John Haaland’s name forever will be linked with two of Albuquerque’s most successful track-and-field enterprises: the Duke City Dashers and the Great Southwest Classic.
Yet, it might be more accurate, and certainly more appropriate, to say those names forever will be linked with his.
Haaland, tireless in his efforts and advocacy on behalf of the sport for a half-century, died on Sunday. He was 74.
“We’ve lost a real giant in track and field,” said David Sanchez, a fellow coach for the Dashers, an age-group track club that flourished under Haaland’s guidance in the 1970s-80s.
Haaland had been suffering from congestive heart failure, but it was a fall and a resultant head injury suffered at Saturday’s UNM-Hawaii football game that led to his death.
Tony Sandoval’s relationship with Haaland goes back to their days at UNM in the mid- to late 1960s. They later worked together with the Dashers and remained friends through the decades.
“John was many things to me,” said Sandoval, a star middle-distance runner at Albuquerque High and UNM and now director of track & field and cross country at the University of California. “He was a (UNM) teammate, we coached together, we had a commitment to track and field. … We were friends all the way to the very end.”
Haaland’s name, as well, forever will be linked with that of John Baker, his friend from their days at Mark Twain Elementary, Monroe Junior High, Manzano High School and UNM.
It principally was Baker, a star miler at Manzano and at UNM, who steered Haaland – a better basketball player at MHS than a track athlete – toward a life in track and field. With Baker and Sandoval, Haaland took over the Dashers in 1969.
The following year, Baker died from cancer. In 1978, Albuquerque author William Buchanan wrote a book, “The Shining Season,” chronicling Baker’s courage – and Haaland’s devotion to his friend – during Baker’s final days.
The following year, a motion picture of the same name, based on Buchanan’s book, starred Timothy Bottoms as Baker and Ed Begley Jr. as Haaland.
After graduation from UNM, Haaland took a job as a physical education teacher at Albuquerque’s Zuni Elementary School. He later taught at several other elementary schools. He was the girls track coach at Del Norte High School from 1985-99 and was the Region 8 coach of the year in 1996.
In 2001, Haaland spearheaded a move that brought the Great Southwest – a post-academic-year high school invitational that had collapsed financially in Phoenix – to Albuquerque.
Almost two decades later, largely thanks to Haaland’s stewardship, it is still here.
The Great Southwest over the years has served as a springboard to a college scholarship for many prep athletes from New Mexico and around the country.
“I could never be there, because the California state meet was always the same weekend,” Sandoval said. “But I would send one of my assistants, and we recruited quite a number of New Mexico athletes to Berkeley.”
This summer’s Great Southwest Classic was highlighted by the performance of Matthew Boling, the Houston prep athlete who’d run a sub-10-second 100 meters earlier in the year.
Sanchez, who has served on the Great Southwest board of directors, said Haaland’s declining health has prompted others to step forward in leadership positions.
Sandoval and Sanchez both described Haaland as a man of strong opinions but with an equally strong sense of fair play.
“He had an explosive personality,” Sandoval said. “He said what he needed to say and what he felt. We (fellow coaches) all would have arguments with him, who was going to run in a relay and who wasn’t.
“I pushed back on him quite a bit, but the thing about him was when the meet was over, nothing carried over. … We’d go out and have a beer or go dancing or whatever it ended up being, and the next week we’d be arguing about something else.”
Of Haaland, Sanchez said, “Nobody fought harder for his kids. … John was a real stickler for fairness; he always wanted a level playing field.”