space in the future. Heisman was famously hired to coach football, but he also took up the baseball position as well. To round out Tech’s athletic program, he added a track team as well, which ran from its first season in 1904 until he resurrected a basketball team in 1908 after delegation of that resulted in a paltry 1-2 record in 1906 and couldn’t split himself any more ways. Considering how separate the worlds of track and football are today, I did not expect to being writing about one of the greatest football coaches to ever live in the track and cross country history feature.

It’s not exactly clear when cross country began to be seen as a separate team from the Jackets, but, nevertheless, track burgeoned in the early years under the successive leadership of Charlie Thomas for nine years and William Alexander, having no football or basketball to coach in the spring, for six. Thomas led the Jackets to their first conference title, with a 1912 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association title in track and field, while Alex led Tech to a sterling 1922 campaign that saw them win the Southern AAU crown and his star pole vaunter, Longino Welch, won a national pole vault title in 1921. Griffin, who had been a track star on the mid-1910s squads, returned to Tech following his service in the Great War to be an assistant football coach to the freshman and scrub teams, a trainer, and an instructor in the Mathematics department, followed his boss Alex to the track and cross country teams. After two years of being an assistant, he succeeded his mentor as the head track coach in 1924, but not after having already been made the first separate cross country head coach in 1921.

The track stint wouldn’t last all that long, however, as Griffin delegated the position to Harold Barron in the late 1920s. Under his tutelage, Ed Hamm became the first athlete representing the program to repeat as a national champion, winning back-to-back titles in 1927 and 1928 in the long jump before going on to the 1928 Olympics, where he would win a gold medal. In the process, he set a world record in the event, with a 25-11.125 performance. He would be both the last Olympian and last national individual title winner for the Jackets until the 1980s.

The starting line of a 1937 conference track meet.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/7638)

However, things for the team were looking up. When most other sports’ continued existence in the turbulent economic situation of the 1930s, track’s star was hitched to football, and it was able to ride out the storm. Hamm came back to coach for two years, but didn’t stick around long, so Griffin returned to the head coach role. Griffin’s legacy on the program today is obvious, considering Tech’s track is named in his honor. However, what exactly his achievements were are largely forgotten.

Including Griffin, there have been four total track and field head coaches since Hamm’s departure in 1932. In his second stint, Griffin saw more success, leading Tech to six Southeastern Athletic Association Championships before stepping down as head coach for the second time.

However, all that success and longevity paled in comparison to his time as the cross country coach. The SEC began competition in the sport in 1935. The conference did not see a non-Tech champion until 1941, when Mississippi State ended Tech’s run as six-time undefeated overlord of the distance running scene in the Southeast. Tech took the next year, too, in 1942, before play was halted for the war. Out of the gates, the Jackets took the first one back in 1947, meaning that since the sport became sponsored by the conference in in 1935, only one year was Tech not the reigning champion. They hardly dropped off in 1948 and 1949 either, finishing as runners-up both times, before coming back to win titles number nine and ten in 1953 and 1954 before departing the conference. In that twenty year span, Tech netted ten titles and saw six individual conference champions — Chick Aldridge from 1935-1937, Artie Small in 1938 and 1939, and R. W. Smith in 1948. To this day, Tech trails just Tennessee and Arkansas in Cross Country titles, and has as many as Florida, Alabama, the school in Athens, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas A&M, and LSU combined. Griffin would coach the team until the dawn of the ACC era, ultimately leaving Tech with a fifty-plus year career as a coach of cross country, not to mention more than a decade with the track team, his time with football, and as Dean of Men, head of the placement office, and service to the math department. Not bad for a kid that showed up as a sub-freshman in the early 1910s and is perhaps most infamously immortalized by being a “great disappointment” to one John Heisman.

Meanwhile, Track settled into a multi-decade coach of their own, Norris Dean, following Griffin’s second retirement by netting a record 90 points in the 1944 SEC outdoor track and field competition. They would go on to break their own record the next year with 93.75 points in 1945, and snagged another title in 1949, to boot, as well as three runner-up finishes before departing around when Tech left the SEC. Tech still has more SEC men’s track and field titles than the school in the East.

Two decades of Dean were followed by nearly three of Buddy Fowlkes. He was a letterman at Tech, captain of the 1949 track team, 1950 AAU indoor national champion long jumper, and three-time SEC leading point scorer, before returning to his alma mater. Fowlkes’ may not have won a conference title at Tech - they were independent for a sizable chunk of that, after all, but he did tutor “three Olympic medalists, two world record holders, 10 NCAA national champions, 50 All-Americans, 77 Atlantic Coast Conference champions and 126 All-ACC selections,” (2008 Track Media Guide). His 1985 team tied for ninth in the indoor track national championships, while in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Antonio McKay netted gold in the 4x400m Relay and bronze in the 400m, setting the world record in the indoor 400m in the process. He followed it up as a member of the gold medal 4x400m Relay in Seoul in 1988, while teammate Mike Armour set the world record in the indoor 500m in 1985. It goes without saying that the two of them were quite successful at NCAA meets, as McKay’s double championship in the indoor and outdoor 400m in 1984 were Tech’s first individual track titles since Hamm.

In 1984 and 1985, respectively, women’s cross country and track and field became Tech varsity sports. From 1985, they were coached by Dee Todd. When Todd left to become the assistant commissioner of the conference, Fowlkes became the head coach of both programs. While head coach of the women, Natasha Alleyne won the 1992 NCAA championship in the high jump, while the team took 7th overall.

Fowlkes’ athletes would win another three NCAA individual titles before his retirement in 1992, with James Purvis taking the indoor 55m hudles and outdoor 110m hurdles in 1988 and the 4x400m relay of Octavius Terry, Julian Amedee, Derrick Adkins, and Derek Mills in 1992. The quartet traded Terry for Guy Robinson the next year, but still won a title, while Terry and Mills teamed up again, this time with Jonas Motiejunas and Conrad Nichols. Mills and Terry did alright for themselves, winning the 400m and 400m hurdles, respectively, as Tech sailed to fourth place in the 1994 NCAA Outdoor Championships under second-year coach Grover Hinsdale, notably also taking seventh in the previous year’s indoor NCAAs. To this day, that 1994 team is probably the best Tech has ever fielded in men’s track and field. Shockingly, Tech didn’t win the ACC Championship. In fact, they finished worse at Outdoor ACCs (6th) than they did at the national championship. To boot, they were 3rd at Indoor ACCs and 24th at Indoor NCAAs. This is perhaps the most convincing Tech-related evidence that performance indoor doesn’t necessarily translate to performance outdoor.

In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Adkins took first in the 400m Hurdles a light jog away from his alma mater, while Mills was a member of the gold medal 4x400m Relay.

Under Hinsdale, the Jackets followed up 1994’s stellar run with a tie for third place at Indoor NCAAs in 1997. David Krummenacker’s 800m national title was the star performance of the season, which he followed up in 1998 by repeating as champion, as Tech took 7th at Indoor NCAAs and 8th outside. While Krummenacker tore it up inside, Motiejunas and his younger brother Tomas joined Michael Johnson and Angelo Taylor to take Tech’s fourth win in the 4x400m Relay in seven seasons, a meet at which Taylor took the individual title in the 400m hurdles. He would go on to win gold in the event in Sydney in 200 and Beijing in 2008, and was a member of the victorious 4x400m relay once more in the ‘08 Olympic Games, as well. Hinsdale is currently the coach of the men’s track and field teams.

While Hinsdale saw success with the men, Wendy Truvillion spent three years leading the women. Upon her departure, Alan Drosky, who remains the women’s head coach and the men’s and women’s cross country coach, took over. Drosky is the only coach to lead Tech to an ACC title in track and field or cross country, which his women’s team accomplished in 2002. Under his tutelage, Chaunte Howard was the 2004 indoor and outdoor high jump champion, and she repeated her title in 2005 outdoors.

Drosky had been a cross country standout at Georgia Tech from 1985 to 1987, after transferring in from South Carolina. He succeeded Steve Kieth, who, along with Mike Spino, bridged the gap from Griffin, as the cross country head coach just four years after graduating. The highlight of his coaching career for cross country came in 2001, when the women finished first and the men fourth at the NCAA South Regional. The women followed up their 31st place finish at NCAAs the year prior with a solid 26th place showing. This would be cross country’s last appearance on the national level until the 2018 Yellow Jackets finished 28th at NCAAs after entering the meet seeded 30th overall.

A rare shot straight into the old bowl end of Grant Field where the Wardlaw Center is today from a meet where Tech hosted Florida.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/7763)

As for the track facility itself, that has seen some changes over the years. In the late 1980s, Tech finally received an independent track that could host events, and was awarded the 1987 ACC Outdoor National Championships to christen the facility, after having been co-tenants in Bobby Dodd Stadium for much of their existence. When it was completed, it also featured a 1,500 seat stadium hugging the track immediately to its north called Morris Bryan Stadium, and featuring the standard stadium conveniences. The 1,500 spectator seats were divided into four section reached via three portals, while a judges stand and press box anchored the west end. The stadium was named for the Bryan, former president of Jefferson Mills, a three year letterman at Tech, and founder of the Georgia Olympics. When the present Ken Byers Tennis Complex, which features sixteen state-of-the-art courts, six indoor and ten outdoor - that number being a different issue we will tackle later - was constructed, proper spectator seating was added to the outdoor courts. In order to accommodate the rearranged facility - there had previously been fewer indoor courts, situated past the end of the stadium - the three sections of Morris Bryan Stadium east of the final stadium portal were knocked down. A longer, narrower replacement was built onto the tennis stands, with the tennis seating facing north into outdoor courts 1-6 and the track seating facing south along the home stretch. After the re-working of the seating, the track was resurfaced from the original red running surface to a sporty navy and gold.

Until spring 2020, the restrooms and drinking fountain, rather convenient to the general public, particularly on the way to or from standing in line outside of basketball games at McCamish Pavilion, along with the final section, judges stand, and press box, were removed with little public fanfare. For those that missed the most recent edition of the FTRS Podcast, Scions of the Southland, we ventured over to the track to see what had filled their place, and, low and behold, the last remnant of Morris Bryan Stadium had been replaced with a concrete slab surrounded by an oddly-routed iron fence. Really, I couldn’t tell you if that’s all for construction at the track, but, it’s a rather ignominious end for what was one of the finest facilities in the region and the conference when it was built. My tinfoil hat conspiracy was that preparation was being made to reorganize the area slightly for, perhaps, dare I get my hopes up, lacrosse or soccer, but, if anything, artificial turf at Bobby Dodd again makes that one less likely. Who knows. Perhaps nothing will go there. We’ll have to find out.

This article column doesn’t have the usual snappy, clean conclusion, and, well, that kind of makes sense. There’s not often a ton of public information out there about track, let alone cross country — Tech hasn’t even published a media guide for either since 2008 — so finding information was trying, to say the least. Given how little info I had been able to find on these teams in the past, I’m kind of shocked to be bumping up on 3,000 words now. Perhaps they’re working on something new and nice at the track. Perhaps they’ve could give us more information about the current and past teams, without having to cobble it together from more precarious sourcing than usual. That would be nice, at least.

The thing is, they sure would have a lot of interesting things to talk about.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.


If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. For the upcoming plan, see the June 1, 2020 column here.