Wednesday, June 13, 2012

55 Years Ago This Week: The Greatest Track Team Ever?

Front row from left: Ed Collymore, Ron Delany, Coach Jumbo Elliott, Alex Breckenridge, and Charles Jenkins.  
Back row from left: Phil Reavis, Charlie Stead, and Don Bragg. 

 55 years ago this week in Austin Texas, Villanova, which was led at the time by legendary head coach Jim "Jumbo" Elliott (above, in fedora) won its first and to this date only NCAA outdoor track and field championship. While this is unquestionably the greatest Villanova team of all time by virtue of the championship, it's worth wondering whether this is the greatest track team from any school in history by virtue of the fact that three different athletes on the team won individual Olympic gold medals and five of them represented their countries in the Olympics, a number that represented a third of the members on the team. During the 1957 season, the Villanova track team won every amateur competition in which it entered including a sweep of all three relays they entered at the 1957 Penn Relays.

Perhaps nothing better can be said about the 1957 team, than this which was written at the time (after jump):
There is no other, nor has there ever been any other, university or college in the world which can, or could, send forth 15 track men to better the 15 which comprise the present Villanova University track team. Villanova, indeed, has attained a most unique position in the world of intercollegiate track competition.

The accomplishments of this great aggregation are many and varied and a separate treatise would be required to discuss them. However, there are a few outstanding feats, which can be mentioned that will substantiate their claim to fame.

During the indoor season the Villanova track team captured both the IC4A and N.A.A.U titles. This has been accomplished only twice before by college teams, but never before when the various athletic clubs were not weakened by war-time conditions. In winning these two meets the Wildcats won an unprecedented four individual N.A.A.U titles and six IC4A titles. They won 19 ½ first place medals during the five annual indoor meets held in Madison Square Garden. This was never before even nearly accomplished by any other team. In the Queens-Iona and Penn Relays, their main encounters in the still young outdoor season, Villanova won six relay titles-every in which they competed. There can be little doubt that added laurels will be won when this great team competes in the outdoor IC4A and NCAA meets. Next month at Austin Texas, Villanova will be out to win their first national collegiate championship.

What Makes This the Greatest Squad

A track team is composed of individual performers, and two of Villanova's performers are the absolute best in the world. The feats of Charlie Jenkins and Ron Delany would fill a book, but what more need be said of them than they are Olympic Champions! Of Delany you might also say that he can make a very strong claim that he is the greatest miler this world has ever seen. As far as further superlatives for Jenkins are concerned, Charlie is holder of the world record for 500 yard at 0:56.4 and in addition to his 400 meter Olympic win, he has another gold medal for running on the 1600m relay team. His was the fastest time on the winning team. The team greatness is certainly indicated by the tremendous nucleus these two men form.

There is a very fine line which divides the "core from the inner layer." Many, indeed, feel that Don Bragg, Phil Reavis and George Sydnor belong in the "inner sanctum." Certainly it would be difficult to take exception. It would not take the whole hand to count the polevaulters in history who have accomplishedthe feats of Don Bragg. Twenty-two times Don has gone over the 15 foot mark, and has gone as high as 15'5 ¼. The experts feel Don will be the first to top sixteen feet. The diminutive high jumper, Phil Reavis finished sixth in the Olympics, and has been the most consistent jumper in the country. In spite of his 5'9" stature, Phil has cleared 6'7" or better in nine indoor meets. Then there is George Sydnor who is a co-holder of the 60 yard world record. George, who was hampered by a leg injury, has an even more promising future.

A wealth of fine runners give great depth to this team. The indoor mile relay team has dominated the event for three years, and set a world record of 3:16.0 at the Chicago Daily News Relays. Gene Maliff, Al Peterson, Eddie Collymore, Charlie Jenkins, and John Furlinger comprise this brilliant relay team. The outdoor mile relay team, although having a little different make-up was none-the-less brilliant. Peterson, Maliff, Sydnor, Delany, Collymore, Jenkins, and Charlie Stead comprised this team. The latter is also a highly successful high jumper having cleared 6'9 ½" to share the IC4A title with teammate Reavis. For distance running, Alex Breckenridge, George Browne, and Johnny Kopil combine with Delany to make this squad unbeatable in this department. Alex is a two-mile specialist while Johnny excels in the mile. George has been a stalwart on the cross country team. Bob Holup has been a consistent point getter in the hurdle events. Jim Fahey has contributed in the shotput department.

As on all great teams, this team has some great "comers." Jack Van Dusen and Joe Armon hold great promise in the hurdles while more than a little in expected of Vic DiMaio and Bill Rahn in the middle distances. Jim McGroarty should give Villanova great strength in the shotput and javelin.

How This Team Was Gathered

When it is considered how many great universities and colleges there are in the country, in the world for that matter, a question comes to mind as to how this one particular university, nestled quietly in the midst of the "Main Line," was able to lay claim to what is probably the most outstanding array of track talent ever assembled outside an Olympic team. There must be some reason, and there is! It starts with the Augustinian fathers' choice of a track coach. Their starts, of course, was one Mr. James Elliott, better known as "Jumbo." Jim Elliott is singly responsible for bringing this team together. He had no "magic wand" which he waved from the Field House roof to attract the stars. Rather, Jumbo's "magic wand" has been the better than 20 years of devotion and hard work he has put into his job. This has resulted in a league of "disciples" which has served as "lookout posts" for him. Once a talent is "spotted" Jumbo's ability ti impress as a coach, gentleman and friend takes over.

One of Elliott's greatest ambassadors has been a former star of his, George Guida. It is most probable that the influx of "foreign talent" which presently includes Delany and Breckenridge can be traced back to George's appearances on the foreign shores with his teammate Browning Ross. There are others of course, but this is an outstanding example of how this team was recruited.

As Jumbo points out, breaks (luck if you will) have been an enormous factor. For there are many boys who appear to be good prospects, but who can project and tell which ones will become great talents? Considering the very limited number of track scholarships, the percentage of those who have developed is nothing short of phenominal. But students of the sport know only too well that Jim Elliott has "made his breaks" with his tremendous coaching ability. As a result of his accomplishment, ha has to be recognized as the top man in his field today.

Jim Elliott chose his assistant well when he picked to be his assistant, Jim Tuppeny. Jim's work is certainly reflected in the team's performances as he, like Jumbo, is a tireless, well-qualified worker.

And so it was that at Villanova University in 1956 was formed "The greatest track team in collegiate history."
Olympians on the 1957 track team:
Charlie Jenkins: USA. 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Gold medalist in the individual 400m and the 4x400m relay.
Don Bragg: USA. 1960 Rome Olympics. Gold medalist in the pole vault.
Ron Delany: Ireland. 1956 Melbourne Olympics and 1960 Rome Olympics. Gold medalist in the 1500m run in 1956. Ireland's first Olympic champion.
Phil Reavis: USA. 1956 Melbourne Olympics. High Jump.
Alex Breckinridge: USA. 1960 Rome Olympics. Marathon.

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