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The Fall Guy : At Least Stan Wright Gets to the Hall of Fame on Time

November 29, 1993|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — When it was announced in July that Stan Wright had been elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, a reporter called him for his reaction. It had not been a given that the longtime college coach and administrator would receive enough votes, particularly when considering it was his first time on the ballot, and he figured to be more surprised than anyone.

After all, when former quarter-miler Fred Newhouse told Wright he had nominated him, the coach responded, "Fred, you're losing your mind."

Wright had already heard the news when he answered the telephone, and, yes, he was surprised and also elated.

"But I know what you really want to talk about, and I don't want to do that over the phone," he said.

A couple of days later, he was sitting with a reporter at the dining room table in the Sacramento condo that Wright shares with his wife, finally giving his side of the story, aided by five thick files of official documents, letters and newspaper clippings he has collected for 21 years.

They all pertain to the events of Aug. 31, 1972, when an incident occurred that branded Wright in track in the same manner that Roy Riegel's wrong-way run and Ralph Branca's home-run pitch to Bobby Thomson branded them in theirs.

Thirteen years later, The Times' Morning Briefing offered the following as a trivia item:

Q: Stan Wright, who retired Monday as the athletic director at Fairleigh Dickinson, is best remembered for the 1972 Summer Olympics at Munich. What for?

A: He was the assistant track coach who misread the schedule and was responsible for sprinters Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson missing their qualifying races and being disqualified in the 100 meters.

As Wright discovered in July, when he received support from more than half of 600 voters for the Hall of Fame, the incident is regarded by many within the sport as just that, trivia.

His accomplishments, they told him with their votes, are hardly trivial. He was involved with college sports for 36 years, 26 as a coach at Texas Southern, Western Illinois and Cal State Sacramento before becoming an athletic director. Most of his success occurred between 1951 and '67 at Texas Southern in Houston, where he coached four Olympians, including Jim Hines, a 1968 gold medalist and former world record-holder in the 100 meters.

More significantly, Wright helped so many gifted athletes become world-class sprinters that his teams became regular features at the nation's most prestigious relay carnivals, including some that never before had invited a predominantly black college.

"People said, 'Twenty-one years, enough is enough. Stan Wright deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,' " said Wright, who will be inducted Saturday with hurdler Rod Milburn, high jumper Jean Shiley Newhouse and discus thrower Mac Wilkins at a ceremony in Las Vegas.

"They didn't put me in there because they feel sorry for me. I hope not."

Yet, Wright leaped at this opportunity to talk about the one day that has haunted him for more than two decades. It is the reason he has tended to those ever-expanding files about the incident, so that one day he could set the record straight.

Although he either walks or plays golf daily and feels fit, he is a 73-year-old man who suffered a slight stroke in 1988 and underwent multiple-bypass heart surgery the next year, and he knows calls from reporters might be few in coming years.

Interestingly, Wright said, he almost did not make that fateful trip to Munich. Believing that his performance as sprint coach for the U.S. men's team during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where athletes under his care set five world records in winning six gold medals, would propel him to the head coaching position in 1972, he was hurt when the Amateur Athletic Union's selection committee opted for the University of Oregon's Bill Bowerman in a close vote.

Only when other track coaches insisted Wright would be a certain selection as the head coach in 1976 did he accept an offer to return as the sprint coach.

He has often second-guessed that decision because, after Aug. 31, 1972, there was no chance that he would be considered to lead the U.S. men's team four years later in Montreal.

"His career was never the same after that," said John Smith, a quarter-miler for the U.S. team in Munich and now a UCLA assistant coach.

As reported by newspapers, radio and television that day and in numerous historical accounts since, here, briefly, is what occurred:

After Hart, Robinson and Robert Taylor easily advanced out of the morning's first-round, 100-meter heats, Wright told them the afternoon's quarterfinals would not start before 6 p.m. But while gathering in the athletes' village to return to the track for warm-ups at 4:15 p.m., they watched a television monitor in shock as the gun went off for the first heat of the quarterfinals.

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