Depleted, Not Defeated : UCLA Should Have Another Great Track Season Despite Loss of Key Athletes

Times Staff Writer

After UCLA won the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. track and field championship last June, routing its opposition for the second consecutive year, it was generally conceded that the Bruins would be even more dominant in 1989.

Most of the team was returning, meaning that athletes representing 69 1/2 points of the 81 UCLA scored to only 41 for runner-up Texas, would still be competing for Coach Bob Larsen.

“It would have been our best team ever,” Larsen said recently.

Larsen will have to settle, though, for something less than the dream team that was envisioned last June.

Danny Everett, a world-class sprinter, decided to forgo his senior season for financial reasons.

He signed a contract with a shoe company after the Seoul Olympics where he won a bronze medal in the 400 meters, rendering him ineligible to compete for UCLA.


Because the smooth-striding Everett won the NCAA 400 and ran legs on the point-producing sprint and 1,600-meter relay teams, his loss can’t be minimized.

But the Bruins also lost Henry Thomas, who placed third in the NCAA 200 in 1988 and was a member of UCLA’s 1,600-meter relay team, which broke the collegiate record. Thomas will red-shirt this season.

Add that to the loss of Kevin Young, who as a senior last year won the NCAA 400-meter intermediate hurdles and ran a leg on the winning 1,600-meter relay team, and any other team would be devastated.

However, UCLA isn’t just any team. The Bruins have become merely a strong team, instead of one that is virtually unbeatable.

UCLA, which hasn’t lost a dual track meet in four years, should keep that record intact and also will be favored to retain its Pacific 10 Conference title.

“Things will be a lot more competitive for us this year, especially at the NCAA level,” Larsen said. “Florida and Texas A&M; have a lot of prospective points.”

But so does UCLA:

--Steve Lewis, the sub-44-second freshman quarter-miler last year, is returning with the distinction of being the Olympic gold medalist in the 400 meters. He defeated the favored Butch Reynolds, the world record-holder, and Everett, his teammate, at Seoul.

--Mike Marsh, who placed third and fourth in the 100 meters in the past two NCAA meets, also is available.

--Peter Thompson, Brian Blutreich, Dave Wilson and John Knight, who accounted for 25 points in the weight events in the NCAA meet, are back.

Larsen also has some talented newcomers: distance runner Mark Dani, jumpers Diatori Gildersleeve and Tim Prince and sprinters Mike Stevenson and Kevin Williams, the highly regarded tailback prospect on the football team.

Of course, the Bruins would be even stronger if Everett and Thomas were competing. Larsen said it was a difficult decision for Everett to forfeit his senior season.

“In an Olympic year, shoe companies have larger budgets and Danny was told that if he didn’t take advantage of it now, it might not be available in the future,” Larsen said. “It was a substantial amount of money.”

Thomas thought that he might have a future in football even though he hadn’t played since he was a high school freshman. So he gave it a try last fall, which was not a success.

“Maybe he wasn’t quite ready to come off that (track) season and off an attempt to play football and jump right back into the sprint wars,” Larsen said. “I think he feels with another year of maturity he’ll be more ready next year (for track).”

UCLA will still be a factor at the national level again, and Larsen credits sprint coach John Smith and weight coach Art Venegas for maintaining the Bruins’ quality program.

The program at USC, dormant as a national track power for more than a decade, has been revitalized through selective recruiting.

USC Coach Ernie Bullard, in his fifth year, has recruited some blue-chip freshmen, namely sprinters Quincy Watts from Taft High School and Travis Hannah from Hawthorne High. Watts is a former state champion at 100 and 200 meters, and Hannah won the state title in the 400 in 1988.

Watts and Hannah were bothered by injuries last year as was another promising recruit, high hurdler Ron Copeland from Dorsey High.

If they can stay uninjured, the Trojans should be formidable in the running events.

Robert Reading is regarded as one of the nation’s best collegiate high hurdlers. He scored points in the NCAA meet last year along with teammates George Porter in the intermediate hurdles and Ibrahim Okash in the 800.

“We’ll be strong on the track with a sprinkling of some good field event people,” Bullard said.

He was referring mainly to triple jumper Greg Harper and freshman javelin thrower Matt Gee, who is also a linebacker on the football team.

Other athletes from Larry Smith’s team who are expected to bolster the sprint corps are wide receiver Gary Wellman and tailbacks Ricky Ervins and Calvin Holmes.

Watts came to USC in what was regarded as a package deal with Hilliard Sumner, his sprint coach at Taft High.

Moreover, Bullard has a famous volunteer coach in Jim Bush, former coach at UCLA, who will primarily be responsible for the hurdlers.

USC has won an NCAA-record 26 championships, but none since 1976. Another title in 1978 was subsequently forfeited for using ineligible athletes.

The Trojans have regressed in recent years, blaming NCAA scholarship limits --14 athletes for 21 events--that restrict schools with high tuition costs.

For example, a full scholarship at USC costs $18,400, meaning that if a scholarship is divided in track, which is a common practice, an athlete would still have a tuition cost of $9,200.

Even so, that restriction wouldn’t prevent a school from excelling at the national level if the 14 scholarships were used properly.

USC has squandered some of its scholarships in the past by recruiting less than quality athletes, or ones who didn’t improve.

Bullard, with his best recruiting class, is trying to return the Trojans to national prominence.