A Great NCAA For The Houston Men

Houston’s recordsetting 4×1 members accounted for most of the Cougar points. (BILL LEUNG)

Given Houston’s proud sprint tradition from a generation ago, the one found now on their coaching staff (head coach Leroy Burrell, assistant Carl Lewis) and in a last name on the current roster (Cameron Burrell), there was a surprising amount of history right at their fingertips when the current crew showed up at Hayward Field charted to take 2nd in the team battle.

However much was right in front of them, the Cougars dug deeper and found more with a 38.17 in the 4×1 that broke TCU’s venerable CR. In the process, John Lewis, Elijah Hall, Mario Burke and Burrell defended Houston’s sprint relay title from a year ago, and shortly after that Burrell, Hall and Burke went 1-2-8 in the 100.

“It’s an honor, following in the footsteps of good old mom and dad,” said the younger Burrell, who buried a history of four NCAA individual silver medals by also winning the 100 (10.17), a lean ahead of Hall (10.20). “This has been on my mind since I was a child, I wanted to come in and be champions like them [mother Michelle Finn-Burrell was an Olympic 4×1 gold medalist in ’92]. I’m ecstatic about it; it hasn’t quite hit me yet. When it settles in, this is something I’ll die happy about. I know I made my family proud.”

For all of Houston’s great history, their only other 4×1 title before last year came in ’82, and when Burrell ended his string of individual silvers in the 100, it marked Houston’s first outdoor individual gold since ’94. The eventual 3rd-place finish in the team standings matched the school’s best ever—the previous such placing was a distance-driven one in ’59—and 35 points was the most since ’84.

This generation of Cougars left their own mark, and not in the easiest of conditions as Friday’s men’s finals featured steady rain. While Burrell, Hall and crew embrace Houston’s history and run toward it rather than away, they took a different tack on the weather. They ignored it.

“Honestly it was all about precision,” Hall says. “Getting the stick around, that’s one thing we practice on, we focus on. We weren’t focused on anyone else, just getting the stick around. We’ve been precise all season long. Even when we had different people on the relay, we’ve still been precise. The weather didn’t affect us: just get the stick around and run our best at the right moment, and that’s what we did.”

Says out-of-the-blocks man Lewis: “It wasn’t a tough challenge, it was staying focused. As you can see, we had anything and everything for an excuse today. It was taking no excuses and doing what we came here to do, regardless of what was going on around us. The lead leg, I start the momentum, I start the pace—what everybody else is going to do. I came out hard, I was feeling good, I had my mind clear, and I was like, ‘As long as I get it to my second leg, I wasn’t really worried about everybody else.’ Get it to the second leg, he’ll do his job, third leg will do his job. It’s trusting everybody on the team. Thank God, thank God, and it wasn’t anything unexpected. We’re trained for it.”

That added up to a special day for Houston, in a way, one of its most special ever at the NCAA championships, even if the steeple brought unexpected disaster for favored Brian Barraza.

Said Burrell père, “There have been a lot of great people who came before us at the University of Houston and we wanted to honor them today.”

They did. □