Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Strange Case of Villanova's 1970 Cross Country Crown


On November 23, 1970 the NCAA Cross Country Championship was held at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The top contenders for the team championship were UTEP, which had won the crown in 1969 and returned all 5 top finishers from that race, Oregon, 3rd in 1969 and led by the iconic Steve Prefontaine, and Villanova, which had won the title in 1966, 1967, 1968 and finished second behind UTEP in 1969. By all accounts, though, Villanova was in something of a rebuilding phase in 1970 and most observers had UTEP as the pre-race favorite.
Oregon, though, had seemingly pulled the upset. Steve Prefontaine, 3rd the year before, won the race in 28:00 and Oregon was declared the team champion, beating Villanova 86-88. UTEP was third. The championship trophy was awarded to Bill Bowerman and his Ducks, the top teams stood atop the podium, and the press conference was held. Oregon departed for the airport, trophy in hand, believing it had won the championship.
However, when Les Nagy, Villanova's 5th finisher, look at the results board, he noticed that several runners he knew he had beaten were listed ahead of him in the list. Nagy claimed that after having crossed the finish line he had fallen to the ground, and several runners had passed him in the finish chute prior to the runners having gotten their place cards. Villanova filed a protest of the results and refused to leave the site until the 8mm film of the finish line was reviewed. Sure enough, Nagy was correct. After reviewing the film, Nagy was awarded 62nd place overall, instead of 67th, and as a consequence Villanova was declared the team champion 85-86 over Oregon. Bowerman and the Ducks filed a protest, but to no avail. Villanova's squad -- Donal Walsh, Marty Liquori, Wilson Smith, Chris Mason, Les Nagy, Jerry Bouma, and Dave Wright -- had won its 4th national title in 5 years.

Here are the top 25 finishers in that 1970 championship race:

1. Steve Prefontaine, Oregon 28:00
2. Donal Walsh, Villanova 28:08
3. Don Kardong, Stanford 28:10
4. Greg Fredericks, Penn State 28:12
5. John Bednarski, UTEP 28:14
6. Keith Munson, Oregon State 28:22
7. Bob Berlesen, Ohio 28:28
8. Sidney Sink, Bowling Green 28:30
9. Marty Liquori, Villanova 28:37
10. Scott Bringhurst, Utah 28:40
11. Jerome Howe, Kansas State 28:43
12. Richard Sliney, Northern Arizona 28:44
13. Don Smith, Washington State 28:45
14. Jerome Liebenburg, Western Michigan 28:46
15. Kerry Pearce, UTEP 28:47
16. Mark Covert, Cal State Fullerton 28:48
17. Mark Hiefield, Washington State 28:48
18. Gary Harris, Western Michigan 28:50
19. Dennis McGuire, Iowa State 28:50
20. Ken Popejoy, Michigan State 28:55
21. John Cragg, St. Johns (Minn) 28:58
22. Greg Carlberg, Nebraska 28:56
23. Wilson Smith, Villanova 28:56
24. Edmund Norris, Kent State 28:59
25. Ron Martin, William & Mary 29:00

TOP 5 TEAMS: Villanova (85), Oregon (86), UTEP (124), Indiana (195), Western Michigan (214)

After the race Villanova coach Jack Pyrah commented: "We were really surprised to win it. UTEP had everyone back and Oregon had its usual fine personnel. We really don't have a cross country runner except for Walsh. The rest of our runners are half-milers and milers who are suited more for the track. Marty doesn't like to run cross country. He doesn't like to run hills -- in fact, we didn't even run him in the IC4A meet the week before at Cortlandt Park in New York because the course has so many hills. He has muscle problems in his leg and a hilly course aggrevates it. But the course at Williamsburg was pretty flat."

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