I Was Bored, So I Went Back and Watched the 1998 NCAA Cross Country Championships
Jonathan Gault revisits the showdown between Adam Goucher, Bernard Lagat, and Abdi Abdirahman and an age when ponytails were everywhere, cross country courses featured covered bridges, and James Madison was good at XC.
By Jonathan Gault
April 9, 2020
We’re going on almost a month without sports, and I’m getting desperate. So when I saw a messageboard thread titled “Blast from the past. 1998 NCAA XCountry. Goucher over Abdi. Lagat 7th,” of course I clicked on it. I’m a Running with the Buffaloes junkie. I didn’t have a choice.
Contained within was an old TV broadcast of the 1998 NCAA Cross Country Championships from Fox Sports Net. It is 22 minutes long, and it is glorious.
Now, normally I wouldn’t be spending a Wednesday afternoon in April breaking down tape of a 22-year-old college cross country race. But there’s nothing normal about the world right now. So click play on the video below and hop in the time machine with me to November 23, 1998, in Lawrence, Kansas. Below the video, I’ll share with you what I was thinking as I watched it.
0:53 In case you needed any reminder that you’re in 1998, 1988 Olympian Jeff Atkinson‘s ponytail/crazy tie combo does the job.
“Depth is going to be the key,” he tells us. I think I’ve heard that in every cross country broadcast ever.
2:00 We’re told this is the legendary Bill Dellinger‘s final meet as Oregon coach. And he’s still out there pinning hip numbers on his runners’ legs! What a boss. Also, I definitely owned the same undershirt as that athlete.
2:46 Warmup attire has changed a bit in the last 20 years. Here’s Washington State’s Bernard Lagat rocking a loose-fitting long-sleeve cotton T-shirt.
2:50 Holy shit, Lagat looks older in 1998 than he does in 2020. At this point, I’m convinced Lagat is the real-life Benjamin Button.
3:15 “James Madison, the Southeast Region champions”…wait. James Madison used to be good at cross country? James Madison? Do they even have a team? (Answer: Not anymore).
3:46 “This is the best shot in sports television right here, the start of the NCAA cross country championship.” Okay, so it’s not in HD. But I can’t argue with him. The start of NCAA XC rules.
4:15 James Madison in the house! These fans came all the way from…
googles “James Madison University”
…Harrisonburg, Virginia! Let’s go Dukes! Glad to see the tradition of carrying obnoxiously large flags while sprinting from spot to spot around the NCAA XC course has not changed.
4:28 The film quality may be Zapruder-like, but Abdi Abdirahman‘s form is instantly recognizable. I’d know that high, gently rolling arm carriage anywhere!
4:50 We have completed our legally-obligated Steve Prefontaine reference.
5:59 “Unlike in the women’s race, these athletes trying to run the absolute shortest distance the entire way.”
…umm, what the hell happened in the women’s race?
6:31 The leaders hit the mile in 4:33 (pretty quick!) and Abdi immediately picks it up. We cut to a voiceover, where Abdi discusses his tactics:
“There’s no strategy, actually. This is not like a football game or a soccer game where the coach will pick a play. It’s just not that kind of game. This is running. Whoever can last [the longest] will win the race. That is it.”
What a baller quote.
6:40 Abdi and Lagat are both in the lead pack. It’s pretty wild that their careers started out with races that looked as if they were being filmed on a potato and now their races are filmed in 4K Ultra HD.
9:28 They’re interviewing Kansas legend Wes Santee. He says that when he was in college, Kansas competed in the “Big 7” and cross country races consisted of running two miles backwards around the outdoor track. What the hell was going on in the 1950s?
10:42 Butler’s Julius Mwangi was the only guy to beat Adam Goucher all year. He smoked Lagat in this race and wound up 3rd behind Abdi. What the hell happened to Mwangi?
11:38 Atkinson informs us that this is Stanford’s Brent Hauser, and not his twin brother Brad. Honestly, given the video quality, I’m impressed he could ID him correctly.
11:59 They keep showing us the “team time differential” which is a mildly interesting but ultimately meaningless stat. (Also, why are they calling it “team time differential” instead of “spread”?)
Last time I checked, they don’t hand out trophies to the team with the best “team time differential.” If they have the ability to provide this stat, surely they could give us the team scores (which haven’t been mentioned once) as well?
Also absent from this broadcast: a clock.
12:06 Arkansas’ Sean Kaley leads, steaming around a hairpin turn in the woods before running through a covered bridge. Then Abdi takes the lead heading into a steep uphill, with Abdi, Lagat, and Goucher separating before heading down a steep, twisting downhill that Atkinson calls “Suicide Turn.” This course is awesome! Why did we stop holding NCAAs in Lawrence? When the next round of NCAA championships are awarded, I want Rim Rock Farm added to the rotation.
15:00 I made fun of the “team time differential” stat, but holy crap, Colorado’s spread is enormous!
If they have team score information, they’re not sharing it with the commentators; Atkinson is doing an admirable job trying to eyeball the team race by counting runners from Stanford and Arkansas.
15:09 Goucher is now gapping Abdi. The commentators do not acknowledge this fact.
16:15 Abdi’s form is the opposite of powerful. He’s deceptively fast — when they first showed this clip, I thought Goucher was lapping him.
17:06 Utah’s Jeff Simonich rocking a very 1998 look.
17:30 Goucher wins. We are told he’s never finished lower than 6th in his four years at Colorado. Is that at NCAAs only, or all cross country races? Either way, mighty impressive.
17:54 Mwangi bizarrely chooses to throw his arms up in celebration despite (barely) beating out Wisconsin’s Matthew Downin for third. He needs to work on his celebration etiquette. Maybe this is why he never made it as a pro?
18:30 Atkinson is providing live play-by-play of the finish but for some reason, we’re being shown footage of the chute. I know for a fact they have a finish-line cam — we just saw it. Why aren’t they using it?
19:19 Goucher and Billy Mills. They show Jim Ryun later as well. It’s cool that all the Kansas legends came out for this one.
19:27 Your final individual results.
19:49 This is the first time I can recall seeing a slo-mo replay of a cross country race. Also, check out the tree right in the middle of the course!
20:17 The top 10 isn’t all that different from what you’d expect in 2020, except for James Madison. Someone needs to put some funding into that program!
21:08 But wait, we’re not done! They ran the DII champs on the same course on the same day. I didn’t realize they ever did that. The winner? Freshman Yi Min Wu of Edinboro and China. I can’t remember any Chinese runners in the NCAA for as long as I’ve been following the sport (10+ years).
21:18 And finally…another ponytail sighting! And they didn’t even show Mark Wetmore on the broadcast.
So that was fun. I don’t think we’re going to be seeing any races in 2020 for a while, so if you have suggestions of any other races I should rewatch or answers to some of the questions I posed above, let me know on Twitter or in an email.
You can also discuss this race on the messageboard:
MB: Blast from the past. 1998 NCAA XCountry. Goucher over Abdi. Lagat 7th