On the Eve of the Final Meet at Hayward Field, a Tribute to “The Magician,” Bill Dellinger

By Jonathan Gault
June 6, 2018

EUGENE, Ore. — The 2018 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships kick off today at Hayward Field, the final meet here before the 99-year-old stadium is torn down and rebuilt ahead of the 2021 World Championships. Last night, as part of the final TrackTown Tuesday of the year, a couple hundred track fans gathered in Hayward’s West Grandstand to honor Bill Dellinger, who served as the head coach of the University of Oregon track team from 1973-1998. His former athletes Rudy ChapaPat Tyson, and Mary Slaney were also on hand to pay tribute.

Though he smiled plenty throughout the evening, the 84-year-old Dellinger didn’t talk much, leaving the storytelling to his athletes. Still, it was hard not to come away from the evening impressed by the man. Here are a few things that stood out to me.

Article continues below player
Like this article? Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on social media
The latest running news, sent to your inbox weekly or when urgent news breaks.

You have been subscribed.

UPDATE: Friend of LetsRun Charley Shaffer points out that Dellinger’s difficulty speaking stems from a stroke he suffered in 2000; his mind remains sharp.

The 1964 Olympic 5,000 final was awesome

It seems hard to believe, but 54 years ago, American men swept the 5,000 and 10,000 at the Olympics in Tokyo. Billy Mills‘ upset win in the 10,000 is the more famous race (LOOK AT MILLS! LOOK AT MILLS!) but the 5,000 was just as epic. Before introducing Dellinger last night, they showed a clip of the final two laps, and if you’ve never seen it before (I hadn’t), you need to watch it.

Everything gets going when Dellinger takes the lead with 600 meters to go — a bold move by the 30-year-old Dellinger, who had not even made the final in Rome four years earlier. At the bell, France’s Michel Jazy, the reigning silver medalist at 1500 meters, moved into the lead of an eight-man pack, and began to open a gap on the backstretch — with 200 to go, he led by about six meters and seemed destined for gold. But American Bob Schul ran an incredible final 200. I had him in 26.8, on a wet cinder track, and while the winning time of 13:48.8 is modest by today’s standards (the world record at the time was 13:35.0), that sort of close would have made Schul competitive in any race, even 50+ years later.

Schul may have had the best close, but Bill Dellinger’s wasn’t far behind (I timed him at 27.4). Fifth with 150 to go, Dellinger was still two strides out of the medals with 20 meters to go. But Jazy was tying up badly, and Dellinger was able to nip him at the line for bronze, both men credited with the same time, 13:49.8. Watching Dellinger run down Jazy for the bronze was a bit like watching Dave Wottle earn 800 gold in 1972 after the fact. You know he’s going to get there, but even watching the race back, it’s hard to see how it’s going to happen.

Add in the fact that it took 52 years for another American to medal in the 5,000 (Paul Chelimo in Rio) and the 1964 Olympic 5,000 final has to rank among the greatest races in the history of American distance running.

From left: emcee Sasha Spencer Atwood, Dellinger, Chapa, Slaney, and Tyson

From left: emcee Sasha Spencer Atwood, Dellinger, Chapa, Slaney, and Tyson

Dellinger liked to stick up for the little guy

Tyson, a 1973 Oregon grad who once roomed with Steve Prefontaine, recalled the story of how he was almost cut from the team. Bill Bowerman, the head track coach at the time, had told Dellinger that there were too many “hamburgers” (Bowerman’s word for a pathetic runner) on the team and they needed to be cleaned out. Tyson, a walk-on, was his first target, and Bowerman stripped away the athletic tape bearing Tyson’s name above his locker.

Then, as Tyson recalls, Dellinger, an assistant coach at the time, responded by telling Bowerman “Yes Bill, we need to clean out some hamburgers,” and doing the same thing to one of Bowerman’s favorites, Mike McClendon. Tyson said Dellinger was almost fired that day, but in the end both men stayed on the team and Tyson realized he had a friend for life.

“Dellinger stood up for me and I’ll never forget that memory,” Tyson said. “And I think that’s why we’re friends today, deep, deep friends, because he never gave up.”

One recruiting trip laid the groundwork for Oregon’s 1977 NCAA XC title

Oregon won four NCAA XC titles in the 1970s under Dellinger, and the final one, in 1977, featured several famous names — Chapa, Don ClaryAlberto SalazarMatt Centrowitz, Sr., and Bill McChesney. Few teams in history were as talented: Chapa, who still has the American high school 10,000m record (28:32), would go on to set the American record in the 3,000 (7:37.7) and run 2:11:13 in the marathon, while the other four all made Olympic teams for the United States (McChesney would not get to compete as he made it in the boycott year of 1980).

Dellinger assembled the core of that team in January 1976. He began by taking a recruiting trip to Chapa, who went to Hammond (Indiana) High School and was teammates with Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski. After the Chapas helped Dellinger unstick his car during a winter snow storm, he won over Chapa — “it would be tantamount to John Wooden coming and visiting you and offering you a scholarship to UCLA in basketball,” Chapa recalled — and flew on further east to visit Alberto Salazar in Massachusetts. Salazar, too, wound up committing, and they would finish as Oregon’s #1 and #3 men at NCAAs in 1977 to lead the Ducks to the national title.

There’s a film in the works about Dellinger

If you’re interested in more about Dellinger, production company Elevation 0m is releasing a film about his life, titled The Magician, later this year. You can watch the trailer below.

Like this article? Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on social media

The latest running news, sent to your inbox weekly or when urgent news breaks.

You have been subscribed.