Division II May Go a Leg Up in Track Supremacy
Mount St. Mary’s College is a small Division II school tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Maryland. Just head up U.S. Route 15 until you hit Emmitsburg. Pass the town’s five churches and five bars and you’ve found the Mount--the home of 1,400 students and, what’s this . . . some of the best track athletes in the world?
As they say in Kenya, “Ni kwali” --it’s true. The Mountaineers have had four former Olympians competing in the NCAA Division II championships this week at Cal State Los Angeles. Junior world-record holders Charles and Kip Cheruiyot ran for Kenya in the 1984 Olympics, Davison Lishebo ran for Zambia and Fred Owusu competed for Ghana.
Another Mountaineer, Robert Ekpete, is the Norwegian national champion in the decathlon.
Bill Motti of Mount St. Mary’s won the Division II title in the decathlon in 1984 and ’85. He finished fifth in the event in the ’84 Olympics, representing France.
Norway’s Trond Skramstad won the ’82 decathlon in the NCAA Division I and II championships for Mount St. Mary’s. Gudmund Olsen, also from Norway, won the Division II decathlon titles for Mount St. Mary’s in ’80 and ’81.
The list goes on and on.
Even though towns such as Emmitsburg seem to be unlikely places to find world-class African and European athletes, they are nonetheless popular training grounds for foreigners.
Abilene Christian, a school with 4,500 students located in Abilene, Tex., has won the NCAA Division II title four straight years with the help of athletes from South Africa, Egypt, Jamaica and Trinidad.
“Last year and the year before, I don’t think there were more than one or two college teams that could beat us--including Division I teams,” said ACU Coach Don Hood. “Big schools have had every advantage in recruiting. In the past, there’s no way I could get blue-chip athletes. But we take kids who can’t get into Division I because of grades or age. That evens it out.”
In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Division I schools loaded with foreign talent dominated collegiate track. Texas-El Paso won four consecutive national titles with athletes from Tanzania, Jamaica and Kenya.
As teams with strong foreign connections collected championships, grumbling and nationalism cropped up among some coaches and athletic directors who didn’t appreciate seeing their young Americans whipped by older East Africans.
A lot of track All-Americans weren’t Americans at all.
Said Jim Bush, former UCLA coach: “I was against Olympic athletes beating our young guys. Some coaches cried about foreigners and us needing to learn from different cultures and all that. But it was obvious why teams wanted those foreign athletes. They wanted them for the points.
“When I suggested foreigners should be kept out of the NCAA championships, suddenly the coaches forgot all about learning about cultures--you saw why they really wanted them--for the points.”
Former UTEP Coach Ted Banks admitted that allowing experienced international athletes to compete in Division I took its toll.
“Because the guys were older, they would beat down young Americans,” he said. “They’d discourage them. You’ve got to be mentally mature to take that.”
The Division I schools couldn’t. In 1980, the NCAA adopted legislation that limited Division I eligibility for athletes over the age of 20. Athletes involved in organized competition after their 20th birthday would lose a year or years of eligibility--depending on how long they competed.
The rule was aimed at older foreigners who trained and competed into their 20s and sometimes 30s before enrolling at a U.S. school.
But the rule was approved in Division I only. Divisions II and III, as well as schools in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics, left the door open for seasoned track competitors. As a result, a growing number of athletes are heading to places such as Emmitsburg, Abilene and maybe even Cal State Northridge.
“It doesn’t matter to international athletes where they compete,” Mount St. Mary’s Coach Jim Deegan said, “as long as they feel comfortable at the college and as long as they have the training they want.”
Some athletes have little choice but to attend a Division II school. Samson Obwocha, who won the steeplechase and 1500 meters at last year’s Division II championships, hasn’t broken any academic records en route to graduation at East Texas State. Obwocha, who first made the Kenyan national team in 1976, is a 32-year-old senior.
Obwocha said he is the best steeplechaser in college track. “If I go against Division I,” he said, “I win.”
Effects of the Division I eligibility rule are seen by the increasing number of foreign winners in the Division II championships. Among men competitors, there was one foreign winner in 1983. In ’84 the number went to six and last year there were eight.
And, truth be told, the ’86 championship looks like a United Nations convention.
Because of additional Division I academic requirements scheduled to go into effect in August, it appears the small schools will get even more high-quality athletes.
“It will change the face of track and field,” Abilene Christian’s Hood said. “Of course, the big universities will try to talk them into going to junior colleges, and then they’ll recruit junior colleges like crazy.”
But according to Mel Rosen, who has coached track at Auburn for 23 years, the new academic requirements will substantially reduce foreigners in Division I. “They’ll go to Division II. The people I’ve talked to say it’s going to be a lot harder to get them in.”
Deegan agreed. “Take a black kid out of Africa who speaks tribal language and then ask him to take a test geared to an American kid, and you’ll see all the African athletes in Division II.”
Even the NAIA, traditionally the weak sister of college athletics, has benefited from Division I rules.
Said Wally Schwartz, chief administrator for the NAIA: “Our defending national champion Azusa Pacific could compete with anyone. So could Wayland Baptist (Tex). In some events, our times are much better than the NCAA. We’ll probably have three runners in the 400 meters who are competitive with anyone.”
Wayland Baptist’s Devon Morris of Jamaica has one of the top collegiate times in the 400 meters this year. Last year, Azusa Pacific was led to its national title by Innocent Egbunike, who won a bronze medal in the ’84 Olympics as the anchor of Nigeria’s 1600-meter relay team.
While bigger schools have made it more difficult for foreign athletes to compete, schools like Mount St. Mary’s are grabbing as many athletes as they can--wherever they can find them.
Of Kenyans Kip and Charles Cheruiyot, Deegan said: “They’re just phenomenal athletes. They could run a lap backwards and still win a lot of races.”