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With Bias Death a Backdrop, Terps Track Faces Demise

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An early-spring sun soaked University of Maryland men's track and field athletes with rays of inspiration as they walked single file into the stadium at the University of North Carolina. Some two dozen runners, jumpers and throwers strode with proud purpose, hoisting Maryland flags and moving to the pounding beat of a Parliament-Funkadelic song, blaring from a boom box, with the lyrics, "If you hear any noise, it's just me and the boys."

The 1979 Atlantic Coast Conference outdoor meet was about to begin, and the most dominant force in conference track and field history had arrived in grand style.

"We marched in like we were going to war," said Greg Robertson, a four-time A.C.C. champion hurdler and team captain, who choreographed the procession.

I was a middle-distance runner on that team, and the meet was one of the most memorable in my career. I ran a personal best, finishing fourth in the 800 meters, and we won the conference outdoor title for the 24th consecutive year. It was perhaps the best team ever assembled at Maryland, with the hurdles world-record holder Renaldo Nehemiah and several other all-Americans. We finished eighth at the N.C.A.A. championships, tying Maryland's best outdoor finish, and recorded a second consecutive top-10 national ranking. The team finished sixth in the 1978 and 1979 indoor national meets.

Maryland's A.C.C. dominance ended after it won the conference meet in 1981. Today, Maryland men's track faces an uncertain future as one of six sports to be eliminated unless it can raise $4.2 million -- in cash only -- by July 1. Many among the track alumni consider it a death sentence.

The possible demise of the track program has been brewing for more than a quarter century, shortly after the Terrapins basketball star Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication in 1986. Track alumni were aware the team had been struggling. (It has finished no better than seventh in conference meets since 1991.) But a program with such a rich history, ethnic diversity and a strong record of graduating athletes deserves to continue.

A history of success

Maryland's men's track and field developed a half-dozen national champions and dozens of all-Americans since 1923. The team won 52 A.C.C. indoor and outdoor titles from 1954 to 1981.

Frank Costello, who won two N.C.A.A. high jump titles for Maryland in the mid-1960s, had been the Terrapins' coach for one year when I arrived in 1976. He expected nothing short of excellence.

At the A.C.C. outdoor meet my sophomore year, I sat sulking in the team bus after the first day of competition along with others who did not advance to the finals. Costello approached us as he walked down the aisle, congratulating fired-up qualifiers with high-fives and encouraging words. When he spotted our small, unenthusiastic group, Costello shook his head and quickly returned to the merry mix.

But by the end of my college career, I had won Costello's favor and we remain good friends today. When he told me I had been voted captain for the 1980 season, he said that he would have cast the final ballot in my favor if needed.

Team unity

I lived with other track athletes in converted offices at Ritchie Coliseum, Maryland's dingy first basketball arena, and then Byrd Stadium, where the Terrapins played football. The little apartments were fire hazards, and stepping on cockroaches the size of your thumb could be a little unsettling. In Byrd, most of us lived two to a room in an 8-by-10-foot space. You learned how to get along. In Byrd and Ritchie, we thrived in our own little Animal House along with others on the golf, tennis, baseball, wrestling, soccer, lacrosse and fencing teams. By living in close quarters, teammates built a sense of camaraderie that could not be recreated after those residences closed.

The track team thrived in a comfortable, mixed-race environment. On bus rides to meets, most African Americans sat in the back and most Causasians in the front, but not due to any racial divide or designation. In the back the "fellas", as they proudly called themselves, tossed flurries of verbal jabs at each other that defied boundaries of decency and left many of us rolling in the aisle in hysterical laughter. No topic, including your mother, was out of bounds. The rest of us stayed in the front and watched the antics in amused awe. Anyone who ventured to the back entered at their own risk.

Competitions provided the most memorable moments, though. I'll never forget Nehemiah's performance as a sophomore at the 1979 Penn Relays. In the 4x200 relay, he closed a 15-meter gap on the anchor leg and won by a couple of steps, running a 19.4-second split. He was more spectacular anchoring the 4x400 relay, closing a 20-meter gap and winning by 3 meters. His split: 44.3. Many consider it the most electric performance in Penn Relays history, and I feel proud to have witnessed it as part of that team.

Those memories formed unbreakable bonds. About a dozen of my teammates stay in contact and gather annually at Maryland's spring invitational meet in College Park.
The track team, however, could not maintain its standing. In 1980, Maryland lost its first A.C.C. outdoor meet in 25 years. Nehemiah left the team early that season to focus on the Olympic trials, and Costello quit soon after.

Bias death disrupts department

Bias's death hurt the university's sports programs for years, men's track more than most others. Track coach Stan Pitts remembers parents of recruits expressing concern about sending their child to a school they felt was full of drug abusers.

The athletic department was restructured into four tiers in 1990. The bottom tier, which included men's track, lost all scholarships and focused on regional competitions. "It was like someone in your family died," said Bill Goodman, the coach at the time.

Two years later, the team lost the use of its track during Byrd Stadium's renovations. For several years, the athletes trained at a local high school. The team was almost eliminated in the early 1990s, but Goodman fought for it.

"Track and field had 40 percent of minority athletes in nonrevenue sports at the school," Goodman said. "I had to form the best argument as to why they had to keep us."
Andrew Valmon, Maryland's current coach and the United States men's head track coach for the 2012 London Olympics, has maintained a positive approach. But the response among track alumni is warily optimistic.

Wary optimism

Dick Dull, Maryland's athletic director from 1981 to 1986, was a champion javelin thrower in the 1960s and later an assistant for the team. Now the director of the booster club at Hood College in Frederick, Md., Dull understands fund-raising. Like the track alumni I have talked to, he has vowed to help save Maryland's program. But he offered a word of caution.

Speaking generally of athletic fund-raising, Dull said, "A lot of possible donors don't believe they should pay for what they feel the institution should be paying for themselves."

Dave Ungrady, who was captain of the 1980 Maryland track team, is the author of "Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias." He will host a book signing at the Backyard Bistro in Raleigh, N.C. on January 8 from 4-6 p.m. and after the Maryland-NC State men's basketball game.

A version of this story appeared in the New York Times on December 18.

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