Champion Digital | By Gary Brown
San Jose State was in big trouble. Seventy runners had breezed by head coach Dean Miller at the mile marker without a Spartan among them.
The team that had been unbeaten all season and came into the 1962 NCAA Cross Country Championships expecting to win it looked like an also-ran early on.
That’s when Ron Davis, Danny Murphy, Ben Tucker, Horace Whitehead and Jeff Fishback looked at each other and said, “We gotta go.”
Fifty years ago, a unique group of young men coached by a motivational mentor captured something they didn’t even realize was special at the time. On Nov. 26, 1962, this collection of speedy Spartans became the first integrated team to win the Division I (then called the University Division) title. As incredible as it was then, the feat may be even more remarkable upon reflection, given the racially charged atmosphere amid a civil rights movement that was dividing the country.
For black runners Davis, Tucker and Whitehead, it was the light at the end of what had been a lengthy and often uncomfortable tunnel.
“It was always believed that Blacks couldn’t run anything over 400 meters,” Davis said. “What we did was a major surprise to the country.”
Indeed, Jesse Owens, who set the 1936 Olympics ablaze, and San Jose State speedsters Ray Norton and Bobby Poynter, who were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the world during the late 1950s and early 1960s, had helped establish Blacks as sprinters, but long distance was another story.
“The stereotype had to do with sprints being considered a pure burst of speed in which there’s no strategy or discipline involved, or where you have to endure and you have to think,” Tucker said of the prejudiced claim. “It’s the same thing that fuels the ‘Blacks can’t be quarterbacks’ kind of thinking. It was based on – incorrectly of course – intellectual inferiority and discipline and being able to hang tough.”
The San Jose State trio stood that notion on its ear. Davis, who made varsity as a freshman, and Tucker, who excelled in cross country after having had his sights set on basketball in high school, exhibited the strategy, discipline and toughness to finish the 1962 race sixth and 18th, respectively. Whitehead was 30th.
The Spartans broke the NCAA record by 39 seconds and beat perennial power Villanova by 11 points.
But they came close to not winning at all.
RUNNING THROUGH RACIAL RHETORIC
It would be a few years before San Jose State graduate and activist Harry Edwards would influence Spartan sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos to raise their fists from the podium in protest after winning gold and bronze, respectively, at the 1968 Olympics. But that decade began with Davis, Tucker, Whitehead and others shattering stereotypes.
According to Davis, the journey got off to a slow start.
“In 1960, we were probably one of the worst cross country teams in America,” he said. “We would compete at Stanford – they had a long hill on their golf course – and we would end up walking up that hill.”
But legendary coaches Bud Winter, who built the San Jose State track dynasty from 1940 through 1970, and Dean Miller, who had plenty of high school coaching experience and was known for his extraordinary training techniques, knew how to motivate their athletes. After a full summer of workouts, Davis and his teammates weren’t walking up the Stanford hill anymore. They finished second in fact at the 1961 NCAA meet – the first in which San Jose State had ever participated.
By 1962, the Spartans were firing on all cylinders.
“We have Mount Hamilton out here in San Jose,” Davis said. “We used go to the 19-mile sign and try to run all the way up to the observatory – and the last seven miles were brutal. The first two times we didn’t make it, but the third time we told coach Miller to meet us at the top. And when we got there we all agreed that we were going to win that NCAA championship.”
Danny Murphy didn’t see a championship team when he arrived on the San Jose State campus in 1961. It was also Dean Miller’s first year as the Spartans’ cross country coach. Murphy in fact was Miller’s star pupil at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Miller found Murphy in a freshman PE class and molded the skinny teenager into a record-breaking two-miler.
“I made a bunch of guys run laps for goofing off,” Miller said. “Murphy was out there running like a deer – he finished 30 seconds ahead of everyone else and wasn’t even breathing hard. I told him to see me after school.”
But of the 80 or so runners who tried out for the Spartans’ track team in 1961, Murphy wasn’t impressed until he started noticing guys like Davis, Tucker and Whitehead, whose strides were smooth and fluid.
“We trained for about a week, and these guys are staying with me,” said Murphy, who was accustomed to blowing away both high schoolers and collegians in the meets Miller placed him. “Where did Bud and Dean find them? I was 11th nationally as a high school junior and now these guys are hanging with me. Dean said, ‘Watch your back, Danny. These guys can run.’ ”
In short order, Murphy was watching their backs at times. But Murphy didn’t care what color they were. He just wanted the team to win.
“There wasn’t even a hint of anything racial as far as the guys on the team were concerned,” he said. “I mean, you gotta be cool with it when the guy’s ahead of you.”
Outside the team cocoon, though, it could be nasty. Davis, Tucker and Whitehead struggled just to find off-campus housing. Miller secured a boarding house to take them in, but it was run by a strict minister who set curfews and forbade music. “We said, oh no, we couldn’t handle this – we needed a little more leeway,” Tucker recalled.
They eventually found an alumnus who was OK renting to Blacks. But the long training runs made Tucker especially nervous. Passersby frequently snarled racial slurs from their cars and tossed beer cans at the black runners.
“And they weren’t yelling, ‘Yea! Go Spartans! Get those guys at Stanford next week!’ ” Tucker said. “For me, it was startling because I had come from San Francisco, which was a pretty liberal town.
“Sometimes you’d get separated on those long runs, so maybe you’d end up by yourself, or maybe two black guys, or one black guy and one white guy. But we often got some kind of blowback. It made me uneasy and I felt vulnerable. Things were boiling up in the South – black folks were getting shot and lynched, and I started thinking, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to get shot on one of these lonely roads.’ ”
The trio persevered as a group. They figured their coaches couldn’t do much about the harassment they got on the road. And as Tucker pointed out, it wasn’t a time when people were inclined to stage a seminar to “talk it through” as often happens today.
“It was the 1960s; that’s just was the way it was,” Tucker said. “As long as nobody confronted or physically challenged us, we would just ignore it. We didn’t let it bother us – we couldn’t let it bother us. We had a goal, and that wasn’t going to knock us off course.”
They hid their fears so well that white teammates Murphy and Fishback weren’t really aware there was an issue. They didn’t even realize they were considered “an integrated team” until Davis told them about the landmark at a reunion this fall, 50 years later.
Murphy said it was a good thing he didn’t know. He was a hot-tempered young man who was known to fight back if he thought he’d been wronged.
“You do not insult a teammate or my coach,” said Murphy, who roomed with Tucker at the 1962 NCAA meet and never thought anything of it. “I’m only 5-feet-5, but I had a habit of standing tall for myself and others.”
Dean Miller wasn’t buying any of the prejudiced jargon, either. When he showed up at San Jose State and joined track coach Bud Winter in recruiting black athletes, he got some pushback of his own. People would tell him, “Well, you have to be careful not to get too many Blacks because you’re going to have problems.”
Miller’s response was consistently insistent: “I would always say, ‘I don’t care if they’re black, white, striped or polka dot. All I’m interested in is how fast they can run, how far they can run, and whether they’re willing to commit physically and mentally to being a champion.’ I think we set a precedent. Once I got an athlete on the team, we were a team – that’s always how I treated it.”
Miller had come from prejudice of a different kind. He was born on a cattle ranch in the sand hills of Nebraska during the Great Depression and attended a one-room school with just seven students. When his father contracted leukemia, the family had to move to town, and Miller didn’t fit in.
“I had cow dung on my boots and patches on my knees and one of those belt buckles the size of a gallon bucket,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Miller found his share of trouble in the larger school. One day when he was scuffling with a classmate, a big hand reached out and turned him around, and the accompanying voice boomed, “Miller, if you’re so tough, why aren’t you out for football?”
Miller learned quickly that participating in sports was a good way to be accepted, so he played four of them in high school. But when he graduated he was only 16 years old and weighed 168 pounds. Nebraska told him he was too young and too light to play for the vaunted Cornhuskers, but if he wanted to walk-on two years from now they would consider giving him a scholarship. But walking-on required money for enrollment, and Miller was one of six kids with a now-widowed mother. Cash wasn’t scarce at his house – it didn’t exist.
So two days after he graduated, Miller joined the military and for the next three years sought the toughest training he could find.
“I was trying to get big and tough, and I was trying to get the G.I. Bill,” he said. “When I came home, I wasn’t a kid anymore. I weighed 216 and had a 32-inch waistline and I could run all day. In all that training, I probably ran around the world at least twice.”
Miller used the GI Bill to get his bachelor’s degree and a master’s at Nebraska and a Ph.D. from Southern Cal that he obtained by going to night classes while playing football with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.
His training and ingenuity at that time also helped him develop a method of exercise called “iso-kinetics” that would change the very nature of how athletes trained. Miller’s technique led to a device called the “Exer-Genie,” which was a small metal cylinder through which athletes would pull a rope with their arms, legs or (by means of a harness) their whole body.
The workout combined isometrics (straining the muscles against an immovable object) and isotonics (working the muscles through a complete range of motion against a movable tension). The isometrics created a fatigue factor, followed immediately by the isotonics to build dynamic strength, as well as muscle endurance and flexibility.
“What you’re doing is contracting a muscle isometrically, which shuts off the normal supply of blood to that muscle,” Miller explained. “When your body burns energy it creates a waste product called lactic acid, which is the No. 1 factor in fatigue. Then after you tire that muscle, you’d start the isotonics, using a muscle that already had a fatigue factor. The results were mindboggling.”
It caught on with the NFL, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, among others, and it made Miller famous. One day, he was talking to the Lions Club in a suburb of San Jose, and when he finished, one guy literally shoved his way to the front to get to Miller.
“He grabbed me and said, ‘You’ve solved the problem of fitness in outer space,’ ” Miller said. “He said, ‘We put monkeys out there and they live for five to seven days. There’s no gravity so there’s no stress on the body, and the monkey’s heart won’t pound hard enough to put blood back in the brain. We can’t put people up there until we solve the problem. And you have the answer.’ ”
Miller said it was an example of how a life can change quickly. As a cross country coach at San Jose State, he was pulling down about $7,400 a year. But when NASA hired him in 1964, he was making a cool 60 grand and flying all over the country. He did the talk-show circuit with Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and became known from coast to coast. “I don’t think there was a coaching clinic in America that I didn’t lecture at,” he said.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. Before Miller conquered outer space, he had to get his Spartans through East Lansing, Mich.
A CHAMPIONSHIP EFFORT
Fittingly, the city featuring dark-green Spartans was where the 1962 NCAA Cross Country Championships were staged. Miller’s gold-and-white version had been runners-up in 1961 and weren’t keen on repeating that finish. But a number of obstacles had to be overcome.
First, Miller had left his lucky buckeye at the hotel. He had kept it all those years from his football days at Nebraska. He acquired it on a road game at Illinois, picking it up during a walk on campus. When the players were back on the bus and tossing buckeyes at each other (“We were like a bunch of high school freshmen,” Miller said), Cornhuskers coach Bill Glassford told them if they rubbed buckeyes on their noses it would bring them luck.
Miller didn’t think much about it until he reached into his locker before the game to get some gum and saw the buckeye. He rubbed it on his nose, and sure enough, while covering the opening kickoff, Miller grabbed a fumble out of the air and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.
“From then on,” Miller said, “every kid I ever coached rubbed that buckeye.”
The 1962 Spartans were nearly the exception. When they got to the Michigan State field house to assemble for the race, Miller discovered he was buckeye-less. By the time he retrieved it, the runners had been called to the starting line. Miller dashed out and allowed the boys a quick rub.
Some of the runners also didn’t plan for the elements. Most of the San Jose State guys just had their singlets to stave off the 30-degree chill. “We were freezing,” Tucker said. “We put analgesic balm on just to get warm.”
Davis, a Bridgeport, Conn. native, was undaunted. He shed his warmer threads, telling Miller, “I came to run, coach, not to stay warm.”
To make matters worse, Jeff Fishback had been ill much of the previous week and was in bad shape on race day. He would gallantly finish 17th and score valuable points for the team, but he was unable to stand up for about 90 minutes afterward. Miller said an average runner never would have finished.
Then there was the starting draw. The Spartans ended up on the far right of a starting line that pointed the 300 runners toward the course’s first turn – a 90 degree left just a quarter mile away. Miller told his runners to get out in front to avoid the logjam, but they didn’t.
Murphy said they couldn’t. He said officials had tried to mark the course as a circle would be so that each “lane” for the pack was about the same distance from the start to that turn. But from where San Jose State was lined up on the far end, the Spartans ended up running about 30 yards farther to reach the first turn than most of their competitors.
“I ran a 59 quarter and still ended up second-to-last at that turn, along with my whole team. We were dead at the back of 300 runners,” Murphy said.
Murphy said the pace at the turn for those who didn’t get there early dwindled to a hopping jog. After that came the grueling task of working through the pack, veering sideways and at various speeds – expending energy they would later need – to avoid the humanity the Spartans knew they should already have dusted.
Most of the San Jose squad emerged from the pack just after the first mile, and the leaders loomed about 200 yards ahead of them.
“I caught Ben Tucker and told him to lock on,” Murphy said. Murphy reeled in front-runner Tom O’Hara of Loyola Chicago with about a half mile to go, but O’Hara outlasted him, followed by Villanova’s Pat Traynor.
The account from The New York Times read: “The trio ran neck and neck for about 440 yards. Then Murphy, a 120-pounder who looks more like a high school sophomore, started to drop back. From there, O’Hara and Traynor put on a stirring duel.”
Murphy finished third, less than 12 seconds off the winning pace. Davis came in sixth, about 13 seconds behind Murphy. Fishback and Tucker were just a second apart in 17th and 18th, respectively. Whitehead was the other contributor to the Spartans’ total.
“It turned out to be a remarkable accomplishment,” Murphy said. “You put any other team at the back of the pack at that turn and see how many could rally to win the meet. Nobody could’ve done that.”
“We helped change society’s perceptions of black athletes,” said Davis, who had posted the fastest time a black runner had ever run on the Michigan State course.
Their names were in all the national newspapers and on various television stations. The squad got a hero’s welcome upon returning to campus.
“Looking back, that experience taught us about life, about getting to know people, and about working hard for accomplishments,” Davis said. “We were young athletes who struggled in high school to be good enough to receive a scholarship. We were fortunate that all three of us ended up at San Jose State and were recruited not for our color but for our ability.”
Life has come full circle for Davis since then. Just last May he was announced as San Jose State’s new men’s and women’s cross country coach. He’s also leading the school’s new women’s track program that starts this spring.
Davis comes in well-credentialed, having spent two seasons at Ohio State, two at UMES, four at New Orleans and four at South Alabama. He was an assistant at Cal State East Bay when he agreed to return to San Jose State. He also has coached and trained distance runners in Canada, Ireland, Mauritius, Mozambique, Tanzania, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and Nigeria over the years.
Now he can give back to the program that gave so much to him.
“Everything I learned as a student-athlete established a foundation for me in my career – everything I learned from here carried me around the world,” Davis said. “It was always in my mind that one day I would like to come back here and contribute to the success that we had back in the 1960s.”
Murphy is writing a book about his experiences at San Jose State after a long and successful teaching career at the elementary, junior high and high school level. After finishing third in the 1962 NCAA championships, he was fifth a year later and an All-American again in 1964, even though the Spartans didn’t send a team that year to the national meet.
Fishback, who finished third in the 1963 NCAA meet and ran the steeplechase in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, currently is on the senior circuit with USA Badminton and was a member of the team that won the senior world nationals two years ago in Sydney.
Murphy, Davis, Tucker and Fishback all say they have unfortunately lost track of Horace Whitehead.
Miller left San Jose State in ’64 for the position at NASA and stayed for about a decade. His iso-kinetics theory remains as a staple in the space program. Miller also enjoyed success in real estate development and is living in Reno, Nev., looking forward to celebrating his 86th birthday in February. He still exercises daily.
Tucker went on to work in higher education, spending more than 30 years as an admissions officer and staffing various other positions at the University of California. He graduated from San Jose State with a degree in accounting, but after working in that field for a while he decided it “was not a good personality match.” Tucker got his master’s in education from San Francisco. He’s currently retired and living in Berkeley but works part time as a consultant for the College Board.
“In my time at San Jose State, it was all about the team,” Tucker said. “And that has helped me so much in my professional life in terms of how to work with people and getting them to see the big picture.”
To be sure, the big picture 50 years ago for a team and its runners was more than just black and white.
Miller called them “an exceptional group of young men who bought into the training it took to be champions.”
And their championship story lives on, 50 years later.