COLUMBUS, Ohio — The school that brought you three yards and a cloud of dust is now proud to present 400 meters and a bolt of lightning. Not that Ohio State no longer has football. Just that once more, it has track.
Rather, it has Butch Reynolds, whose nearly unseen progress around the track is attended by nothing more than a faint smell of ozone, forget the dust. He reminds some very old Buckeye fans that the school had Jesse Owens long before it had Woody Hayes.
Any day now, he will be as famous among track buffs as the old Wood man was among football fans. At the recent Jesse Owens meet--Reynolds passes Owens' bronzed shoe daily on the way to the track office--the Ohio State junior ran the fastest sea-level 400 in history, 44.10 seconds.
When he runs the same event in the USA-Mobil Outdoor Track and Field Championships, the national meet sanctioned by The Athletics Congress, at San Jose next weekend, one of the two oldest records in track and field will be in definite jeopardy. It's the world record for the 400, 43.85, from the 1968, altitude-aided Olympics.
Reynolds, unbeaten in five 400 races this season, including the recent National Collegiate Athletic Assn. meet, is not exactly track's best kept secret, although he'd still be a good guest if "What's My Line" made a comeback.
But his prominence is so sudden that hardly anybody else can place his name. Up to a year ago, when he had to take a loan out to pay his own way to Ohio State, not many track coaches could put a face to it.
"He's one that everyone should reckon with," says UCLA assistant coach John Smith, who watched Reynolds win in the NCAA meet. "Right now, he's making a statement. His name's going to become household."
Keep in mind that Reynolds is something of a late bloomer, not to mention a virtual non-trainer. This is a kid who couldn't even make his seventh-grade track team. But never mind that. This is a kid who couldn't even make a freshman college team.
Coming from Akron, he had an offer from West Virginia to play basketball, and offers from the University of Akron and Miami of Ohio to play football. Zero offers to run track.
Frank Zubovich, Ohio State coach, what in the world were you thinking when you first passed on this zephyr?
"Well, let's just say we didn't see enough of him. His, uh, name never really came up."
But don't get down on Coach Zoo, as he is called hereabouts. The only Reynolds anybody knew about in this rust belt had something to do with aluminum foil.
Nobody knew this kid. He scratched in the state high school meet, the annual prep showcase, when he twisted an ankle. Anyway, "he didn't have great times" before that, Coach Zoo said. "His best time was something like 48.1. That is not a super-good time."
Reynolds, who had run only two years of track in high school, nevertheless had decided that he'd rather run through a tape than a defensive line. "So I called people," he said. "Just cold, called coaches, told them my times."
Sounds kind of undignified for somebody who could develop into a world record-holder, right? Well, there's more to his discovery than that, although it doesn't add much dignity to his story.
Seems that Roger Bowen, then an assistant coach at Kansas, was at the national meet at Houston in 1982. He was lounging by the pool when the Western Michigan coach, like Bowen an Ohio boy, said: "Hey, could you use a quarter-miler? We're flat full of them, ourselves. But check this Reynolds kid out."
Bowen did, but couldn't get him academically flagged at Kansas, so he referred him to Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan. Anyway, by the time Reynolds called, Butler Coach John Francis was willing to listen to the kid's times.
The story does not take an immediate Cinderella turn here. Francis had reason to discredit both Bowen and Reynolds at first. Reynolds has become notorious for bad workouts. "Butch!" Francis would scream, "I bring you away from Ohio and you can't even win one interval?"
Butch's reply was something less than confidence-building. "Coach, I'm running as hard as I can." He was, too.
It's just that Reynolds, for whatever reason, can run harder in meets. Rather, he runs harder nearer the finish. "Something about him," Bowen marvels. "He has a nose for the finish line. He seems to shift a gear."
Adds Zubovich: "You see kids coming to the finish line, they tie up, the bear jumps on their back, whatever you want to call it. I've never seen him tie up at the end of the race. He's unique in his ability to maintain a fast tempo throughout the race."
So it was that Reynolds, who couldn't win his intervals at Butler, set indoor and outdoor junior college records with 400 times of 47.08 and 45.34. Finally, you might have predicted, Reynolds was about to come into his own. And in 1984, an Olympic year! How very nice.
"But my story is all about having the worst luck at the worst times," Reynolds says.
Just as in his prep showcase, he flopped in the Olympic trials.