Many of the greatest track and field Olympians got their start right here at the University of Kansas.
| 2017 Q3 | story by Patricia A. Michaelis, Ph.D., Historical Research & Archival Consulting
What do a legendary basketball coach and a former KU football coach have to do with a track and field contest that became the premier spring sporting event in Kansas? They—Forrest C. “Phog” Allen and Dr. John Outland—collaborated to create the Kansas Relays. John Outland was born in Hesper, Kansas, and attended Penn College, in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and The University of Kansas (KU) in 1895 and 1896, where he played football and baseball. However, he went to the University of Pennsylvania to complete his medical training, where he was introduced to the Penn Relays. In 1920, he approached Dr. Allen, athletics director as well as basketball coach at KU, with the idea of starting a track and field meet at Kansas similar to the Pennsylvania version. As a result, Outland, Allen and KU track coach Karl Schlademan organized the first Kansas Relays in 1923, following the completion of Memorial Stadium with its quarter-mile track. From the beginning, the Relays attracted athletes who either were or would become Olympians.
More than 600 athletes participated in the first Kansas Relays. Tom Woodson Poor, from Bismarck, Missouri, competing for Kansas won the inaugural high jump. He participated in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, France, where he placed fourth in the high jump. Another early Olympian from Kansas was Jim Bausch, from Garden Plain, Kansas. A multisport athlete at KU, Bausch competed in the decathlon in the Olympics. At the 1932 games in Los Angeles, he set the world record for the decathlon at that time with 8,462 points.
Glenn Cunningham, from Elkhart, Kansas, was probably the best known of the early Kansas Relays Olympians. Baby boomers who grew up in Kansas read about the tragic accident experienced by 8-year-old Glenn and his brother Floyd in their textbooks. A fire at their school killed Floyd and severely burned Glenn to the point that doctors discussed amputating his legs and said he may never walk normally again. He and his parents refused to believe this, and after intensive therapy for two years, Glenn took his first steps since the accident in 1920. His racing specialty was the mile and the 1500-meter run. Only 12 years later, Glenn competed in the 1932 Olympics, where he placed fourth in the 1500-meter race. He was honored with a Glenn Cunningham Day at the 1934 Kansas Relays. At the 1936 Olympics, in Berlin, Germany, Cunningham won a silver medal in the 1500-meter run. With world-class athletes competing in the Relays, its first decade paved the way for the Kansas Relays to be a major event in track and field in the Midwest.
With the retirement of Glenn Cunningham and the advent of World War II, the event was cancelled from 1943 to 1945, and the Relays lost some of its prominence. However, Harrison Dillard, of Baldwin-Wallace College, in Ohio, set a world record in 1948 in the 120 high hurdles.
Bill Easton became KU track and field coach in 1948, helping KU build teams that dominated the Big 6 Athletic Conference and Midwestern track meets. One of the Olympians from this era was Al Oerter. Born in New York, he came to KU on a track scholarship in 1954 and competed in the discus, winning the NCAA discus championship in 1957 and 1958. Oerter began his Olympic career at the 1956 Summer Olympics, in Melbourne, where he threw a personal best to win gold and defeated his closest competitor by more than 5 inches. At the 1960 Olympics, in Rome, he won his second gold medal. Oerter continued his Olympic success with gold medals at the Tokyo (1964) and Mexico City (1968) games. He became the first Olympic athlete to win gold medals at four consecutive Olympic Games.
A KU long distance runner won the 10,000-meter run at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Billy Mills, an Oglala Lakota (Sioux), received a KU track scholarship after attending Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University). He was named an NCAA All-America cross-country runner three times, and, in 1960, he won the individual title in the Big Eight cross-country championship. He, of course, also competed in the KU Relays during his years on campus. After graduation, Mills entered the Marine Corps and was a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve when he competed in the 1964 Olympics. As a virtual unknown, Mills won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter run, a race that had not been won by an American until that year. In 1997, the Kansas Relays named the 10,000-meter run after Mills.
Another well-known Kansan who participated in the KU Relays and the Olympics was Jim Ryun, from Wichita. Ryun participated in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics. In 1968, he won the silver medal in the 1,500-meter run in Mexico City, losing to Kip Keino, from Kenya, whose remarkable race remained the Olympic 1,500-meter record for 16 years. In the 1972 games in Munich, Germany, Ryun did not finish because he was tripped and fell during a 1,500-meter qualifying heat.
The Kansas Relays decathlon attracted top talent in the early years. Five of the first seven decathlon winners became Olympians. To current readers, Bruce Jenner was probably the best-known Kansas Relays decathlon winner, setting a new meet record in 1974. Jenner then won the gold medal for the decathlon in the 1976 Olympics, in Montreal.
One of the most poignant stories of the Kansas Relays and Olympians is that of Clifford Cushman. Cliff, from Grand Forks, North Dakota, attended the University of Kansas, where he broke and set many track records. In 1959, Cliff took second place in the 400-meter hurdles, providing Kansas with its backbone to reach its first NCAA championship. In the next year, he earned most outstanding performer honors at the Kansas Relays, as well as winning the national title in the 400-meter hurdles. He helped the Jayhawks earn NCAA championships in both 1959 and 1960. His biggest achievement during his college career was becoming an Olympian. He competed in the 1960 games, in Rome, and finished second in the 400-meter hurdles. Cushman also competed in the 1964 Olympic trials, but, after tripping on the fifth hurdle in the U.S. Olympic trials, he failed to make the U.S. team. After the trials, he wrote a letter to the young people in his hometown that was published in several newspapers. He urged the youth not to feel sorry for him.
- Don’t feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for some of you! You may have seen the U.S. Olympic Trials on television September 13. If so, you watched me hit the fifth hurdle, fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees, and injured pride, unsuccessful in my attempt to make the Olympic team for the second time. In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters, and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried. I would much rather fail knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never have tried at all.
After graduating from KU, Cushman joined the U.S. Air Force. On Sept. 25, 1966, he was shot down during a combat mission over Vietnam. He was declared missing in action until after the war and was never found—a sad ending to a short but impactful life.
In closing, Lawrence Business Magazine editor-in-chief Ann Frame Hertzog has a personal and family connection to the Kansas Relays. She was a student relays committee member for 4 years and one of the Tri-chairs her senior year. After working for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Committee, Ann returned to KU and was the Meet Manager for the 60th Kansas Relays in 1985. Her father, Allen “Al” Frame, was a championship runner on the KU track and cross country teams. As a track and field runner, Frame won a total of six Big Seven Conference championships: four indoor and two outdoor. He placed 10th on the 1953 NCAA national cross country championship team, then claimed the individual championship title in 1954. Of course, he also participated in the Kansas Relays during his college career, placing first in several events, under KU coach Bill Easton. Frame was inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.