Paige Turned Three NCAA Mid-Distance Titles
In 1979, Don Paige of Villanova set out to complete one of the most rare doubles in the history of the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
The double – winning the 800 meters and 1500 meters (or 880 yards and mile) – had only been accomplished twice, and the most recent occurrence in 1958 was the last time it was even attempted.
Paige’s attempt was much more difficult than those before him – five races in three days, whereas Ross Hume (Michigan) in 1945 had two races in a one-day meet and Ron Delany (Villanova) in 1958 had three over two days. (Delany, by the way, was the first from a long line of Wildcat stars to win the NCAA 1500/mile.)
Paige handled the prelims perfectly, advancing to Saturday’s finals which would be held just 35 minutes apart.
First up was the 1500 and Paige stayed clear of traffic before moving up to sixth place with 300 meters to go (2:59.6). He unleashed his explosive finishing kick, albeit conservatively, on the homestretch as he zoomed to the lead with some 60 meters left.
He cruised in to save as much energy as possible, winning in 3:39.20 over Baylor’s Todd Harbour (3:39.27). Harbour – now Baylor’s head coach – started history of his own as he would continue the next two years to become the event’s first – and still only – three-time runner-up.
Paige didn’t know what to expect in the 800, but revealed afterwards that “the pain began as soon as the gun went off and I realized I had to sprint to that first flag and cut in.”
Owen Hamilton of Texas set the pace, leading at 53.3 through the first lap before trying to open up. He still led at 600 in 1:19.6, while Paige stayed near the back in sixth at 1:20.7.
It was on the homestretch that a frantic dash for the finish caused the crowd at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, to rise and scream for Paige, as Garry Hill reported for Track & Field News.
Paige went wide to lane 3 and claimed the lead about halfway on the homestretch, crossing the finish in 1:46.18 – a PR by some 1.4 seconds.
“I had my doubts coming off the final curve,” Paige admitted.
Jack McIntosh of Western Michigan, runner-up in a PR 1:46.76, offered a different opinion: “He continues to amaze me. I didn’t think he could do it but he made a believer out of me. I don’t think there’s a better runner in the country.”
Since Paige’s historic double, only three more names have been added to the list of NCAA DI Outdoor 800/1500 double champions – Joaquim Cruz of Oregon in 1984, Suzy Favor of Wisconsin in 1990 and Andrew Wheating of Oregon in 2010. Even on a career basis, only one other can claim the achievement – Oregon’s Claudette Groenendaal, who won the 1500 in 1984 and 800 in 1985.
The 800 and 1500 might have straddled Paige’s best event – he won three NCAA Indoor titles in the 1000 yards and was second as a freshman. His collegiate record of 2:05.3 in 1979 remains the fastest ever recorded for the once-standard event.
The NCAA and collegiate track & field will mark a momentous milestone in the spring of 2021 -- the 100th anniversary of the NCAA Championships and with that, the NCAA Track & Field Championships. In June 1921, the University of Chicago hosted the first track & field championships in NCAA history.
This point can’t be emphasized enough: Not only was the event the first for NCAA track & field, but the first championships for any sport under the sponsorship of the NCAA.
To celebrate, over each of the next 365 days, the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) will celebrate moments, student-athletes, and coaches that have made a century’s worth of championships special. From humble beginnings to important historical milestones to the modern-day, collegiate track & field has evolved with the American society.
The 2021 edition of the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships begin with preliminary round action on May 27-29 in Jacksonville, Fla., and College Station, Texas. The championships final site and culmination of the celebration is slated for June 9-12, 2021 at the newly rebuilt Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.
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Paige Turned Three NCAA Mid-Distance Titles
Don Paige won three career titles at the NCAA DI Outdoor T&F Championships, including a 800-1500 sweep in 1979.