The Fall Guy : At Least Stan Wright Gets to the Hall of Fame on Time


When it was announced in July that Stan Wright had been elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, a reporter called him for his reaction. It had not been a given that the longtime college coach and administrator would receive enough votes, particularly when considering it was his first time on the ballot, and he figured to be more surprised than anyone.

After all, when former quarter-miler Fred Newhouse told Wright he had nominated him, the coach responded, "Fred, you're losing your mind."

Wright had already heard the news when he answered the telephone, and, yes, he was surprised and also elated.

"But I know what you really want to talk about, and I don't want to do that over the phone," he said.

A couple of days later, he was sitting with a reporter at the dining room table in the Sacramento condo that Wright shares with his wife, finally giving his side of the story, aided by five thick files of official documents, letters and newspaper clippings he has collected for 21 years.

They all pertain to the events of Aug. 31, 1972, when an incident occurred that branded Wright in track in the same manner that Roy Riegel's wrong-way run and Ralph Branca's home-run pitch to Bobby Thomson branded them in theirs.

Thirteen years later, The Times' Morning Briefing offered the following as a trivia item:

Q: Stan Wright, who retired Monday as the athletic director at Fairleigh Dickinson, is best remembered for the 1972 Summer Olympics at Munich. What for?

A: He was the assistant track coach who misread the schedule and was responsible for sprinters Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson missing their qualifying races and being disqualified in the 100 meters.

As Wright discovered in July, when he received support from more than half of 600 voters for the Hall of Fame, the incident is regarded by many within the sport as just that, trivia.

His accomplishments, they told him with their votes, are hardly trivial. He was involved with college sports for 36 years, 26 as a coach at Texas Southern, Western Illinois and Cal State Sacramento before becoming an athletic director. Most of his success occurred between 1951 and '67 at Texas Southern in Houston, where he coached four Olympians, including Jim Hines, a 1968 gold medalist and former world record-holder in the 100 meters.

More significantly, Wright helped so many gifted athletes become world-class sprinters that his teams became regular features at the nation's most prestigious relay carnivals, including some that never before had invited a predominantly black college.

"People said, 'Twenty-one years, enough is enough. Stan Wright deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,' " said Wright, who will be inducted Saturday with hurdler Rod Milburn, high jumper Jean Shiley Newhouse and discus thrower Mac Wilkins at a ceremony in Las Vegas.

"They didn't put me in there because they feel sorry for me. I hope not."

Yet, Wright leaped at this opportunity to talk about the one day that has haunted him for more than two decades. It is the reason he has tended to those ever-expanding files about the incident, so that one day he could set the record straight.

Although he either walks or plays golf daily and feels fit, he is a 73-year-old man who suffered a slight stroke in 1988 and underwent multiple-bypass heart surgery the next year, and he knows calls from reporters might be few in coming years.

Interestingly, Wright said, he almost did not make that fateful trip to Munich. Believing that his performance as sprint coach for the U.S. men's team during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where athletes under his care set five world records in winning six gold medals, would propel him to the head coaching position in 1972, he was hurt when the Amateur Athletic Union's selection committee opted for the University of Oregon's Bill Bowerman in a close vote.

Only when other track coaches insisted Wright would be a certain selection as the head coach in 1976 did he accept an offer to return as the sprint coach.

He has often second-guessed that decision because, after Aug. 31, 1972, there was no chance that he would be considered to lead the U.S. men's team four years later in Montreal.

"His career was never the same after that," said John Smith, a quarter-miler for the U.S. team in Munich and now a UCLA assistant coach.

As reported by newspapers, radio and television that day and in numerous historical accounts since, here, briefly, is what occurred:

After Hart, Robinson and Robert Taylor easily advanced out of the morning's first-round, 100-meter heats, Wright told them the afternoon's quarterfinals would not start before 6 p.m. But while gathering in the athletes' village to return to the track for warm-ups at 4:15 p.m., they watched a television monitor in shock as the gun went off for the first heat of the quarterfinals.

They hurried to the stadium in a van provided by ABC, but Hart and Robinson arrived late and were disqualified. Taylor reached the starting line just before the gun went off for his heat, finishing second to earn a place in the next day's semifinals. He eventually won the silver medal, finishing second to the Soviet Union's Valery Borzov.

Although the media later was criticized for pouncing on Wright as the culprit, it was difficult to conclude otherwise, at least in the beginning.

Robinson was adamant that Wright was to blame.

"He supposed to get his sprinters on the blocks," he told The Times' Jim Murray. "What else he got more important to do? A man who lives by the stopwatch."

Wright pleaded guilty.

"It was my fault, my fault," he called out over his shoulder, in tears as he fled from reporters.

Taking him at his word, a nationally-syndicated sports columnist wrote that Hart and Robinson were "eliminated by an overage, overweight non-competitor--their coach, Stan Wright."

In an interview late that night with ABC, the coach received such harsh treatment from Howard Cosell that an offended viewer wrote a letter to the New York Times that said the only conceivable reason for the "tasteless questioning could have been to get Wright to commit suicide in front of the TV cameras."

Wright said last summer that the thought of suicide did cross his mind.

"It's hard for me, with my vocabulary, to tell you how I felt," he said. "The bottom went out of my life at that time. I couldn't believe it happened. I thought I was in another world.

"It was devastating for a year, a year and a half. I was just out of it. If I had been a quitter, I would have jumped off the Bay Bridge, taken poison or something."

Upon returning from Munich, he offered to resign as track coach at Cal State Sacramento, feeling he had embarrassed the university. The athletic director rejected the offer but said he had received applications for Wright's job from more than a handful of other coaches.

But how much of what happened that day was Wright's fault?

Certainly some of it was. He admitted again last summer that he should have done more to find out the correct time for the start of the afternoon heats.

"As the sprint coach, I was responsible," he said. "I felt that then, and I feel that now."

It gnawed at him, however, that others he felt were equally responsible did not come forward to share the blame. But Wright did not say anything for 21 years.

"If someone really cared about what happened, I figured the truth would come out some day," he said.

The absolute truth, if there is such a thing, has been lost in time. But it is possible from reading his files to shed more light on that day and to correct at least one inaccuracy that has been reported repeatedly through the years, the one that claims he misread 16:15 on the schedule as 6:15 p.m. instead of 4:15 p.m. because he did not comprehend military time.

It is false. Not only did he spend 4 1/2 years in the Air Force, where he said he became all too familiar with military time, he had been involved for a decade in international sporting events, where official schedules generally use the 24-hour clock. Before his experience with the U.S. sprinters in 1968 in Mexico City, he was the head track coach for Singapore in the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, and for Malaysia in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

It also is irrelevant because Wright said he has not to this day seen a schedule that includes a specific starting time for the 100-meter quarterfinals. He was working with two schedules, one provided by the U.S. Olympic Committee and the other taken from the U.S. Army's Stars and Stripes newspaper, and neither listed specific times except for the first events of the morning and afternoon sessions.

Both listed the second round of the 100 meters after three heats of the men's 10,000. Given that, Wright and LeRoy Walker, the coach at North Carolina Central who was in charge of Kenya's track team in 1972, determined that the 100 would start no sooner than 6 p.m.

But to make sure, Wright and Hart approached an official before leaving the track after the morning heats, showed him the schedule distributed by the USOC and asked if it was correct.

"I didn't feel it was Wright's fault we didn't make it to our heat on time," Hart told the Sacramento Bee in an interview six years later. "The German confirmed the time Reynaud and I were to run again. We later found out it was the wrong schedule. We figured not believing an official at the track would be about as smart as thinking the earth was flat."

According to the official report later sent to the USOC by the U.S. track and field team manager, George M. Wilson, an announcement about schedule changes, including one placing the 100-meter quarterfinals before the 10,000- meter heats, was made 48 hours earlier, on Aug. 29, at a technical meeting conducted by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which governs the sport.

But, Wilson wrote, he later became so involved in a controversy over the legality of poles used by U.S. vaulters that he forgot to pass on the information to Wright.

It is unclear from Wilson's report whether any other member of the U.S. delegation attended the technical meeting or was informed of the change. A woman who answered the telephone recently at Wilson's home said he had a stroke seven years ago and did not want to be interviewed.

Wright said he believes the head coach, Bowerman, was aware of the schedule change. And Wilson's report implicates him.

"It appears erroneous to me to criticize Stan Wright or the athletes, for having faith in the information provided," the report said. "If there is to be any criticism or blame leveled against the U.S. team, it must be directed at the Head Manager and Head Coach."

Bowerman, who did not file an official report as requested by the USOC, said in a recent interview he was not informed of the schedule change. He did, however, agree with the assertions in Wilson's report that the Munich organizing committee and the IAAF did not provide easily accessible, up-to-date information about the schedule.

In his report, Wilson said the technical committee promised printed copies of the official schedule would be available before each morning and afternoon session at the track and field information desk in the athletes' village. But, he reported, that was not the case before the afternoon session on Aug. 31.

Bob Paul, the USOC's director of information at the time and now an Olympic historian, recalled recently that he went to five places after the morning session that day in search of an official schedule for the afternoon before locating one in the press center.

"That was the last place on my list," he said.

According to Wilson's report, inconsistency in providing schedules continued throughout the track and field competition. He said a Kenyan 800-meter runner and a Spanish 5,000-meter runner also missed the start of their races because of inadequate information, and, after two schedules with different times were distributed for the start of the 110-meter hurdles, U.S. coaches took their athletes to the stadium early to prevent another mishap.

After his own investigation, however, the USOC president at the time, Clifford H. Buck, laid the blame on the lack of communication between Wilson and the coaches.

Absolving Wright, Buck said, "There is not a track coach in the world any more competent, conscientious and dedicated to his duties and his sport than the sprint coach who was using an unofficial schedule."

So why was Wright so quick to accept all the blame in Munich?

One reason is that, unaware at that time of all the circumstances, he believed he deserved it. Another is that he felt it was important for him to step forward so that the media would not blame the athletes.

"Some stories began to circulate that the kids were in the city looking for women or that they were gambling or that I couldn't find them," he said. "The stories had racial overtones, and I wanted to make sure that, whoever was responsible, everybody knew it was not the athletes' fault."

But, in attempting to douse the racial implications, Wright became a victim of them, said Smith, the quarter-miler. Four years after a threatened boycott by black athletes almost split the U.S. track and field team apart in Mexico City, he said it was no coincidence that whites among the coaching and managerial staffs allowed a black coach to take the fall alone.

"I told Stan what was going on," Smith said. "He said he knew but that he wouldn't do anything about it. He said, 'I wasn't raised that way. Your generation is going to have to fight the fight.' "

In the closing hours of the Munich Olympics, another athlete tried to console Wright.

"I remember him telling me, 'We have one more day, and it's all over,' " said Kenny Moore, a marathon runner for the U.S. team in 1972 who now writes for Sports Illustrated. "I said, 'C'mon Stan, life goes on.'

"He got serious and said, 'That's what I'm hoping for. Life has got to go on.' "

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