LSU’s dominance in track and field can be traced back to the 1933 season when the Tigers won their first national championship at Chicago’s Solider Field under the guidance of legendary head coach Bernie Moore. This week’s NCAA Outdoor Championships mark the 75th anniversary of that historic victory that helped lay the foundation for one of the elite programs in all of collegiate track and field.
Last in a five-part series remembering LSU’s first national champions examines the legacy left by the 1933 squad. LSU has become a powerhouse in the sport of track and field as the Tigers and Lady Tigers have now combined to win 30 national championships in the program’s storied history. It can all be traced back to LSU’s first title won on the night of June 17, 1933.
by Will Stafford
LSU Sports Information
One can only imagine the thoughts racing through the mind of little Matt Gordy as he stood on the pole vault runway at Chicago’s Solider Field preparing to take his final attempt of the NCAA Championships with the bar resting at 14 feet.
It was a height he had never even cleared in practice, much less in the most important meet of the season with a national championship hanging in the balance for the underdog Tigers.
The stakes were high.
Foul and LSU would have to settle for a split championship with the powerful Trojans from the University of Southern California, winners of two of the previous three team titles. But set a new career best by clearing the mark and the Tigers would return home as kings of the 1933 season.
Southern Cal star William Graber could only stand and watch, having already vaulted himself up and over the bar on his final attempt just minutes before.
Bernie Moore, then in the fourth season of his 18-year tenure as LSU’s head coach, could do anything but stand. Perhaps sensing that his squad was on the brink of history, Moore appeared to be more nervous than Gordy who had the weight of an entire state on his shoulders. The door was wide open for the Tigers to win their first national championship in school history.
“Just before my winning jump, I looked up to the top of the stadium and saw coach Moore pacing up and down like an expectant father,” Gordy recalled in an article published in the Feb. 8, 1971, edition of The Times-Picayune. “I laughed and I guess that just really relaxed me.”
While fighting exhaustion after more than two hours of vaulting, a relaxed Gordy mustered all the strength remaining in his 135-pound body and raced down the runway toward immortality.
He planted the pole and soared higher than he had ever gone before.
Gordy cleared the bar with ease, but it appeared the Tigers’ championship hopes would be dashed as he clipped the bar on his way back down to the pit. The bar shook but stayed on its perch, giving LSU a thrilling 58-54 victory over the Trojans. Moore and his Tigers had finally brought a national championship back home to Baton Rouge.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Moore could have never imagined that his team’s victory would spawn one of the more dominant programs in all of collegiate track and field. Their triumph not only caused the nation to take notice of an upstart five-man team from Louisiana, but it gave birth to a proud legacy that endures to this day with every sprint, every hurdle, every jump and every throw.
It’s a legacy that has also given rise to the nation’s premier women’s program as both the Tigers and Lady Tigers are routinely mentioned among the national championship contenders each year. And this season is no different than any in the past 75 years.
Few are the teams that reach iconic status with the sports they dominate, and perhaps no program is as recognized worldwide in the sport of collegiate track and field like LSU.
Words like tradition, greatness, excellence, dominance and transcendence are used to describe the colorful and illustrious history of the LSU track and field program and the feats of its athletes.
One only has to look at the numbers to understand the legacy left by that 1933 squad – 30 NCAA championships, 46 Southeastern Conference championships, 118 individual NCAA champions with 137 national titles and 233 All-American athletes with exactly 1,000 All-America selections since stepping onto the track for the first time way back in 1897.
And the memories of the past are not limited to a collection of black and white photographs kept hidden away from the public in an archives room somewhere, or published in a media guide prior to the start of each new season.
They echo to this very day.
Who knew that Moore’s five-man team could leave Chicago with a national championship won by a sprinter, a hurdler, a javelin thrower, a pole vaulter and a shot putter and discus thrower who doubled as an all-conference lineman on the football team.
It’s almost eerie that the Tigers will join the national title chase once again at the NCAA Outdoor Championships this week with a handful of sprinters, a hurdler, two javelin throwers, a pole vaulter and, you guessed it, a shot putter who is also an all-star lineman on the LSU football team.
The only difference between the two teams is that LSU will travel to the NCAA meet with greater numbers and the nation’s No. 1 ranking on its side.
And the Lady Tigers can make the trip to Des Moines, Iowa, twice as sweet as they also enter this year’s NCAA Championships with a No. 1 ranking and a host of talented athletes of their own.
But if history has proven anything to be true, it’s that any team with the heart and the will to compete can be the team to step up and win a championship, and it’s not always the most talented athlete who wins the race or hits the best jump or makes the longest throw that comes out on top.
I’m sure nobody that watched Gordy step onto the pole vault runway for one final attempt at 14 feet expected him to clear the bar. There was no way that a kid from Abbeville could possibly stand up to the USC juggernaut and come out on top. After all, Gordy had never gone higher than 13 feet, 6 inches in his collegiate career.
But Gordy didn’t look down the runway and see 14 feet. In his mind, it was only six inches.
Gordy thought like a champion, and his performance is reminiscent of many by LSU athletes that have resulted in either the Tigers or Lady Tigers raising the NCAA championship trophy.
Stories like that of John Nichols illustrate exactly what it means to wear the LSU uniform.
The Tigers, who had not won an NCAA championship since their first win in 1933, were locked in a tight battle with Texas A&M for the team title in Provo, Utah, in 1989 when Nichols stepped inside the discus ring for the final round of throws in second place in the competition.
Nichols had battled a lower back injury for the entire 1989 season and just barely made the discus final at the NCAA Championships with a throw of 186-6 in the preliminary rounds.
But Nichols, with temperatures dipping into the low 50s at the Brigham Young University track and the pain in his back unrelenting, dug deep within himself and let loose a then school-record throw of 208-1 on his final attempt to move from second to first and give the Tigers the extra two points they needed to defeat the Aggies by the final score of 53-51.
Nichols helped the Tigers snap a long 56-year title drought by being crowned LSU’s lone individual NCAA champion for the meet.
Or consider the story of Lady Tiger champion Dahlia Duhaney.
The Lady Tigers had already won five straight NCAA Outdoor titles heading into the national meet in 1992, but it seemed as though their streak would come to an end with the hard-charging Florida Lady Gators, winners of the NCAA Indoor title, right on their heels.
Duhaney, a 100-meter and 200-meter specialist, wasn’t expected to win the 200 at the NCAA meet as she had not broken 23 seconds in the race all season. The label of favorite fell on Chryste Gaines of Stanford, who clocked the fastest prelim qualifying time of 23.00 seconds.
Fate smiled on the Lady Tigers that day at Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas, as Gaines scratched from the 200-meter final due to tightness in her hamstring, and Duhaney seized the opportunity by winning her first and only individual NCAA title as a Lady Tiger with a blistering career best of 22.80 in the final.
She added a second-place finish in the 100-meter dash to give the Lady Tigers the points they needed to defeat Florida by the final count of 87-81 and extend their championship streak to six. They would go on to win five more NCAA Outdoor crowns for an unprecedented 11 consecutive titles from 1987-97, a record that may never be broken.
That streak would not have been possible without Duhaney’s performance.
But perhaps Sherry Fletcher is one of the most improbable NCAA champions in the history of the LSU program with her win the 100-meter dash a year ago.
With LSU’s title hopes fading fast, Fletcher, running out of Lane 8 after advancing to the final with the eighth and final qualifying spot, raced to the finish line in 11.20 to shock the field. The Lady Tigers went on to finish runner-up to Arizona State, but would have never been in a position to challenge the Sun Devils without Fletcher’s startling victory.
What’s even more remarkable is that Fletcher’s title run was her first career victory in the 100-meter dash in any meet in her two-year career as a Lady Tiger.
The history of LSU track and field is not only littered with athletes who raised the level of their performance when the team needed it the most, but also those athletes who were the unquestioned champions of their day and will forever live on through the passage of time with the merit of their accomplishments.
Two world records disappeared into the Chicago night back in 1933 when Glenn “Slats” Hardin cruised to victory in the 220-yard low hurdles in 22.9 seconds, only after Jack Torrance unleashed a throw of 52-10 to win gold in the shot put.
Hardin added a first-place finish in the 440-yard run, while Torrance scored for the Tigers with an additional third-place finish in the discus.
These were men who were titans of their day.
Hardin was the world’s foremost 400-meter hurdler in the 1930s and proved as much with a gold-medal winning performance at the infamous 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. He was also the world-record holder in that event in addition to the 220 low hurdles.
Torrance held the shot put world record for two years while improving his mark to 57-1, and also represented the United States in the Berlin games where he placed fifth.
Perhaps drawing inspiration from the men who donned the purple and gold before him, Tiger sprinting great Xavier Carter transcended history just two years ago by winning four gold medals at a single NCAA Championships, a feat matched only by the legendary Jesse Owens of Ohio State at the outdoor meet in 1935 and 1936.
Carter turned in a performance for the ages in 2006 with wins in the 100-meter dash, 400-meter dash, 400-meter relay and 1,600-meter relay, becoming the first man in history to double in both the 100 meters and 400 meters at the same NCAA Championships.
These are but a few in a sea of names who have made their mark on the history of collegiate track and field and will forever be identified with the name worn on the front of their uniform.
It’s a name that commands respect.
Anytime an athlete with the letters L-S-U spelled across their chest steps onto the track or onto the runway or into the circle, it draws immediate attention from everyone else in the competition because they understand that history is about to be made.
And that is the legacy that began in 1933 when Bernie Moore led his five-man team of Matt Gordy, Glenn Hardin, Jack Torrance, Al Moreau and Buddy Blair into battle against the nation’s best and walked away as national champions. It’s a legacy that is 75 years in the making and is a legacy that is sure to continue for years to come.
The 2008 squads hope to carry the torch and write yet another chapter to the story this week with the start of the NCAA Championships on Wednesday.
Like their forefathers before them, they too hope to be the ones raising the national championship trophy following Saturday’s dramatic conclusion in celebration of their own legacy of greatness.