A Dying Race

Houston boasts some of the biggest track legends in the world. Who cares? They do.

Tellez demanded of Lewis what he demands of all his athletes: Run and jump exactly like I tell you, every time. Not most of the time -- every time. "He was such a perfectionist," says Rutherford, the Bahamian triple jumper. "He instilled in us that even if you run fast or jump far, if it's not done right you're not going to be consistent doing it. I remember times I jumped 55 feet and did it wrong, and he would turn his back on me. I'd look up in the stands and he'd turn his back. He'd come by later and fuss me up: 'When the time comes for you in the Olympics, when you got somebody coming right behind you who's just as good as you, and he's gonna jump a foot past yours, you have to be able to respond. The only way you're gonna be able to respond is if you get things technically right.' "

Together, Tellez and Lewis changed their sport, transforming it from an "amateur" pursuit into a full-fledged professional sport. Lewis left school early, with Tellez's blessing, to accept a contract from Nike and run for the Santa Monica Track Club, which was managed by Tellez's friend and fellow coach Joe Douglas. After equaling Jesse Owens's feat of four gold medals in the 1988 Olympics, Lewis demanded that meet promoters pay him more than the customary pittance, thereby raising the pay scale for all athletes.

The reputation of Lewis and Tellez also attracted some of the best talent in the world to Santa Monica and the University of Houston, where Lewis was the epicenter of daily workouts that resembled Hollywood productions in their style and star power. By the time Tellez handed over the UH team to Burrell in 1998, after 22 years leading the Cougars and even more with Santa Monica, Tellez had helped some 20 athletes reach the Olympics, where they won at least as many medals. Since 1984 Tellez has coached six of the seven U.S. sprinters who won Olympic gold in the 100 and 200 meters.

Tellez, 66, is still out on his track every day, guiding his athletes through what he promises will be his final Olympics. His team isn't as deep as it once was, but his enthusiasm and passion remain undiminished.

Sadly, the progress of U.S. track and field followed the ebb and flow of Tellez's career, and of Lewis's. Shoe companies today are doling out much less money. Middle-tier European meets have dried up, and the big meets have cut back on appearance fees in favor of prize money. The United States Association of Track & Field is still trying to convince the TV networks that people want to watch the sport at times other than during Olympic years. The also-ran status of the sport was painfully evident at the dedication meet for the track-and-field complex on April 1, when only about 300 spectators showed up to honor the two men who have done more for track and field than anyone in the country.

After years of complaints about the lack of proper marketing, many U.S. athletes have good things to say about their current leader, Craig Masback, the CEO of USATF. Still, Masback is running against the wind. "There is clearly less money available from shoe companies," he says. "The overall support that we have been able to provide to athletes through medical insurance and stipends has gone up, but that's only to a select group of 50 or 60 athletes. [Overall] it's a tougher go. There's less guaranteed money and more performance-related money."

A more serious issue is a lack of new talent. "I know the performance level has not improved, it's decreased," says Tellez. "Times and heights have dropped down a lot. It's amazing how the level has gone down. Not as many kids are out; more are out for football and basketball and other sports. Name any good athlete in football or basketball. If we get them into track and field and they get with the right coach, it would be amazing what they could do. The world records would be destroyed if we get the right athletes."

If and when those athletes turn out, they won't be coached by Tellez. "I'm not burned out," he said after a recent practice, three days after the track was named after him. "I love to coach, but I've done what I had to do. It's time to do something different. Other than [spend time with] my wife and family, I'll travel a little bit; I have a couple horses that I ride.

"When you make commitments to these athletes, your family's first, and then coaching. Over the years coaching has almost been first. It's right together with the family. You incorporate both of them. I had to do it. I couldn't do it any other way. When you make a commitment to athletes, it's almost beyond your family. Not that you put your family second, but they're right there. Because my mind is totally on the athletes all the time. After so many years, it's time. It's time to back off."

Time to back off.

You've given up everything: money, fun, food, sex. And you feel great. Because you made a pact with your mind and your body, and then followed through with everything you had.

You've accomplished your goals -- for today.

See you tomorrow.

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