The men’s and women’s cross country teams finished fifth and third, respectively, at the Bill Dellinger Invitational in Springfield, Ore. last weekend, but the highest honor paid to a Zag that day wasn’t anyone in the race.
A week earlier, before the Bill Dellinger Invitational hosted by the University of Oregon, Gonzaga cross country head coach Pat Tyson was inducted to the University of Oregon Hall of Fame for his astounding accomplishments while competing as a runner for the school. Tyson was the spokesman for the 1971 University of Oregon cross country team that claimed the school’s first NCAA championship and started a storied tradition of elite cross country running.
“It was certainly an honor. It is something that is a little bit larger than life,” Tyson said. “You don’t realize that, until your induction ceremony is at the Matt Knight Arena, the new basketball court on campus, and one of the other inductees is Phil Knight.”
The `71 team was a now-legendary collection of individuals, beyond the national title team. First was Steve Prefontaine, known as “Pre” to those close to him, who became a national figure in running. His success in the NCAA was unparalleled, shattering American long distance records and causing the 1970s “running boom” before he died in May of 1975. Pre’s expansion of running was aided by Bill Bowerman, the head coach of the national championship team who later went on to create Nike with former runner Phil Knight. One assistant coach, Bill Dellinger was the last American to win an Olympic medal for America in long distance until 2012, and later went on to coach the team. But the possibility of the championship itself was one that was shrouded in embroilment for the team.
“It was a very special team. A cross-country team is made up of seven runners on game day. Oregon almost didn’t send a team to the NCAA championships because we were second in the conference,” Tyson said. Washington State had won the conference title at that time and was undefeated on the year going into the championships.
“Steve [Prefontaine], who was our star and kind of an icon even said, ‘If the team doesn’t go I don’t go’ because he certainly wasn’t going to go as an individual. If he hadn’t supported us and the athletic department hadn’t bought in, then we wouldn’t have this story right now. Washington State was the favorite, we came with six runners, not seven, and the interesting thing was that if [Prefontaine] didn’t run the race and we put our sixth runner in what place he got, we still win. Those are the really cool stories of a team that Cinderella-ed themselves the trophy.”
The national title gave validation to the team and to Tyson in establishing their respective legacies. The team went on to win two of the next three national championships, losing in `72 because Pre was competing in the Munich Olympics. But for Tyson, two personal milestones would accompany the accomplishment.
“That was the breakthrough and where I gained some respect. I was a walk-on in that race and not long after the race was over, Coach Dellinger invited me into his office and said ‘We would like to give you a scholarship,’ ”Tyson said. “A week or so after that Steve Prefontaine asked me, ‘Would you like to be my roommate?’ We were roommates, teammates and very close friends. I was a teammate and I did pretty good but I think after that championship and my style, he reflected and said, ‘This guy has come a long way. This would be a good guy to have.’ He knows I had an even-keel personality, wasn’t going to be a hero worshipper. It is like rooming with Michael Jordan. How do you deal with that?”
For Tyson’s most recent trip back to the Eugene campus, he was able to do something he had never done before, even as a student.
“Because you are coached in the fall you don’t go to football games. I had never been to an Oregon football game for years,” Tyson said. “And I am up in this University of Oregon suite with Athletic Director Rob Mullin of Oregon, Phil Knight and other characters with Steve’s sister, Linda Prefontaine. So here I am with 60,000 people and they are playing ‘Animal House’ on the big screens and there is energy and excitement. I actually parked over at Hayward Field, I didn’t want to get caught up in the traffic, and you can walk over a footbridge to Autzen, just to be intermixed with 20,000 students. You just forget because when I was at Oregon, we were so busy training that we didn’t deal with this.
“Now I go home and now I get to go back and do it our way. Gonzaga comes to Eugene and goes over to Springfield Country Club and we are going to run against the University of Washington, University of Oregon, and Brigham Young; three very tradition rich distance running schools, Oregon being the richest. For the Zag men and the Zag women to be able to rub elbows with high-end runners in Eugene, where I went to school, coming off this induction into the hall of fame, it gives me goosebumps. In fact, talking about this right now brings tears to my eyes and I’m jacked, I’m pumped and I want these kids to understand that it’s sacred ground.”
For Tyson, the progress of finally doing a meet in Eugene was something he put off until he felt the team was ready to take on that challenge. The team has been something he has grown since being named the first full-time cross-country/track and field coach at GU in 2009. But even with his immediate and continued success, Tyson still feels the compulsion to keep expanding the still relatively small program.
“We don’t have a lot of great facilities and we don’t have a lot of scholarship money but we don’t want to look at the things that we don’t have but rather what do we have. We have a lot of buzz at Gonzaga,” Tyson said. “Our basketball teams, men and women, they don’t have that at Oregon. They can have the Matt [Knight] Arena. They don’t have a McCarthey with this sold-out crowd with this energy that is so cool. Everybody knows about it in the United States and we are going to play off that and I know that all of our teams here, soccer teams, baseball teams, crew teams, volleyball, tennis and golf, they all know that we are going to use basketball because that is where we are on the radar around the United States. Kids come to Gonzaga because it has got a buzz and I’m going to say it, I’m here because of that buzz.”
The expansion of resources is one that Tyson feels the need for, but in moderation.
“We don’t have a lot of stuff but we have heart, kids that are getting real degrees, engineering, all degrees are real. It is so demanding to be an engineer, they own you. I can say I own you, but I don’t really own you, engineering owns you but we’re next. And same with kids that are in medicine or business. Gonzaga is not a lightweight institution,” Tyson said.
“Of the schools that are going into the Dellinger meet, I would be hard-pressed to say that we may be the best academic school. I bet if everybody was more on our scale, I think we would be ranked in the top 10. So you always got to find a way to win. But I know there is a buzz out there. We have to get these high school kids to sense this. We got Connor McCandless coming out of Gonzaga Prep, one of the top runners in the United States last year on the men’s side. Amelia Evans just comes in here and brings so much as a freshman to the women’s side. Add veterans like Tate Kelly, a Spokane kid, Emily Thomas who went to the NCAA Championships in track into this mix and you just have to make believers and it is a beautiful thing.
“You have to take baby steps, you can’t take giant steps but we are going up. This is a good stock option. If you want to buy stock low and you want to invest in something that is going up, distance running at Gonzaga is a good option.”
The business side of the sport always rears its head no matter the situation. With any major sports entity, the reality is that money, contracts and the ascendancy to triumph take precedence over everything. Tyson has an awareness of the business and his career that allows for a perspective that foreshadows a favorable future for anyone.
“The interesting about when you grow older you always want to think you can fly like Peter Pan, I always like to use that example,” Tyson said. “Like Michael Jordan could fly, ‘Wow look at him.’ Yeah there is no one like Michael, he can fly. Prefontaine could literally fly. But you do get to a point where you are going to say, ‘OK, you only have so many fun tickets left’, maybe as humans we have a quality of life that is 80 fun tickets, 90 fun tickets, 70 fun tickets, whatever it is.
“I do have a four-year commitment at Gonzaga so I will definitely continue coaching, hopefully for a bunch of years. I don’t know exactly what the number is. One of my friend’s coaches at York High School in Chicago, he is 84 and he is as ornery and energetic as ever. He doesn’t have Alzheimer’s yet. Of course if I get more talent in here, why would you leave? I’ll use our basketball program as an example, they’re happy here. It is a great town and it isn’t easy to find a great job in Spokane, this is a great job. The quality of life is great here. They have a great airport if you want to find some warm weather during the not-so-good months during the winter. I’m planning on sticking around.”
But regardless of his business status, the living legend around campus strives for a betterment of the program he has built to a level with selflessness, comaraderie and anticipation of greater evolution. The past brought Tyson success at its highest forms, causing the drive for that to spread to the runners he teaches now.
“The problem with Gonzaga is that we don’t have a major pool of people because they know that the history hasn’t been here,” Tyson said. “So I know we are building the history. It would be nice to have a track on campus, it would be nice to be able to say we have x number of dollars for scholarships. We are going to see some of that don’t get me wrong. But it is little baby steps and it is better than going back steps. These are forward steps.”