The Man With the Stopwatch

by Lamar Alexander '62

"Be sure to choose teammates who can run faster than you can run."

In 1960, during my sophomore year, I was exercising on the cinder track that ran around Vanderbilt’s Dudley Field. I saw a man watching me. He wore glasses, a sport coat and tie and a brim hat. In his right hand was a large watch. He walked over, introduced himself as track coach Herc Alley and asked my name.

“Did you run track in high school,” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Maryville High didn’t have a team.”

“Why don’t you run one hundred yards for me,” he said.

I did.

He examined his stopwatch carefully and said, “10.1 seconds. Remarkable. I have three really fast boys for my 440-yard relay team. I’ve never had boys that fast before. Why don’t you be the fourth?” So I joined the Vanderbilt track team running the mile relay, the 440-yard relay and the 440-yard dash.

One of those three really fast boys was Guy Tallent, who set the school record at 9.7 seconds in the 100-yard dash. Another was Kent Russ, who later in the military ran even faster than that. Lynn Mayhan was also speedy. My job was to carry the baton from the first really fast guy to the third really fast guy.

In 1961, our team set the school record (42.7 seconds) in the 440-yard relay. One reason that record still stands is that today the race is measured in meters, not yards. Another reason is that we set the record before Vanderbilt’s undergraduate school was desegregated. The speediest college students in Nashville then were across town at Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State). A&I had the only track in town that was worse than Vanderbilt’s, so each year Coach Alley would invite Ed Temple to bring his Tigerbelles and other A&I track team members to practice with us on the Vanderbilt track.

Several of these A&I students were gold medal-winning Olympians, including Ralph Boston and “the fastest woman in the world,” Wilma Rudolph. We just sat back and watched. We were pretty proud of Vanderbilt’s Kent Russ for winning the Southeastern Conference long jump championship in 1961. But, one year earlier in the 1960 Olympics, A&I’s Ralph Boston had jumped nearly three feet further than Kent’s winning jump!

As Vanderbilt’s track coach from 1949 to 1971, Coach Alley had no scholarships to offer. His teams rode buses to meets. Our cinder track slowed us down and made it hard to establish fast times. Once when I stretched out to hand off the baton to Kent Russ, I missed and fell flat on my face. I still have cinders in my left knee. Scraping together teams of non-scholarship athletes, Herc Alley produced several SEC track champions and a 61-14 mark in dual competition from 1949-63, including a 40-11 record against SEC schools that offered track scholarships.

I’m sure Herc Alley was fudging the day he told me his stopwatch said I had run 100 yards in 10.1 seconds. But he badly needed a fourth member for his relay team. Coach Alley’s enthusiasm that day gave me an opportunity that I had never imagined having and taught me this important lesson: when joining a relay team, be sure to choose teammates who can run faster than you can run.

As told by United States Senator Lamar Alexander ’62 to Andrew Maraniss

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