Men's Track and Field...The Early Days
By Jim Joanos
Florida State's Men's Track and Field team has had an excellent year. The team won both the Atlantic Coast Conference indoor and outdoor championships. In addition, several of the team members have done very well in NCAA competition. Bob Braman who has already proved himself as very competent in recruiting and coaching distance runners is the new head coach. The future looks very bright for the program.
At Florida State, track and field has had a very interesting history and early on involved some very outstanding athletes. When Florida State College for Women became coeducational and renamed The Florida State University in 1947, a men's athletic program was immediately begun. In the first school year, 1947-48, FSU men competed in seven intercollegiate sports: football, basketball, volleyball, baseball, swimming, tennis and golf. However, there was no track and field team as there were no track facilities. According to a doctoral dissertation written by Curtiss M. Long in 1976, the original plan had been to wait a few years before installing track and field as a men's sport at FSU. That plan changed in the summer of 1948.
In 1947 Kenneth Miller was the head track coach and an assistant football coach at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania. He was also working on his doctorate at the University of Michigan. Miller had played college basketball and run track as a student at the University of Oregon before World War II. During the war, he had joined the Navy as an officer and became a Navy pilot and instructor. Following the war he had gone back to his chosen profession of physical education and athletics. At some point in 1947, he learned that FSU was looking for a physical education teacher who would also coach the basketball team. Miller applied for the job although it paid less and had fewer other benefits than Lock Haven provided because basketball was his favorite sport and he desired to become a head basketball coach. He made a written application and soon he was offered the job and accepted without even a visit to Tallahassee. Mrs. Miller says that his decision to take the job without even a face to face meeting with anyone and without ever having seen FSU was quite unusual for a man who normally was very thorough and careful in making decisions. Apparently, he wanted to coach basketball very badly. Foregoing the five thousand dollars that they had put down on a house in Lock Haven, the Millers made plans to show up at FSU in the fall of 1948 for him to become the basketball coach. He spent the rest of the school year finishing up his dissertation at the University of Michigan.
However, unknown to Miller, during the summer of 1948, J.K. "Bud" Kennedy, who had been the FSU athletic business manager and assistant basketball coach during the 1947-48 season, was designated to be the new head basketball coach to follow Ed Williamson who coached that sport the first year. Also, unknown to Miller, the FSU athletic director, Howard Danford, had decided that since Miller had experience at coaching track, that FSU would begin a men's track team with Miller as its head coach.
It was not until Miller arrived in Tallahassee with his family ready to take over the basketball team and having given up so much in Lock Haven that he was told of the change in plans. Although he must have been quite disappointed to have given up a good job to fulfill a dream of being head coach of a college basketball team and then to have that dream unfulfilled, Coach Miller started the new program. Mrs. Miller says that in short order he was dedicated to the task and "put everything that he had into that track program". Miller who died in 1999, coached the first five FSU men's track and field teams. He began from ground zero as there was absolutely nothing in place...no track, no officials, no schedule, no track team, and very little money. Coach Miller set about to get the job done.
Building a track
There was one thing available, land. Dale Mabry Army Air Base had recently been abandoned following the conclusion of World War II and some of the space it occupied on the western side of Tallahassee was made available for the expansion of Florida State from the woman's college that it had been into the large coeducational university that it would become. Most men students were already being housed in the former barracks of the air base. The left-over gymnasium was being used by FSU's basketball and volleyball teams and the soon to be created FSU circus. The football team held its practices on the former drill field and what had been a base theatre and band shell had been converted into dressing facilities for male athletes. Consequently, an area near the dressing facilities, about a quarter mile away was designated for the new track. There was no money to hire professionals to build it so the university maintenance staff was given the assignment. Dr. Miller (he had obtained his PhD from Michigan about this time) had quite a challenge in supervising the construction. Soon an eight lane track emerged with wooden curbs. The surface was clay. Sometimes it was a pretty fast surface. Rain created havoc. A little rain made it slippery to run on. A lot of rain made it mushy or even totally unusable. In addition, long periods of time without rain and with lots of sun converted it into a brick hard surface. The same track was in use when I got to FSU in 1952 so I had the good fortune to run some on the same track as the beginning team did. I remember it well. Some days you could run on it barefoot, maybe that was even the preferred way to do so. Other days it was so hard that it was difficult to penetrate the surface with the inch long spikes primarily used then.
In any event, Coach Miller supervised the building of the track and the jump pits and made arrangements for everything else. He recruited a team from the student body as FSU did not give athletic scholarships in any sports at that time. He also obtained volunteers from the faculty and administration as well as some townspeople to serve as meet officials. He assembled some other people to move hurdles and do the other chores necessary. He scheduled some meets. He did it all. Soon, almost miraculously, there was a men's track and field program. Thus, FSU competed in track and field in the second school year following its conversion into a coeducational institution. The first year's schedule was a rather modest one including three dual meets. The Seminoles lost all three to Mercer, to the University of Miami, and to Mississippi College.
Florida State's second men's track and field team set the pace for what has become an excellent program. Despite its newness, the team won five of the six dual meets in 1950. They lost the season opener in Coral Gables to Miami but then had victories over Mercer, Emory, Florida Southern, Mississippi College, and Howard. In two years the team had become a powerhouse among the small colleges of the south against whom they competed. As the school grew through the years, the team advanced also and became and continues to be a very competitive program around the nation.
Throughout its history the FSU men's track and field teams have won lots of championships and individuals have brought much honor to themselves as well as to Florida State. There have been lots of outstanding male track athletes at FSU including national champions Philip Riley, Danny Smith, Bradley Cooper, and Mike Roberson, Olympians Walter McCoy and Arthur Blake, and lots of conference championships. There are many others about whom interesting stories could be written. However, with the space that is left, I would like to tell you about two of my favorites that competed in the first several years of the program.
On a couple of occasions, I have heard FSU football coach, Bobby Bowden, tell of his trip to Tallahassee in May of 1950, the second season of FSU's men's track program. Bowden was a sprinter on the Howard College team and came to compete in a dual track meet between Howard and FSU, two small college programs. According to Coach Bowden, on that day, at that meet, he observed one of the finest athletic performances that he has ever witnessed. Others agree, what happened that day was one of the most outstanding athletic performances in FSU history.
The star that day was Tom Bowman. Bowman scored 28 points as FSU beat Howard 109 to 17. Bowman won the 100 yard dash, the 220, the 220 low hurdles, the high jump, the broad jump and placed second in the shot put. Bowman scored more points himself than did the entire Howard team. While statistics are hard to find, twenty-eight points in one track meet is still believed to be the record at FSU, fifty-three years later. Bowman probably also holds the school season record for points scored in a season at 142 ½, although the track program in 1950 only afforded six dual meets and the Dixie Conference meet in which points could be scored. Incidentally, Bobby Bowden placed third that day in May, 1950, in the 100 yard dash.
Wilmer Thomas Bowman was one of those athletes that was attracted to Coach Miller's new track program. Curtiss Long in that 1976 dissertation describes Bowman as "truly the first great athlete to perform in track and field at Florida State University". Bowman was born in Ozark, Alabama, in 1924, and later grew up in Marianna. At Marianna High School, he played football and basketball and was on the swim team. Shortly following his high school graduation in 1942, he entered the United States Navy as it was wartime, and served for three years. The war ended and he entered the University of Florida in Gainesville. During his time at Florida, he played football but his main interest turned to track and field where he became a star mostly in the sprints and hurdles. By his junior year he was elected captain of the University of Florida track team. He also got married that year. For his senior year, he decided to give up football and move to Tallahassee and enter Florida State. At Florida State, he would spread his track and field interests to additional events and prepare himself as a decathlete. If he had remained at Florida, he would have been limited in the events in which he would have competed. He, therefore, came to FSU as a senior for the 1949-50 school year. He would only compete at FSU for one year and then graduate. But during that year, compete he did!
At FSU during that year, he set FSU records in the high hurdles, the broad jump, the 100 yard dash and tied the record in the 220 yard low hurdles, as well as the single meet and season point record. He also competed in the javelin throw and the high jump. In all, he competed in ten different events during the year. In the seven meets, he had 19 first place, 9 second place, 2 third place finishes in events.
Following the 1950 track season at FSU, Bowman became the first FSU athlete to compete in the AAU National Decathlon Championships and the first to qualify to compete in the U.S. Olympic Decathlon Trials. In Santa Barbara, he finished seventh among eighteen finishers, in the national championships. The winner was Bob Mathias who went on to Olympic fame. Bowman tried it again in 1951 and placed 8th among 18 finishers at the national meet.
Bowman had graduated from FSU with a degree in Education in 1950. He became a teacher and coach in the Polk County school system. He had tremendous success in coaching at Auburndale High School. His track and cross country teams won state championships in 1956, 1964, 1965, and 1967. In 1967 he was honored as the "Track Coach of the Year" for Class A high schools in Florida. In addition to coaching, he himself competed for most of his life in masters track and field events throughout the country and even internationally. He set several masters national and world records in the 1970's and early 80's in a variety of events. He also competed and was awarded numerous body building and fitness titles from 1957 into the late sixties. Later in life, he became a real estate broker and developer, operated a cattle ranch, and even entered politics, first as a city commissioner from 1974-75 and then, as mayor of Auburndale from 1975 to 1977. In 1980, he got a master's in Education from Rollins College. He died in 1987.
Florida State and Coach Miller must have been blessed because no sooner had Tom Bowman departed the campus in 1950 but the immediately following year, another great athlete, John H. Poston, joined the FSU track team. Like Bowman, Poston was a military veteran. But unlike Bowman, Poston had not been an outstanding athlete in high school. In fact, Poston had not participated in any varsity sport while in high school in Jacksonville. He became a track athlete as a result of his military experiences.
When Poston graduated from high school he joined the Army and became a paratrooper. Paratrooper training required rigorous physical training and a lot of running. Consequently, Poston got into pretty good shape and stayed that way during his military duty. During the last six months of his duty while serving with the 11th Airborne Division which along with other military units was occupying Japan, Poston's attention was drawn to a notice on his unit's bulletin board. The notice stated that each regiment of the division would organize a track and field team and compete with each other. Poston got some encouragement and signed up for his regiment's team. Consequently, at the age of 20, Poston ran in his first track meet in Japan. He was quite successful. In the season ending, all division meet held in Sapporo, Japan, he won both the 100 and 220 yard dashes.
Two months later, Poston completed his military tour and went home to Jacksonville where he enrolled in Jacksonville Junior College. In the spring of 1949, a professor at the junior college organized a track team that would hold informal dual meets with local high schools usually on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. The high school teams used the meetings as practice time trials in preparation for their weekend meets with other schools.
Poston graduated from JCC in 1950 and enrolled at FSU. In the spring of 1951, he tried out for the track team. Dr. Kenneth Miller became his first true coach and guided Poston in training and conditioning. With Miller's guidance, Poston rapidly improved as a sprint and quarter miler. During that season, Poston set FSU school records in the 100 yard dash, the 220 yard dash, and was a member of the record setting mile relay team. In 1951, the team again won five of its six dual meets and won the Dixie Conference championship. Poston led the team in scoring for the year.
In 1952, Poston's last season at FSU, he was fantastic. The season began with the Southern Conference Indoor Games. The Southern Conference would become the Atlantic Coast Conference the following year. This was the first indoor track meet ever for FSU. None of the FSU team members had any experience running on an indoor track as most had never even seen one. Despite that, FSU with Poston running a leg, took second place behind Alabama in the mile relay with a time of 3:29.9 to set FSU's first school indoor mile relay track record. During the remainder of the year, Poston set new records in the 100 and 220 and was a member again of a new record setting mile relay team. His 9.6 seconds in the 100 and his 20.8 in the 220 would remain the records at FSU for 13 years and 8 years respectively. In addition, his 100 time was the second fastest recorded in the U.S. that year and his 220 time was the third fastest. Poston again led the team in scoring over the year. The 1952 team won all but one of its dual and triangular meets, and registered the first ever FSU victories over NCAA Division I schools by beating Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Miami. It was fantastic, for a program in only its fourth year of competition. FSU's classification at the time was as an NAIA school.
Poston last represented FSU at the National Intercollegiate Championships in Abilene, Texas, in 1952, where he finished third in the 100 and fourth in the 220. He was invited to other national meets but there was no money, either in the FSU athletic budget or his own pocket to enable him to participate. It is a shame, for there are those of us who believe that he would have added additional luster to an a very outstanding career of an FSU athlete.
Johnny Poston lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. Whenever he can, he comes back to Tallahassee and Jacksonville to visit friends and family. He continues to be a very staunch FSU track and field fan and supporter. He keeps up with the team's latest accomplishments. He, as well as the rest of us, look forward to the very promising future ahead in track and field.