We all discover our true talent sooner or later.
Sometimes, it just comes natural.
Other times, it takes blood, sweat, tears, grit and grime.
Often, it’s a bit of both. You have a God-given talent, you get encouraged through success, you work harder and suddenly accomplish things you never dreamed would ever happen.
When Harvey Glance was an elementary kid in the 1960s living in the projects of Phenix City, Ala., the good Lord put angel wings on his feet, pulled out a stopwatch and a starter’s pistol and declared, “On your mark, get set, FLY!”
He flew to Auburn where he became the greatest track sprinter in Southeastern Conference history. He won four NCAA titles, six SEC championships, was a 16-time all-American, and held the world record for the 100-meter dash (1976) and 100-yard dash (’78).He still holds the SEC record for most points scored in the conference championship outdoor meet (32½ in ’77).
He was a three-time member of the U.S. Olympic team, twice team captain, won Olympic gold in ’76 and won gold medals in the Pan American Games, the World Cup, the Goodwill Games and the World Championships.
In the last 19 years as a head track coach – the first six at Auburn and the last 13 at Alabama – he has produced 177 all-Americans (and counting), 12 individual national champions, six Olympians and 78 individual SEC champions.
And for a man who in ’08 was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Freedom, the highest and most distinguished award given to a United States citizen, take a guess what 54-year-old Harvey values the most from his 47-year track career?
“My name is all I’ve got,” Harvey says. “I’ve always said you don’t want to destroy that name or do anything that people would frown about when your name is mentioned. I really believe that. When you say my name, it means something, it means that I’ve done good things on and off the track.”
He has stood for all that and more, ever since his days as a skinny youngster who got the reputation as the fastest kid in the Phenix City projects.
“It all started at recess at school when I was about 7 years old,” Harvey says. “I realized I could outrun everybody in my age group. Then in the projects, I’d race older guys in my barefeet in the streets. I never backed down from a challenge. I wanted to compete against the biggest and fastest guys in the neighborhood.”
Word of Harvey’s speed filtered through the four buildings in the projects that contained more than 100 apartments. He became the ol’ Western gunslinger who was constantly called out.
“Someone would show up who thought they were fast,” Harvey recalls. “All my buddies would run to get me, saying, `This guy wants to challenge you. He thinks he’s fast.’ Word spread and everybody would show up to watch.
“We’d race from one telephone pole to another, about 60 to 70 meters. I was undefeated. Never lost.”
Harvey could have taken being fast at face value and continued winning strictly from his natural talent. But he didn’t. He went to the library to read and educate himself on what made the world’s greatest athletes great. His thirst for knowledge put him ahead of the game.
For instance, Harvey’s friends and neighbors thought he was loco when they saw him running five miles a day in a hooded sweatshirt, sweatpants and combat boots.
That sounds sane if done just in the winter. But Harvey would do it during the summer in the unbearable Alabama afternoon heat. Not at sunrise. Not at sunset. About 2 or 3 p.m. on days hot enough to make the devil sigh.
“I was a big boxing fan and I watched Muhammad Ali and all those guys when they trained,” Harvey says. “They would wear the sweats and the boots and the gloves, and then go out and last 15 rounds.
“These guys were the best and I always wanted to emulate the best. Training like that was unheard for a sprinter. Most guys would run sprints and call it a day. But for me, it wasn’t about winning a race. It was about enduring an entire season.”
Harvey was also one of the first world-class sprinters to embace weightlifting. When he competed for Auburn, starting in ’76, he weighed 148 pounds, but was absolutely chiseled. His rippling biceps and broad chest were intimidating.
“I started lifting when I was 15 years old in high school (Phenix City Central) since I also played football and basketball,” Harvey says. “I was a gym rat who always loved lifting, because I felt a stronger athlete was a better athlete.
“I studied all the great sprinters from around the world and I discovered none of them lifted weights. When I was in college, I could bench press 355 pounds. So I was strong and fast and had endurance. That toughness gave me an edge mentally. I wasn’t afraid in meets when I had to compete in five or six events. I was strong from start to finish.”
By the time Harvey was a freshman at Auburn, he won an Olympic gold medal in the ’76 Montreal Games as part of the 400 meter relay team. He was also the NCAA champion in the 60-yard and 100 and 200 meter dashes, and the world record holder in the 100 meters.
“All of a sudden, I was a media darling,” Harvey says. “I got put on magzaine covers around the world, and here in the U.S. on Track and Field News, the bible of the sport. Being a world record holder and an Olympic champion when I was 19, I felt like I was carrying the torch for our sport.
“The next three years in college, you better believe there was a lot of pressure on me to maintain. Everybody wanted to knock me off the throne. I was ranked in the top 10 in the world seven or eight times, and I was willing to accept that challenge.”
That was just the beginning. For almost 15 years – unheard of in the sprinting world where nagging injuries can derail a runner’s season easily – Harvey was a formidable sprinter known around the globe.
He lasted that long, because he understood self-preservation, learning all the tricks and elements that kept him keepin’ on.
“Before me, no sprinter really stayed in the sport more than four years,” Harvey says. “I stayed close to 15 and was at a high level for 12 years year in and year out. I almost never got hurt and the 100 and 200 are explosive events where hamstrings come into play.
“I took better care of myself as I got older, like when you buy an older car instead of a new model. You have to change the oil and spark plugs more on the older model. I ate better, drank more fluids and got more sleep.
“I was intent on having a career epitomized by endurance and consistency. As a college athlete, one stat that sticks out in my mind is I’m one of three people that scored all four years in the 100 meters at the NCAA championships. The others are Jesse Owens and Walter Dix. Do to that, you have to be healthy every year. Secondly, you have to be academically eligible. To be in that company means a lot to me.”
Yet, Harvey’s sprinting career was not always perfect. In ’80, when he was at the ultimate peak of greatness as a finely tuned 23-year-old, the United States and 59 other countries boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in ’79.
As an alternative to the Olympics, the U.S. and 28 other countries participated in the Liberty Bell Classic at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadephia. Harvey won a gold medal in the 400-meter relay and a silver medal in the 100 meters.
Like the rest of the American athletes, he was disappointed he didn’t get to compete in the Olympics. But he supported then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott back then and he still does.
“I take pride in being a Christian,” Harvey says. “I was bitter as an athlete, because the athletic side of me wanted to compete and redeem myself from the ’76 Games when I was inexperienced and finished fourth in the 100 meters. I realized why I lost that race and I had three subsequent years to gain experience. I was favored to win the 100 and 200 at the ’80 Moscow Games, I was really running well, I was in great shape and I was focused.
“But when the boycott happened, I wasn’t angry or ready to go ring someone’s neck. It is what it is. There are reasons for everything. Who knows what would have happened had we competed? I do know that because we didn’t go over there (to Russia), we were kept safe. I know the President made the best decision based on the information he had.”
One reason Harvey handled such a disapointing situation with grace is he idolized former Olympic star Jesse Owens, the most revered figure in American track history. Owens, a superior athlete born in Oakville, Ala., showed his mental toughness when he won four gold medals in the ’36 Berlin Olympics staged in front of German dictator Adolf Hitler.
After the ’76 Olympics, Harvey got a chance to meet Owens, who was a spokesman for Sears, which sponsored the Junior Olympic program.
“Once I sat down and talked to him,” Harvey says, “I saw he was an even better person than a sprinter. He wanted to shape the lives of kids away from track, because they were the future of America.
“He told me point blank that I had an obligation to give back, and I was one of his picks to that. For my idol to think that way, it was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten. That’s what I learned from him, and I carry out that thinking today. That’s one reason I got into coaching – to help young people.”
Harvey contracted the coaching bug by accident. He had made the ’84 Olympic team as an alternative, then decided to give it one last shot in ’88, but failed to make the squad by one-hundreth of a second.
Yet when he knew it was the end of his sprinting career, the coaching door had already begun to open.
In the years prior to the ’88 Olympics, Harvey was in the U.S. Olympic committee’s employment program. The committee finds jobs for its athletes with corporate sponsors that allow prospective Olympians to train while earning a salary.
Harvey got a job in public relations with American Express in Phoenix, gaining several years of administrative experience that proved beneficial once he became a college coach. The job allowed him to work four hours and train four hours each day.
It was one evening during his training sessions at Tempe High School when Harvey couldn’t help noticing the school’s 400-meter relay team struggling mightily.
“They were beating each other with the baton, running out of their exchange lanes,” Harvey says. “Their coach was a throws coach, so I walked over and introduced myself to him. I asked if I could show his team a few things. He said, `That would be great. We have regionals coming up in a few weeks and I don’t know anything about relays.’
“So I volunteered as a coach. Two weeks later, we won the regional. Three and a half weeks later, we won at state. I remembered the feeling when those guys won state and they came to me jumping up and down. I got goosebumps. I said to myself, `This is what I want to do. I can help young people. This is what Jesse Owens meant. This is the way I can give back to young people.’ ”
Harvey spent a year as an assistant at Auburn before becoming head coach for the Tigers in September ’91, moving on to Alabama in 97. He quickly learned he had to make mental adjustments as he made the transition from world-class sprinter to coaching.
“The first thing I learned as a coach was that every athlete wasn’t going to be like me,” Harvey says. “All of my life, I wanted the best, I wanted to be No. 1.
“Sometimes, you recruit a great athlete, but when they get to college, there’s a loss of focus, a loss of dedication, they could lose it in the classroom. All those things were never in my way of thinking as an athlete. I was like, `Coach, I’m committed 100 percent.’
“You don’t have that now from athletes across the board. I realized then I had to be a teacher, an advisor, a counselor, a Mom, a Dad and a brother to a lot of my athletes. It took me about four years to learn that, but I feel I gotten better every year as a coach and gotten everything I can out of each individual.”
Harvey has loved every minute of coaching. But after Alabama competes in the NCAA championships on June 8-11 in Des Moines, Iowa (his 60th as an outdoor track-indoor track and cross-country coach with one of his athletes in 59 of those events), he’s calling it a career as a college head coach. While he’ll still live in Tuscaloosa, he’s going into personal coaching, handling sprinters in need of someone seeking the wisdom and experience of a legend who has endured.
Just last Saturday at the Texas Relays in Austin, Harvey and the Alabama team were resting in a corner of the stadium when an elderly man approached.
“He asked if I was Harvey Glance,” Harvey says. “I said, `Yes.’ He said, `Now, who were those other three guys on that (Olympic) relay with you?’ He remembered I had won gold in 1976.
“I never got into track and field to be a fly-by-night sensation. I wanted to be good for a long period of time. When the name `Harvey Glance’ came out of someone’s mouth, they knew he was affiliated with that sport.
“So for that man last Saturday to recognize me and say that makes me feel good. It has been a blessing to know all my hard work really did pay off.”