Bob Larsen--a Most Fortunate Fellow : Bruin Track Coach Takes His Four Years of Success in Easy Stride

Times Staff Writer

Bob Larsen’s modesty knows no bounds.

To hear Larsen tell it, he has had little to do with the success of the UCLA men’s track and field team in four years as head coach.

Instead, he seems to feel that everyone in the UCLA athletic department should be given credit for UCLA’s 1987 NCAA championship as well as for the Bruins’ 36 straight dual-meet victories, four 9-0 seasons, since 1985.

Fortunate is the word that Larsen most often uses to describe his position.


He says he has been fortunate to:

- Inherit a tradition of winning from predecessors Ducky Drake and Jim Bush.

From 1946 through 1964, Drake’s teams were 107-48, a .690 winning percentage, won one NCAA championship (1956) and finished second in the nation twice and third once.

From 1965 through 1984, Bush’s Bruins were 152-21 (.879) and won four NCAA titles, including one in 1966 and three in a row from 1971 through 1973. His teams were also second four times and third twice.

- Have been hired as head coach by the late J. D. Morgan, the athletic director, who carried on the tradition forged by Drake and Bush and “built a super program.”

- Attract top assistants and athletes.

Four of Larsen’s assistants are UCLA graduates who were stars and, in some cases, world record holders in the specialties they coach: John Smith, sprinters; Steve Lang, jumpers; Russ Hodge, decathlon, and Anthony Curran, pole vault. Smith still holds the world record for the 440-yard dash, and Hodge formerly held the world record in the decathlon.

His other assistants are Art Venegas, a Cal State Northridge graduate who coaches weight events and coordinates recruiting, and Tommie Lee White, a former world record holder in hurdles who competed at Yankton College in South Dakota and is a professor of kinesiology and physical education at Cal State Northridge.

Larsen said good fortune played a large part at last year’s NCAA championships when 10 of his top athletes recorded either seasonal or lifetime bests, including firsts by now-departed Jim Connolly in the decathlon, Kevin Young in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles and the 1,600-meter relay team of Anthony Washington, Young, Henry Thomas and Danny Everett. The relay team set a college record of 3:00.55.

The top marks at the 1987 NCAAs “were phenomenal,” Larsen said, particularly at the end of the season when many performers are played out. Those performances sparked UCLA to an 81-28 victory over second-place Texas, the largest margin of victory in an NCAA meet, he said.

Athletes who provided 33 of those 81 points have completed eligibility, but the men who scored the other 48 are competing, enough to made some observers predict a second straight NCAA championship for the Bruins.

Track and Field News picks UCLA to defeat Texas, 60-42, and Garry Verigin in his Trackwire thinks the Bruins will beat the Longhorns, 52-41.

Larsen, unlike Lakers Coach Pat Riley, is not guaranteeing that the Bruins will repeat. He notes that he had 18 qualifiers in last year’s meet and expects about 14 at this year’s NCAAs on June 1-4 at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

His outlook, however, may have become a little rosier last weekend when the 400-meter relay team and sprinters Michael Marsh and Thomas qualified for the NCAAs in a big way at the Occidental College invitational. Marsh has been bothered by hamstring injuries throughout the season, and Thomas had what Larsen called “a real bad case of the flu.”

The 400 relay team of Marsh, Everett, Steve Lewis and Thomas ran the fastest time in the world this year, a school record 38.94, and both Marsh and Thomas qualified in the 100 and 200 meters. Marsh won the 100 in 10.12, breaking the school record 10.15 set last year by Thomas, and Thomas was second in 10.23. Thomas won the 200 in 20.18, breaking the UCLA record of 20.20 set by Greg Foster in 1979, and Marsh was second in 20.35.

The weekend qualifications may be another case of fortune favoring Larsen and UCLA, but he is wary of predicting that the Bruins will again win the Pacific 10 Conference meet. The main portion of the meet will be held Saturday and Sunday at UCLA’s Drake Stadium. The decathlon and heptathlon ended Tuesday at UCLA.

Oregon, runner-up to UCLA at last year’s Pac-10 meet and a winner over the Bruins in 1986, will be UCLA’s chief contender again, Larsen said. The Ducks, long noted for distance runners, will be strong not only in the longer runs but also in the jumps, pole vault and throwing events, he said.

“Oregon is capable of winning if we experience major injuries as in 1986,” he said. “We’re going to have to have a good meet to win.”

Like Oregon, Larsen, who also coaches UCLA cross-country runners, was noted for his distance runners in 11 seasons as head cross-country coach and six as head track coach at Grossmont Community College in El Cajon. His Grossmont harriers were state champions in his last seven years and his track teams finished in the top four at the state meet in his last five years.

He has continued to have success since coming to UCLA in 1979 when he became head cross-country coach and Bush’s top assistant in track, working with distance runners, jumpers and pole-vaulters. In nine seasons, his cross-country teams have placed either first, second or third in the Pac-10 and have qualified six times for the NCAA, placing fifth twice in the nationals.

Larsen expects that Texas will again be UCLA’s chief contender at the NCAA meet. He also thinks that Arkansas, Kansas and Oregon, performing before a home crowd, will score a lot of points.

“Can we really be ready?” Larsen asked. “It’s going to be tight, and we’ve got to have good luck from here on in to be in contention.”

There’s that word again, luck or fortune. But if the Bruins repeat as NCAA champions, it may be that chance did not have as much to do with it this time.

It just might turn out that Larsen will have been chiefly responsible for keeping those top athletes and top assistants operating at their best. UCLA can then consider itself fortunate in having Larsen as coach.