By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Distance running was in its heyday in 1971, a year in which the University of Tennessee played host to the NCAA Cross Country Championships.
Former legendary Oregon coach Bill Bowerman had discovered jogging during a 1962 visit to New Zealand. He brought that concept back to the United States through a number of articles and publications, including his 1966 book Jogging.
Soon, all over America, there was a widespread interest in jogging and running as fitness activities, and that led to increased popularity in collegiate cross country and track and field.
Leading into the 1971 campaign, Tennessee had won six of the previous eight Southeastern Conference team cross country championships and had placed at the national meet each season since 1964.
Accompanying the Volunteers’ success, the NCAA awarded Knoxville the 1971 NCAA Cross Country Championships, a premiere event, especially in those days. The hills of Knoxville coupled with the area’s mild climate made it a perfect venue for the prestigious meet.
“They look for rolling hills and no sharp turns and I’m sure Knoxville’s climate had something to do with UT getting the meet,” former Tennessee coach Stan Huntsman told the Knoxville News-Sentinel in a Nov. 15, 1971 article. “They don’t like to take a chance of running the nationals in hard cold weather.”
The national meet was held at Fox Den Country Club and the selection process for Tennessee to host the competition was detailed in a Knoxville News-Sentinel article entitled “NCAA Meet … How UT Landed It.”
The article explained that Tennessee athletics director Bob Woodruff had submitted a bid and then Tennessee made a presentation when the committee was in session. Later, members of the national track and field and cross country committee made a site visit to Fox Den.
Huntsman knew that Knoxville’s course would prove to be a challenging one for the field.
“It’s going to be pretty rough … four hills,” he told the News-Sentinel. It definitely isn’t a flat, fast course and they’ll find it a lot tougher than the one at Williamsburg, Va., last year. Anything under 29 minutes will be a good finish.”
The article also mentioned the NCAA provided $500 in meet expenses, but the cost of putting on the meet was expected to be close to $1,100.
The 1970 SEC cross country championship demonstrated the parity in the league. Kentucky and Alabama both finished ahead of Tennessee, snapping the Vols’ five-year streak as conference champions. The Wildcats scored 31 points to claim the title, while the Crimson Tide had 44 and Tennessee 47.
“It was a great victory for us,” Huntsman told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “We felt we had a chance, although we’re maybe a year away. Our kids really competed. Every one of them went out there and ran as hard as they could. They really wanted it.”
The 1971 championship lived up to its billing as Tennessee claimed the team title with 48 points, while Alabama and Kentucky tied for second with 51 points each. UK’s Paul Baldwin defended his individual crown from the previous year, setting a new SEC record time of 18:21.3 over 4,065 miles.
At the NCAA championship, Oregon phenom Steve Prefontaine claimed his second consecutive NCAA cross country individual title, covering the six miles in a time of 29:14.9. Prefontaine, who would become an American distance running legend before his untimely death in 1975, won by a margin of about 60 yards. He helped lead the Ducks to their first-ever cross country team title.
Tennessee and Kentucky each finished among the top-25 of the national meet in 1971, but Huntsman’s comments about his team being a year away proved prophetic.
The Vols claimed the SEC’s first-ever NCAA Cross Country Championship in 1972 in Houston, Texas.
1971 SEC Cross Country Championship (Birmingham, Ala.)
1. Tennessee (48)
T2. Alabama (51)
T2. Kentucky (51)
4. LSU (103)
5. Florida (118)
6. Georgia (147)
7. Mississippi State (171)
8. Auburn (213)
9. Ole Miss (252)
Top Individual Finishers
1. Paul Baldwin (UK), 18:21.3
2. Gaylon Smith (UA), 18:30
3. Doug Brown (UT), 18:42
4. Dan Zoeller (UT), 18:43
5. John Stewart (LS), 18:43
1971 NCAA Cross Country Championship (Knoxville, Tenn.)
1. Oregon (83)
2. Washington State (122)
3. Penn (158)
4. Villanova (161)
5. East Tennessee State (193)
6. Kansas State (215)
7. Bowling Green State (226)
8. Penn State (269)
9. Northern Arizona (294)
10. Long Beach State (323)
Top Individual Finishers
1. Steve Prefontaine (Oregon), 29:149
2. Garry Bjorklund (Minnesota), 29:21
3. Mike Slack (North Dakota State), 29:36
4. Dan Murphy (Washington State), 29:37
5. Richard Reid (BYU), 29:38