When Irish distance runners ruled American colleges
In the NCAAs in 1992 it felt like half the teams were built around Irish runners
John Treacy winning the World Cross-Country title at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, in 1978
Maybe it’s the colour of the November sun cut flat on the highways we travelled on. Or the gently wood-scented chill in the New England air. But something about landing into Boston on Friday afternoon took me back 25 years, when it felt like we had covered the entire east coast on a journey known as cross-country running in college in America.
The destination was the NCAAs – “the show”, “the big dance”. For only the second time in the history of Brown University, the team that coach Bob Rothenberg had built had qualified for the final showdown of the season. It didn’t actually matter where we finished on the day either, because we were there with the best cross-country runners from across the land.
For the three months previous we’d driven long lengths of I-95, from Providence, Rhode Island, to race at Boston’s Franklin Park and New York’s Van Cortlandt Park, to Happy Valley in Pennsylvania and north again to Fordham.
A lot of quiet time, reading Kerouac’s On The Road in a slow, continuous loop, listening to Automatic For the People by R.E.M. on repeat play.
Then, like today, qualifying for the NCAAs comes down to the nine regional championships. In our case the IC4As: seven runners, five to score, and on a dry pastured course at Lehigh University, just outside of Bethlehem, everyone ran to form, raced as hard as they trained. For once our team result added up exactly to the sum of its parts.
“You’ll remember this for the rest of your lives,” coach Rothenberg told us that afternoon, and so far he’s right about that.
This is not just another nostalgia trip: on that November day in 1992, when the NCAAs were staged on a pure cross-country course in Bloomington, Indiana, the strength of the Irish presence was unmistakable even if it fell short of producing another Irish winner.
The NCAAs is arguably the hardest cross-country race to win in America. First staged at Michigan State University in East Lansing in 1938 – it was not staged in 1943 due to the second World War II – it has ended the hopes of many Irish runners with winning aspirations. Then in 1972, Limerick’s Neil Cusack, running for East Tennessee, triumphed in Houston, Texas, taking the title won the previous year by American Steve Prefontaine.
Cusack also led East Tennessee, better known as the Irish Brigade as it consisted of Eddie and PJ Leddy, Ray McBride, Kevin Breen and Frank Greally, to a second-place team finish. Those were the days.
This is the same race even John Treacy couldn’t win, finishing second in 1977 to Kenya’s Henry Rono at the Hangman Valley Golf Course in Spokane, Washington, just a few months before Treacy won the World Cross Country in Glasgow.
There has only been one other Irish-born winner of the men’s race since, Keith Kelly triumphing for Providence College in 2000 after a damn hard race at Iowa State University.
South African-born Sean Dollman, who later ran for Ireland, won in 1991, the same year Sonia O’Sullivan completed her back-to-back NCAAs cross-country titles, still the only Irish woman to win outright.
A year later the 1992 race might well be the last high watermark in the history of Irish distance runners on scholarship in America. The results are neatly archived by the NCAA, and there were over a dozen Irish runners in the men’s race alone, including three in the top 10: Mark Carroll, also from Providence College, was third, Conor Holt of Oklahoma was seventh, and Eddie O’Carroll of Western Kentucky was ninth.
Frank Hanley was up there too in 13th, Niall Bruton, also from Arkansas, was 25th, Cormac Finnerty of Clemson was 41st, and Ken Nason of Villanova was 52nd.
Seamus Power of East Tennessee ran with the leaders for a long time before losing ground (I know that because he passed me around halfway, going backwards); and Brown University had another Irish runner in Donal O’Sullivan, who finished 105th, still considered a good run for a freshman.
These names can be rattled off because most of them went on to bigger and better things: Carroll, Bruton and Finnerty later ran for Ireland in the Olympics, Carroll’s and Bruton’s times still holding up on the Irish record books.
Power went on to win nine successive Irish cross-country titles, and Nason was later Irish 1,500m champion.
The Irish women also made their presence felt, Sinead Delahunty from Providence finishing sixth.
And when all the Irish runners gathered in the awards hall afterwards it felt like we ruled the place. No other country outside of America had come close to leaving such a mark; of the 22 teams that made it that day it felt like half were built around Irish runners.
Now, exactly 25 years on, this Saturday’s race is hosted by the University of Louisville, Kentucky, and staged at Tom Sawyer State Park. The event has expanded to include 31 of the best division one colleges in America, plus 38 individual qualifiers, for a field of 255 runners. With some gentle irony, no American runner has won it since Galen Rupp in 2008. And we all know how good he went on to be.
Yet this time the number of Irish runners who have qualified can be counted on one hand. Sean Tobin, running for Mississippi via Clonmel, and Jack O’Leary, running for Iona via Gigginstown, led the men’s challenge. Síofra Cléirigh Büttner from Dundrum is part of a strong Villanova women’s team.
For years the NCAAs and America colleges were often criticised for taking our best distance running talents and promptly draining them. It’s easy to see without looking too far that maybe that talent just isn’t there anymore.