History of the Powerhouse: A look into Houston’s men’s track and field program
There is nothing quite like those several seconds before a track race begins. That frozen moment when everything is quiet and the crowd eagerly awaits the sound of the firing gun with just as much anticipation as the sprinters neatly positioned into their starting blocks.
If you’re a true fan of track and field, you’ve likely caught yourself holding your breath in that moment, waiting intently, while anxious of a possible disqualification due to any unintentional movement before the “BANG” deems it allowable.
The entire track and field experience is just that, an experience. At basketball games, you watch basketball. At football games, you watch football. But only at a track meet is there truly more to see, there is always something for everyone.
Track and field certainly has much to offer, and while there are hundreds of collegiate track and field programs in the country, one could argue that no university has offered more than Houston.
Just this year during UH’s COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, the program managed to sweep the American Indoor Championships in February, and there is a rich history beginning far before to delve into when discussing Houston track and field.
This is the History of the Powerhouse: track and field.
The Early Days
Houston’s men’s track and field program started in 1951 under head coach Jack Patterson.
Patterson, a former conference record holder in the high hurdles at Rice, helped turn Houston into a nationally respected program, known mostly for their sprinters and relay teams. The program competed in the Missouri Valley Conference until 1960, followed by 11 seasons as an independent.
In addition to sprinters, Houston produced several successful long-distance runners, including Leonard Hilton, who lettered at UH from 1967 to 1971. Hilton eventually competed in the 1972 Olympics in the 5,000 meters, and was a two-time American champion in the mile.
Following Patterson’s tenure as coach, the program transitioned to the Johnny Morriss era. Morriss’ time at Houston included three straight conference titles and an NCAA Cross Country Championship.
Morriss also coached former Houston Cougar Olan Cassell to 1964 Olympic gold in the 4x400m. His son, John Morriss III followed in his father’s footsteps and had a solid career as a high jumper at Houston in the 1960s.
Morriss’ impact on the University and its athletes is prevalent. Especially with several all-time great Cougars, including Olympian Carl Lewis.
“If you want to talk about two different histories, (there is the) early history with the distance runners when Johnny Morriss was the coach and (experienced) a tremendous amount of success in the 1960s,” Lewis said. “Then the glory days of Tom Tellez coming in in 1977, and then from 1977 to 1996 it was the most prolific Olympic-based program there was in the country.”
The Glory Days
Lewis himself is widely considered to be one of the most prolific athletes not only in Houston’s storied history, but of all time as well. After graduating high school in 1979, Lewis walked onto UH’s campus already an Olympic hopeful, who would eventually qualify for Moscow as a freshman.
The high point in the history of Houston track and field is undoubtedly the period in which Lewis and coach Tom Tellez officially put the program on the map.
“When Carl Lewis was a freshman, UH and Texas A&M were running in the 4×100 relay in a meet at Robertson Stadium,” said 1971 business finance alumnus Steve Saxenian on Facebook as he recalled his favorite program memory. “A&M’s anchor was a fellow named Curtis Dickey who ran several sub-10-second, 100-yard dashes in high school. Dickey got the baton six to eight yards ahead of Carl, (then) Carl beat him by five or six yards. I was standing about 10 yards from the finish line. It was a beautiful moment.”
In 1981, Lewis became only the second person in NCAA history to win both the 100 meters and the long jump at the college championships. Nine years later, Leroy Burrell, now the head coach at Houston, set a then-world record 19.61 in the 200-meter sprint at the Southwest Conference Championships in College Station.
Producing Olympians like Lewis and Burrell is what places Houston in the conversation with other great universities when discussing the best track programs in the nation according to the assistant coach.
“Florida State, A&M, they’re (similar to us), but they don’t have the same massive appeal,” Lewis said. “They don’t have a nine-time Olympic gold medalist. Because you know what? No one else does either … And then in terms of coaching, Coach Tellez has got to be, probably the greatest coach of the 20th century.”
Today and Tomorrow
One could argue that the men’s track and field program at Houston has returned to the top. Before a global pandemic shortened its 2020 season, Houston had been experiencing some of its greatest success in recent years.
In 2018, sprinter Elijah Hall finished second at the NCAA Division I Championships in the 100 meter. He was also a part of the team that finished first in the 4×100 meter relay.
It’s beyond evident just how far the program has come in recent years both on the track and with the facilities the University has to compete with from other national programs.
“When I signed to Houston we had a red-clay track,” Lewis said. “The weight room was ridiculous. The fieldhouse was ridiculous compared to now.”
Another big factor in favor of the program are both Lewis and Burrell themselves, who are so heavily involved with the program on a day to day basis.
While the coronavirus did not allow this year’s track team to complete their season, each athlete now has his sight set on 2021.
Houston is anxiously awaiting the arrival of South African speedster Phatutshedzo Maswanganyi, the world’s fastest U20 sprinter who set a South African record in the 100m earlier this year.
On top of the incoming athletes, the extra year of eligibility granted by NCAA for spring sport athletes has the track and field program expecting next season’s team to be the best in program history following the men’s program capturing their sixth consecutive American Indoor Championship title in 2020.
“The last couple of years, we’ve had the best men’s team we’ve ever had,” Lewis said. “The way college is set up now with the power structure – it’s designed to tell people who is good and who isn’t … Power Five, you’re automatically (considered to be) a better team, but that honestly isn’t always the truth, because you can’t talk about the history of track and field in college – it’s impossible – without mentioning the University of Houston.”