Cleve Abbott was a pioneer of track & field and of collegiate sport in general in the first half of the 20th century. Not only was Abbott a successful track & field coach, leading Tuskegee Institute’s women’s squad to 14 AAU national outdoor titles, but he was also the school’s Director of Physical Education and Athletics for over 30 years and, at one time, coached all of the department’s intercollegiate teams.
Abbott was hired by Tuskegee’s Booker T. Washington shortly after graduating from then-South Dakota State College in 1915 to teach agricultural history. Suddenly, in 1917, Abbott voluntarily left the school to join the U.S. Army where he later served with the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I. In 1923, Abbott rejoined Tuskegee, where he was hired to lead the athletics program.
In terms of track & field, Abbott’s contributions to the sport were vast. In 1927, Abbott founded the Tuskegee Relays, and, two years later, Abbott initiated the Women’s Sports Carnival. Abbott’s Tigerettes won 14 AAU National team titles, including eight in a row, and added 65 individual-event indoor and outdoor national crowns from 1937 to 1950.
Coachman, a 25-time national champion, famously became the first African-American woman to win Olympic gold, doing so with an Olympic- and American-record high jump clearance of 5 feet, 6 1/8 inches at the 1948 London Games. Jackson, also a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1948, would set the American record of 24.2 in the 200 meters in 1949 and, with appointments in 1956 and 1972, was the first African-American female to coach an Olympic Team. Jackson is also a member of the USTFCCCA Hall of Fame. Jacket, a 2001 inductee into the USTFCCCA Hall of Fame, led Prairie View A&M to 10 NAIA national team titles and 22 SWAC league championships and was also the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team Coach. Lawler, the mother of Carl and Carol Lewis, was an established hurdler, having tied the American 80-meter hurdle mark in 1950 and then setting the Western-hemisphere mark of 11.3 seconds in 1951. McDaniel, a five-time national high jump champion, set the world record in the high jump at 5-9¼ in capturing Olympic gold at the 1956 Melbourne Games. All told, a total of six of Abbott’s athletes were members of U.S. Olympic Teams.
In addition to his coaching duties, Abbott served on the women’s committee of the National AAU and twice served on the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Committee.
Until his death in 1955, Abbott was a trailblazer in many areas of sport. In 32 years as Tuskegee’s football coach, Abbott tallied a 202-97-27 (.661) coaching record, which included six undefeated seasons and six black college football national championships as named by the Pittsburgh Courier. Abbott was also a founding member of the National Intramural and Recreation Sports Association (NIRSA), and is a member of five halls of fame.