Drachman Stadium has changed so little since it was the site of the 1985 Pac-10 Track and Field Championships that you could put Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” on the loudspeaker and go “Back to the Future,” which was that year’s hit movie.
The weather-beaten bleachers and old homes near 501 S. Plumer Ave. have seen better days, but in May 1985 they were part of a scene never repeated in Pac-10 history — Washington State winning a league championship for a third straight year.
Coach John Chaplin’s Cougars had All-America distance runners in such supply that they, not the Oregon Ducks and their mystical Hayward Field connection, were considered the “it” school for any race that required more than 400 meters.
It was about that time that James Li, a Chinese college distance running champion from the Beijing Institute of Physical Education, began the process of moving to Washington State, working on a master’s degree in biomechanics and involving himself at the highest levels of American distance running.
How did it turn out?
After 13 years at WSU and 17 at Arizona, Li’s runners have won 31 Pac-12 championships, by far the leading number of those coaches — even those at national powers Oregon, UCLA and USC — who will be at Drachman Stadium this weekend.
The names of Li’s champions — Lagat, Lalang, Kapkory, Cheseret and more — are as historic to Pac-12 track and field as the names Elliott, Kerr and Bibby are to Pac-12 basketball.
On Wednesday morning, the ever-fit Li jogged to Drachman Stadium on a 6-minute-mile pace to began final preparations for the 2019 Pac-12 Track and Field Championships. Someone asked him about the chances of Arizona junior Carlos Villarreal sweeping the 800 and 1,500 meter races on Sunday.
“Carlos is amazing,” said Li. “I’m fortunate to be able to coach him.”
That’s not coachspeak. When Li says a distance runner is “amazing,” you punch up the Track and Field News website and see where Villarreal fits in American distance running history.
It is amazing.
Villarreal has broken the 4-minute mile three times, one of 11 Wildcat runners since 1972 to do so. Breaking 4 minutes is not like it was 65 years ago, when Roger Bannister became the first to do so, but it is still treated as a sacred part of distance running history.
If all goes well in Saturday’s qualifying rounds, Villarreal will attempt to become the first runner in modern Pac-12 history to sweep the 800 and 1,500 championships in a compelling Sunday night special: finals of the 1,500 are scheduled for 6:20 p.m., with the 800 finals squeezed in at 7:40.
“The reason I’m doing the double is to attempt to maximize the points for our team,” says Villarreal. “If I can pull it off it – if I can get 20 points — will be unheard of. If I fall short, I’ve just to got to get as many points as possible.”
UA head coach Fred Harvey has spent some of the week handicapping the men’s championship, event by event, point by point. If all goes according to form — which it almost never does — Oregon, USC and Arizona will be in a three-team crunch, all of them scoring close to 125 points.
Arizona hasn’t won a Pac-12 track and field championship, men’s or women’s, since the league began in 1978. So Villarreal’s attempt to get 20 points carries significant weight.
“Carlos is a premier runner, with experience against the nation’s best over and over again,” says Harvey. “He’s not going to back down from the challenge.”
There are too many moving parts to say that as Villarreal goes, so go the Wildcats, but he’ll get as much attention as super shot-putter Jordan Geist and No. 1 steeplechase entry Bailey Roth.
Few have a more compelling backstory.
When Carlos was growing up in Rio Rico as a basketball player, his father, Jaime, was part of the coaching staff of Sahuarita High School’s 2004 state championship basketball team.
“My dad played football, basketball and baseball at Sahuarita, so I tried every sport, too,” he says. “I asked him what he thought if I went out for track if just to stay in shape for summer basketball, and he said it would be a good idea.”
Two years later Villarreal was Arizona’s boys Gatorade Cross Country as well as Track and Field athlete of the year. Villarreal won so many events it’s hard to keep accurate count.
Sunday’s 800-1,500 double won’t be anything new; his workload at Rio Rico was even more challenging.
“I’d run four events in high school, sometimes four in the same day,” he says. “You specialize more in college, but for the Pac-12s, we’ve prepared for the double. We’ve done workouts to simulate what I’ll encounter Sunday.”
Distance running in the Pac-12 isn’t for wimps. The fields are stacked; runners from Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford and Colorado are all potential 800 meters champions. It’s the same at 1,500 meters, but add those from USC and UCLA.
Villarreal’s strength is his kick. He has the league’s top time at 1,500 meters and is No. 2 at 800 meters.
“If he can hang close to the final 200 yards, I like his chances,” says Harvey.
A year from now, Villarreal will have ambitions beyond college track. Because he was born in Puerto Penasco, Sonora, and is a Mexican citizen, he plans to compete for Mexico’s 2020 Olympic team. But that’s a story for another day.
“Breaking the 4-minute mile has opened a lot of doors for me,” he says. “I feel honored and humbled to be part of those from Southern Arizona to do so. But I want to go faster and faster.”
Especially Sunday night.