HOUSTON — When Carl Lewis left the University of Houston more than 40 years ago, he was 19 years old world record holder long jumper and one of the best sprinters in the world.
Lewis went on to become a colossal sporting figure, his famous face adorning the peak of Olympic medals nine times, and appearing on Quarterly Gentleman Magazine cover plus several Hollywood movies and television shows.
Lewis, now 61 with spiked gray hair on his balding head, returns to the school he left four decades ago, coaching on a track at the compound that bears his name.
He hopes to fill what appears to be the only void in his storied track career: a collegiate team national title.
“I’ve always felt if I was just one year away it could change the whole trajectory of the program,” Lewis, who was appointed head coach in July after spending several years as an assistant, said in a recent interview. .
The NCAA Division I outdoor track and field championships kick off in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday.
Houston’s best chance of winning the title appears to be with his men, with junior Shaun Maswanganyi leading the group as one of the best sprinters in the country. The women’s team is “a few years away” from having a title shot, Lewis said. Sydni Townsend, the 400-metre hurdle, was the only woman for Houston on the starting roster for the meeting. He has the fifth fastest time in Division I.
“I still think we have a chance,” said Lewis, acknowledging that his team is far from the favourites, “but people have to come.”
In 2013, Lewis returned to Houston as a volunteer coach, mostly to help his former teammate and then-Houston head coach, Leroy Burrell, with his son Cameron, who was a first-year sprinter on the team. Lewis joined the full-time staff one season later to work with sprinters and jumpers.
As an assistant, Lewis helped develop Houston into one of the college’s premier sprint groups. Cameron Burrell became one of the nation’s top 100 meters runners, winning the individual title in 2018. The sprint group earned the nickname “Speed City”, which is inscribed on the outdoor track railings and team clothing.
But the team title has eluded Houston. The Cougars looked like they had their best chance four years ago, when the men finished second in the indoor championship, behind Florida. Milesplit, track and field website, create a weekly video series who followed the team throughout the 2019 outdoor season. But the guys finished third, after first place Texas Tech, and Florida.
“They should have won it,” Lewis said. “They just choked. I mean, they choke right away. And, you know, we were frustrated because we had the TV show and everything that was going on.”
The following year, the NCAA canceled the national indoor championship and subsequent outdoor season due to the coronavirus pandemic, and in 2021, the men finished 18th in the outdoor event. Two months after that championship, the team mourned the loss of Cameron Burrell. The 26-year-old man died by suicide.
It was a painful time for the team, said Maswanganyi. Burrell is a role model for him, he says, and coming to training is not the same.
In 2022, Leroy Burrell left Houston for the head coaching position at Auburn University. Lewis became head coach in July.
In August, he made clear his expectations for the Cougars. They’re either going for a national championship or they have to “find something else to do”. A sense of urgency is instilled in the team.
As the team walked into their locker room after their first indoor match, the national rankings for all events were posted on one wall to greet them. Lewis scored the sheets for the top 16 athletes in each event group as it marked who was likely to qualify for the nationals. He renewed the wall after every encounter throughout the season.
“Every day in training I think about how I’m behind every girl on the list and how I need to work on improving my times,” said Kelly-Ann Beckford, who finished the 10th fastest 800 indoor season. time in Division I.
Houston has historically dominated the American Athletic Conference. The program ran out of room to hang a conference championship banner from the ceiling of the indoor track facility. But in the conference’s last indoor meeting, in February, the men lost to Cincinnati, which won its first men’s title, indoor or outdoor, since 2004. Both schools are heading to the Big 12 Conference next month.
The win was a disappointing start to Lewis’ tenure. Following the encounter, Lewis posted photos of the Cincinnati celebration and a social media post from a coach saying that “they’re going to do it outdoors again” in bathrooms, fridges, front doors and pretty much anywhere else on the team. locker room.
“That excites me,” said Maswanganyi. “It’s someone disrespecting you on something we’ve won over the years.”
At the outdoor conference meet, the men were again runners-up, while the women improved from their third appearance indoors to finish second. The Wichita State squad lead Houston by only 2 points.
Even so, Lewis seemed undeterred. The team has some of the best athletes in Division I in multiple event groups, so winning the national championship is still achievable. Lewis proved it on a hot Monday practice earlier this year.
He yelled at freshman long jumper Aaron Davis II about his performance. He shouted directions at Davis and tried to demonstrate movement with his body and hands.
Davis didn’t adjust the way Lewis wanted him to, so Lewis walked, ran the long jump runway, and did a jump himself as the sand bounced off his trouser leg.
“Took me a while to realize that,” Lewis said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “Look, I never came here saying they could do what I did because – come on – it’s never going to happen again.”
He added: “But look, I lose money every day I come here. I mean, I gave up, you know, my vacation time, so I got serious about it. So I’d love to do it if you’re serious. But if you’re not serious, you’re wasting my time. So this is the year to get things back on track.”