Abe Lemons, among college basketball’s most colorful coaches, once was forced against his will to coach track and field.
Nothing to it, he said disdainfully: “I just tell (the runners) to keep to their left and hurry back.”
Lemons, who died in 2002, wasn’t around to watch the University of New Mexico sophomore Josh Kerr last week add the NCAA men’s outdoor 1,500-meter title to the indoor mile title he won in March.
Yes, Kerr kept to his left — for the most part — and got back sooner than the other guys. But, he and Lobos coach Joe Franklin said on Wednesday, achieving this middle-distance double was far more challenging and complex than that.
The process began, Kerr said during an informal news conference at the UNM Track & Field and Soccer Complex, with a solid training base. Last fall, though he didn’t compete in cross country, he trained with his UNM teammates.
“I built up quite a lot of miles,” the 19-year-old Edinburgh, Scotland, native said, “which meant that coming into track season I was able to maneuver myself through the runs easier with that mileage base and just topped it up with speed when it came to track season.”
Kerr’s indoor season culminated with his shocking victory over Oregon’s Edward Cheserek at NCAAs in College Station, Texas.
Kerr, a redshirt freshman at the time, bolted into the lead with about 400 meters to go — “a freshman move,” a skeptical television commentator labeled it. To the shock of virtually everyone, except perhaps Kerr and Franklin, the freshman pulled away from the legendary Cheserek to win easily.
The outdoor season began with a flourish. On April 15, he won the 1,500 meters at the Bryan Clay Invitational in California with a clocking of 3:35.99, at the time the best in the world this season. While no longer the world’s No. 1, it stood throughout the spring as an NCAA best.
That, Franklin said, is when the course for NCAA outdoors was truly plotted.
After the April 15 race, Franklin said, “We sat down and talked and decided not to race for one month. That’s kind of rare, but he was able to get another training bloc in for 3½ weeks, (then) go into the conference championship, and the conference championship would really be his first workout.”
Kerr doubled for the Lobos at Mountain West Championships in Logan, Utah, winning the 800 and 1,500 meters.
“After that,” Franklin said, “he took two days off and then started building again and was able to build through the regional meet.”
The NCAA regional was held in Austin, Texas, in hot and humid conditions. Kerr won his qualifying heat in an extremely slow time of 4:00.07, but the time didn’t matter.
After two more days off, Kerr began studying for the NCAAs. Yes, studying, just as he would for his classes as a UNM communications major.
“I’d done a lot of research on some of (his competitors),” Kerr said, “and it was needed, because these guys are really, really good. So I knew when I needed to make my move, and I had to make it as certain as possible.”
His knowledge of the field meant that Kerr didn’t overreact when Virginia Tech’s Neil Gourley led after the first lap — Kerr was in 11th place at the time — or when Colorado’s Ben Saarel burst into the lead halfway through the race.
Kerr stayed in contact, hung on the shoulder of Oklahoma State’s Joshua Thompson, then took the lead with some 150 meters left. He held off Michigan State’s Justine Kiprotich and Ole Miss’ Craig Engels in a sprint to the finish.
“I pushed as hard as I could,” he said, “and I didn’t look back.”
His winning time was 3:43.03, well off the personal best he’d set in April. No matter; he’d fulfilled Abe Lemons’ prime directive.
It wouldn’t have happened, Kerr said, without Franklin — and, perhaps, without Albuquerque.
Kerr loves Albuquerque’s weather, its mile-high altitude and its running trails.
Of UNM’s coaching staff, he said, “They’re brilliant. I give a lot of credit to Joe, because he’s done a lot working with me. He’s been patient and he’s been precise with his training, so he’s been great.”