Tennessee track stuck in reverse

Marvin West
Sports

Speaking of athletics directors, did you spot Dave Hart at the bus stop, waiting for Tennessee’s one-man track team to come home from the Southeastern Conference indoor championships?

It is understandable if the departing director was busy elsewhere. His reconstruction plan for the once famous Volunteer program isn’t going very well.

But for Christian Coleman, it wouldn’t be going at all. The junior sprinter scored 18.25 points, about the same as all other UT track and field athletes, men and women, combined.

Coleman, relay reserve at the Rio Olympics, won the SEC 60, was second in the 200 and ran a leg on an eighth-place relay team. Others boosted the scoring total to 23.5 points, bad enough for 10th place, far, far behind real track teams.

Tennessee women were worse. They scored 13.5 points and finished 12th.

Hart’s choice to rebuild the track program, Beth Alford-Sullivan, is in her third year as director. Her results are much like her predecessor’s, the honorable J.J. Clark.

He got fired – after his people recruited Coleman.

Coleman was virtually hidden at Our Lady of Mercy, a small Catholic school on Evander Holyfield Highway outside Fayetteville, Ga. At 5-9 and 159, he considered himself a very fast defensive back and wide receiver with an invitation to continue football at 1-AA Valparaiso University.

Life-changing events occurred in the spring of his senior year. In the Georgia Olympics, he set records in the 100 and 200, won the long jump and anchored Mercy to a gold medal in the 4×100 relay.

He ran fifth in the 100 and 11th in the 200 at the New Balance Nationals and was suddenly sought as a big-time track talent.

“My life could be a lot different,” said Coleman.

He realizes he could be grinding away in spring football practice where the game doesn’t matter all that much.

“I thought track was a good opportunity for me. I took a leap of faith, and this is where God wanted me to be.”

Why Coleman chose Tennessee remains a mystery. There is one clue. In 2007, at age 11, he won an AAU national title in the boys’ long jump – at Tom Black Track. Things were some better back then. The Vols notched another SEC title.

There has been a drop-off and it is still dropping. The recent SEC meet represented an uncomfortable decline from last year – which wasn’t very good. These Vols scored about half as many points as the 2015 joint effort.

Tennessee cross-country results fit the pattern. Last October, male distance runners were a distant ninth in the SEC meet, 250 points behind champion Arkansas. UT women finished 14th (last).

Coach Alford-Sullivan still sounds optimistic. She talks about how young is her team. She emphasizes improvement and personal bests, even when they are far behind scoring minimums.

Beth isn’t getting a lot of help from the athletics department. Poorly managed restoration of Tom Black Track ran past the deadline and the facility was inoperable last outdoor season. The school doesn’t have an indoor track.

It does have track history. Several coaches were responsible. Chuck Rohe put track in the headlines and won an astonishing 15 consecutive SEC titles. Stan Huntsman built on that. Back in the era of dual meets, he led the Vols to a 93-26-3 record, 20 SEC titles and Tennessee’s first NCAA championship.

Ex-Vol Doug Brown lasted long enough to go 53-8 and win four SEC titles and another NCAA crown. Bill Webb did rather well – 52-1, four SEC and two NCAA titles.

Terry Crawford and Clark were big winners with the women. Clark got promoted with the merger. You don’t really want to know what happened after that.

Right now, the Vols do not have a competitive track team. They have one of the finest sprinters in the world and others in similar colors who don’t accomplish all that much when it is time to run, jump or throw.

Coach and athletes remain hopeful. Maybe the new AD will fix it.

Marvin West invites reader reactions.
His address is westwest6@netzero.com.

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