'Born to Coach'


A roomful of high school track coaches scribbled notes as a 62-year-old man in blue jeans and Nikes trotted back and forth between a row of desks to demonstrate the finer details of Olympic-class high jumping.

For three hours Thursday the coaches listened intently as Tom Tellez, the legendary trainer of track and field superstars Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Dwight Stones, took them step by step through his own scientifically grounded training tips.

But in the rear of the Montebello school district headquarters bungalow, two men just watched and smiled. They know Tellez not as the famed coach but as their former Montebello High School teammate, the halfback who returned a punt 55 yards to help beat Covina High in 1950. From what they have heard over the years, though, Tellez's touchdown run has grown longer and longer.

Sustained applause concluded Tellez's coaching session, and soon he made his way to the back of the room to greet two old friends, Dick Hartman and Jerry Jefferson.

"A hundred and fifteen yards?" Hartman blurted out as he shook Tellez's hand.

"One fifteen? I thought it was 120?" said Tellez, smiling.

They had some catching up to do. First stop: the old campus of Montebello High, long since converted into an intermediate school.

It was a quick drive from the district headquarters, and after stopping in to pick up the principal, Tellez led an entourage of school officials, reporters and his old buddies straight to the old basketball gym.

Entering first, Tellez stepped onto the slats, spun around and looked up at a banner that lists the most valuable players on the Montebello Oilers' various athletic teams between 1948 and 1956.

Tellez pointed out Jefferson's name under cross-country, but saw that his own name was nowhere to be found.

"I wasn't an outstanding athlete," he said without a hint of regret.

The tour continued outside to the old track. The first thing Tellez did was look down at the reddish soil surrounding the oval infield.

"It seems like the same dirt," he said. "It hasn't changed much."

Tellez surveyed the field and soon recalled a proud moment in what he describes as an otherwise mediocre track career. It was the high point of his junior year, the day he placed second in the league finals of the 120-yard low hurdles.

Achievements like that are what eventually convinced him to pursue a coaching career in track and field as opposed to football, he said.

But an equally profound impact came from his teachers, he said, particularly a Montebello High biology instructor. "When you get a teacher who makes the subject come alive, you really gravitate to it," Tellez said. "I think [the biology teacher] definitely helped me in the quest to find all the answers in track and field."

It was a quest that would lead him from Montebello to a teaching program at Whittier College. He then pursued a degree in physical education at Chapman College, where he wrote a master's thesis on "The Cinematographic Analysis of the Shotput."

His brief football coaching career began at Buena Park High School in 1958, but soon he switched to track and field at Fullerton Junior College. By 1968 he was coaching field events at UCLA, where his athletes included high jumper Stones and triple jumper Willie Banks.

In 1976, Tom Landry, then-head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, offered him a job as conditioning coach, but Tellez declined in favor of heading the University of Houston's track and field program.

Since then, Tellez has watched his world-class athletes--including sprinters Lewis and Burrell--break world records and win Olympic gold medals. Along the way he has won an international reputation for paying painstaking attention to athletes' movements as they correspond to the physical laws of impetus and momentum.

Tellez, a Mexican American, was honored in 1990 when President George Bush presented him the Hispanic Heritage Award. That year he was named National Coach of the Year by the NCAA Track and Field Coaches Assn.

Tellez returned to his old stomping ground this week for Saturday's track meet at UCLA, in which his Houston squad will take on athletes from Cal State Northridge, UC Irvine and UCLA. When Montebello school officials found out about the meet, they asked him to swing by his alma mater to share some coaching tips. While it was a warm homecoming for Tellez, Thursday's session opened a new world to Mario Benavides, a first-year assistant track coach at Montebello High. After watching the master draw footprint diagrams for high jumpers' approach patterns, Benavides compared Tellez's talent for coaching to that of a gifted athlete.

"It's something genetic," he said. "He was born . . . to coach."

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