Posted on Apr 18, 2014 in Alumni News, News, and Sports
Just in time for the 87th edition of the Kansas Relays, a KU alumnus has published a complete history of the meet all the way back to its origins. In The Kansas Relays: Track and Field Tradition in the Heartland, Joe D. Schrag, g’68, chronicles this history of the meet, which along with the Drake, Texas and Penn Relays, is one of the most storied collegiate track and field meets in the country.
This year, the Kansas Relays will relocate to Rock Chalk Park, vacating Memorial Stadium where the meet first took place in 1923 and has resided since on the third weekend in April, giving thousands of high school students (and future Jayhawks) from across the Midwest their first glimpse of the University of Kansas.
Alumni and fans who attended the Relays will recall history-making performances from legends like Jim Ryun, Al Oerter and Wes Santee, each of whom are featured among many others. Look for the book to arrive late April from Adina Publishing. Here, the author provides an exclusive excerpt from the first chapter describing the origins of the Kansas Relays.
Dr. Outland’s Dream Fulfilled: The Tradition Begins
“From the sun-kissed slopes of Mount Oread, on the banks of the majestic Kaw, there was sent in the spring of 1923 a call to athletes of America inviting them to meet on the Kansas memorial stadium field in a major outdoor relay classic.”
— 1926 Kansas Relays meet program
When a University of Kansas multi-sport athlete named John Outland made the decision to attend medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, the Kansas Relays was conceived. Outland gained fame for his exploits on the gridiron as he was named the first football player to be named All-American at two different positions. Most sports fans who know of him today don’t think of track and field. They know Outland by the trophy he brainstormed that now bears his name. He believed tackles and guards deserved more credit, so the Outland Trophy was established in 1946 and awarded to the best interior lineman in college football.
Outland starred in baseball and football at Kansas in 1895 and 1896, after which he went to Philadelphia to pursue a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where he continued to play football. Here he became enamored of the Penn Relays, which was established in 1895 and almost immediately was reputed to be the largest track and field meet in the world in terms of participation.
In 1900, Outland returned to Lawrence as Dr. Outland, established his medical practice, and coached football at KU for a year. He then moved his practice to Topeka, Kan., and coached football there at Washburn University for two years before joining the Trinity-Lutheran Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., as a surgeon. While practicing in Kansas City, he served on the KU athletic board with such notables as Dr. James Naismith and Dr. Forrest C. “Phog” Allen. Especially with Allen, Outland shared his vision of a large-scale track and field meet similar to the “carnival” at Penn. It would be, Outland said, a way to promote the university. As he said in a Relays “pep” convocation prior to the 1924 Relays, “The name of Kansas can go further through the Relays than any other form of athletics because of the numbers competing” (University Daily Kansan, April 15, 1924).
While KU’s geographical location in the heartland of American was an advantage, there were no facilities adequate to hold such an extravaganza. That all changed in 1921 when construction of Memorial Stadium, built to honor KU students who served and died in World War I, was completed. The venue is recognized as the first stadium built on a college campus west of the Mississippi, and claimed to be the eighth oldest collegiate stadium in the nation. Allen, football coach for one year in 1920, coached in the last football game at old McCook Field. On Monday after that game, a 20-20 come-from-behind tie with Nebraska, exuberant students and faculty pledged over $200,000 toward the building of a new stadium. Construction of the facility began, under the watchful eye of Allen, who was also director of athletics. Allen envisioned a horseshoe-shaped, concrete stadium and insisted that a track be built inside. A “Stadium Day” on May 10, 1921 brought more than 4,000 students to demolish McCook Field in what is considered the groundbreaking date for the new stadium. It was ready for football on Oct. 3, 1921, a 21-7 victory over the rival Kansas Aggies (Kansas State), which the Jayhawks won 21-7 in front of 5,160 fans.
With this edifice, Outland’s dream of a large-scale track meet could become a reality (although the horseshoe didn’t connect the east and west bleachers until 1927). The university’s athletic board gave the go-ahead. Head coach Karl Schlademan, who in his first four years had built KU into something of a regional track power, was given the responsibility of putting it all together in time for the 1923 season. This job of directing the Relays became the responsibility of the head coach in the formative years of the Relays.
Once the decision was made to hold a relays carnival, the next order of business was to find a suitable date. Already in place was the State Inter-Scholastic Track Meet, which Chancellor Frank Strong established in 1904 as a ploy to get students on campus at a time when recruiting by athletic teams was illegal (see Chapter 4 for more on the origins of the high school meet). This one-day meet had been held successfully for 19 years on an April weekend at McCook Field, so it seemed logical to put the university relays, also conceived as a one-day meet, on the same weekend. Thus the two separate events were permanently linked as the Kansas Relays.
In the inaugural Kansas Relays, the Saturday schedule of collegiate and university events included two Kansas high school championship relays and three high school open relays, which made it possible to get non-Kansas students on campus. After the first year, the two Kansas relays were dropped and four open high school relays were contested on Saturday.
On April 21, 1923, people arrived by Model T, bus and train to attend the first Kansas Relays. Stadium capacity at this stage of construction was 22,000. Entered in the event were over 1,000 competitors (about 400 from high schools alone) from 23 universities, 19 colleges, four military academies and 35 high schools. The program consisted of 18 relay events and nine individual events. Almost every event was run in steady rain, and a downpour the day before left the track a muddy mess. Still, an estimated 7,000 fans endured the windy and cloudy conditions, paying 75 cents to $1.50 for the privilege of doing so.
The visions of Outland, the “Father of the Kansas Relays,” and Allen, “The Founder of the Kansas Relays,” had come to fruition. The Kansas Relays, which skeptics called “Phog’s Folly,” became, and continues to be, one of the premier track and field carnivals, not only in the Midwest but also in the nation.
Presaging future years, the inaugural KU Relays featured notable performances and star athletes. Despite a soggy track, the Kansas quarter-mile relay team ran 43.0 and missed the world record by one-fifth of a second.
Two Kansas athletes would become Olympians for the 1924 Games in Paris, France. All-American Tom Poor won the high jump at 6 feet, 1 ¼ inches and defended that title the next two years. He placed fourth in the 1924 Olympics. Merwin “Marvin” Graham jumped 22 feet, 1 ½ inches in the broad jump. Graham placed ninth in the hop-step-jump in Paris.
For more information about The Kansas Relays: Track and Field Tradition in the Heartland, by Joe Schrag, go to www.adinapublishing.com.
– David Johnston