ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Back then, it was guys like Hugh Hackett, Bub Henry and Floyd Highfill.
Today, it’s Joe Franklin and Brad Winter.
Back then, it was athletes like Dwight Stones, Mary Decker, Steve Prefontaine and Billy Olson.
Today it’s Allyson Felix, Ashton Eaton and Jenn Suhr.
Tomorrow? That’s the promise of the 2014 NCAA Indoor Track Championships, which were recently granted to Albuquerque and UNM.
Indoor track and field has a remarkable Albuquerque history — interrupted, but now resurrected.
Hackett, then the track coach at UNM, was a driving force behind creating the Albuquerque Jaycee Invitational, which first ran indoors at Tingley Coliseum on Jan. 25, 1964.
Henry, a track aficionado and UNM’s alumni director, took on much of the behind-the-scenes work.
Highfill, an engineer and former Lobo distance runner, created an indoor surface that soon caught the attention of the track world.
Suddenly world class athletes were making stops in Albuquerque and sometimes crowds of 10,000 and more would gather to watch.
One of those spectators was a young boy named Brad Winter.
“It was fabulous,” Winter says. “Every year I looked forward to it. My father would get me seats right by the pole vault.”
Winter, who went on to pole vault for the University of Oklahoma, eventually competed in the Jaycee meet.
But by the mid-1980s, the cost for travel, housing and appearance fees grew too much for the invitational to handle and it was gone.
Fast forward to 2005. Winter, who had become a city councilor, was at the Convention Center and wondered if an indoor track would fit. Told it would, he and others began looking around. They contacted Mondo, the elite track surface makers, and were told they could have one for a cool $1.8 million.
“There was no way,” Winter says.
Meanwhile, Matt and Mark Henry, sons of Bub, had taken over the UNM track program and they learned of an indoor surface that the Los Angeles Staples Center had ordered, then passed on. It was sitting in storage in Montreal.
They went to Winter. Winter looked into it and was told Albuquerque could have it for $500,000. He convinced city officials it was worth the cost for a chance at the potential economic impact.
Since then, regional and national meets of various kinds have found their way to Albuquerque, including the 2012 USA Indoor Championships which featured a number of athletes who went on to win medals at the London Olympics.
And now, what Hackett started, what the Henrys dreamed about, and what current Lobo coach Franklin helped foster, will come to fruition with the NCAA meet.
“This is the icing on the cake,” Winter says. “To have the NCAA indoor nationals, you have arrived.”
Mayor Richard Berry, a former UNM decathlete, says he has been told the NCAAs will have a $1.3 million direct spending impact on Albuquerque. He says the city has funds to build a new infield for the track and provide an upgrade on the bleachers.
Winter says coaches and athletes like Albuquerque because it is centrally located, its hotels are across the street from the track venue and that the track is fast.
“You’ve got to have a track to run on, and the track has to be fast,” Berry concurs. “It has to be a place where athletes can run fast and jump high, because that’s where they want to compete, that’s where the NCAA wants to have their athletes compete.”
Albuquerque and UNM hope the event will be included in a rotation that would bring the NCAAs back every three years or so.
Says Franklin: “This is an event that is one of the top events in the world. Not one of the top events in the United States. It rivals the world championships. It is the best.
“We’re going to be getting news coverage in Seoul, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Russia. That’s what this event brings to our program and the University of New Mexico.”
All that international talk brings back memories of the 1980 Jaycees meet, when the Soviet Union brought its team to Albuquerque.
One of the Soviet sprinters punched former Auburn star Willie Smith during the running of the 440-yard dash.
When asked about it, the Soviet interpreter said: “What incident?”
The 2014 NCAA Indoor Championship meet is unlikely to take us to the brink of another Cold War. But, with the quality of athletes who will arrive here in the middle of that March, it will take a step toward making Albuquerque the capital of world indoor track.
Franklin and assistant Rich Ceronie know how much pressure they have ahead of them.
“Quite honestly,” Franklin says, “the process will be nerve wracking, tiring and thrilling.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal