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May 17, 2013
Flock Talk: Track Dominance
Last weekend, the Oregon men's and women's track teams dominated the conference championships once again with the men winning their seventh consecutive conference crown and the women winning their fifth.
Most fans know all about the dominance of the men's and women's teams since the arrival of Vin Lanana; there is no secret about the impact Lanana has had on the Oregon track program. One of Lanana's most important accomplishments was getting Galen Rupp back on to campus and allowing him to become a force for the Ducks.
Lanana was brought to Oregon to replace Martin Smith who had been unceremoniously run out of Eugene. His ouster became personal at some levels as the day he was let go, there was an alert on the Nike campus to not allow Smith on the premises.
Looking back, much of what caused Smith the job at Oregon was as much about perception as about the program. What many people forget is that Smith took over a program that was light years away from where it is now; and he built into a solid, if not spectacular program. The base of the first conference men's championship in the current string was laid by Smith.
The team needed just one more addition to go from a possible conference champion to a dominant program; Galen Rupp. Soon after Smith left, Rupp came along for the ride. In the first year after Smith, Oregon won their first of seven consecutive titles.
But it was never Smith's ability to win that was questioned.
Former Oregon Assistant Dan Steele once said about Smith that "He knows a good deal about winning. In Eugene, it's not just about winning. It's how you win and how you put a team together."
And therein laid the rub with Smith; he did not put together the team in the fashion fans felt was right. By not allowing Rupp to have a private coach he was alienating a fan base who desperately wanted Rupp; a former Oregon distance runner in Alberto Salazar and, most importantly, the most important former Duck, Phil Knight.
The interesting part is that much of what Smith felt needed to be done in order to contend for national titles in today's track and field was accurate. Sprinters and throwers can score a lot more points for a team at a national championship than can a good distance runner.
Where he went wrong was not recognizing the importance of those distance runners to the fans. Eugene is a unique place where, based on historical lore, having the best distance runners means as much, if not more, to the fans than winning the NCAA title. To win without a talent like Rupp would have felt hollow to many fans.
You need sprinters and throwers to contend for national titles. You can win titles without distance runners, but you cannot win them without sprinters. That's just the way it works. In Eugene, though, you need to look to win the titles while still pulling in the top distance stars in the nation.
How, then, were Lanana, and his successor Robert Johnson able to build a program in the image Smith envisioned while getting the fans on board? He saw an even bigger picture.
The reason Oregon track fans felt distance runners were important was rather simple. The brand of Oregon track is embedded in the term "Track Town." During the heyday of Track Town, there were people commenting that it seemed like the entire city of Eugene were joggers. Oregon track fans identified with this title and took pride in the title.
The track club in Eugene was called "Track City Track Club." It was important. Part of that heritage was the memory of the United States Olympic Trials coming to tiny Eugene. But Oregon had lost the willpower or desire or ability to host this important event.
When Lanana brought his vision of world class track meets returning to Eugene, he began with getting the Olympic Trials back to Eugene. By being bold enough to proclaim that Eugene was the heart of American track and deserved the Olympics, he was able to tap into the memory of Oregon fans. Their emotions over this event sold them on his vision.
But Lanana also recognized just how important the distance running aspect was to Oregon fans. He didn't try to sell fans on sprints and throws; he simply built them up quietly while branding the distance runners. The face of the program was exactly what Oregon fans needed to love the team.
Notice that the women's team swept the 200 meters, got a 1-2 finish in the 400 meters and, despite the woman with the fastest time on the nation having false started in the 100 meters, still managed to win that event with a freshman winning the conference title.
Lanana and Johnson brought in sprinters and throwers; they sold Duck fans on the importance of a well rounded team that included depth in all areas. It's really not much different than what Smith wanted to do at Oregon. But Smith made no friends; he took away many of the opportunities that made Eugene residents feel connected to the program and he didn't recognize the importance of the identity of the fans.
In the end, Lanana was much more successful at accomplishing what Smith wanted to accomplish. It's not always the message you deliver, but the method with which you deliver the message.
This week Duck Sports Authority was able to bring you two more interviews with Duck targets. Verkedric Vaughns, who has seen his stock begin to rise after an impressive performance at the Rivals Camp Series in Dallas talked about how much he would like to hear from Oregon.
Duck Sports Authority also spoke with Layth Friekh this week and discussed his recent Oregon offer. An offensive lineman from Arizona, Friekh has a lot of raw skills and has looked good at some recent camps as well.
We finished our look at each region of the nation with a look at the Northwest. Though there are not any truly elite five-star players at the moment, there are still some talented players in this region. We also looked at a couple of performances from different Rivals Camps and how some Duck targets did at each of the events.
As always, stay with Duck Sports Authority as we continue to bring you the latest recruiting information and break down those recruits looking at Oregon.