Retired Coach Guided Cross Country On A Magical Run In The 1970s
by Jim Sumner, Blue Devil Weekly
DURHAM, N.C. - Cross country is a curious sport. Running long distances through wooded trails can be the most solitary of activities, but it’s also a tight-knit team sport. It’s one of the most popular participant sports at the high school level but it’s the least spectator-friendly sport imaginable. Skilled coaches plan workouts in minute detail but stand by helplessly during competitions, without the option of calling timeouts, inserting substitutes or changing strategies. Almost all of the participants gain more glory in the spring track and field season. There is no standard distance and even a familiar home course can vary dramatically with the change of seasons or the weather. Most meets are decided by adding the places of the five best runners, the winners accumulating the lowest scores. The difference between 15th and 18th is as significant as the difference between first and fourth.
How does one succeed in such a sport? According to former Duke coach Al Buehler, cross country is “the ideal sport for people who can think in action. If you need to be told what to do, it’s not going to work. Monitoring your body, monitoring the course, the conditions, the competition, isn’t easy. Your body is your instrument and you have to know your instrument. You don’t find too many dummies running cross-country.”
And one more thing: “It’s a race with yourself. How much pain are you willing to take? It is going to hurt. You have to like the idea of pushing yourself.”
Buehler should know. He came to Duke shortly after graduating from Maryland in 1952 and continues to teach in the physical education department, although he gave up his coaching responsibilities in 2000. Buehler was an excellent runner on the track and the turf and after graduation studied with the noted Hungarian coach Mihaly Igloi. What did Buehler learn from Igloi? “Tempo, rhythm, smooth and easy, know yourself. Find the right time and place to attack.”
Robbie Perkins, one of Buehler’s standouts, says, “Coach Buehler kept to the basics. There are no short cuts. Work hard, do it consistently, and good things will come to you.”
Good things came to Duke cross country in the early to middle 1970s. Duke runners captured six consecutive individual titles in the ACC men’s cross country championships from 1970 through 1975 and won three team titles. Certainly preparation was a key component. “We tried to break down a race into sections,” Buehler explains. “Start, middle, finish, uphill, downhill — and do specific drills for different parts of the race. And then put it all together on race day.”
“Buehler was a master at planning,” adds Perkins. “We scouted the course, the opposition, the weather. We had a plan but Coach Buehler knew where to be during the race if we needed to adjust. He had the amazing ability to say something useful as you were running by. Sometimes it was just ‘Perkins, get up on that guy’s shoulder,’ but he could recognize if your stride was off, if your form was off and give you the feedback you needed.”
Much of the preparation was mental. “The key was to prepare yourself to be able to concentrate for the entire race,” Perkins says. “It sounds simple but it’s not. You were going to be in pain a long time and one lapse in concentration could really hurt.”
Of course, you had to have some talent. Like Bob Wheeler, the nation’s top high school miler while in Maryland. Wheeler, who now lives in La Jolla, Calif., recalls, “I could have gone to Villanova or Oregon. But Duke’s academics appealed to me, I wanted to help build something, and I was just blown away on my official visit. Coach Buehler let the team and the school recruit me. By the time I finished my visit, my mind was made up.”
Wheeler had tremendous success on the track, breaking the four-minute mile while at Duke and making the 1972 United States Olympic team at 1,500 meters. But he “wouldn’t trade my cross country experiences for anything. It’s the most unique sport, the most unique blend of individual and team. Every race is different, every course is different.”
The 1970 ACC championship was held at North Carolina’s Finley Golf Course. Wheeler jogged the course the night before, placing two branches in an X at the base of the last hill, where he planned to make his final attack. It worked, just barely. Wheeler opened up a 50-yard lead and held off a late surge by North Carolina State’s Gareth Hayes to win by less than a second.
“I was totally spent by the end of the race. Just exhausted,” he remembers.
Wheeler’s 24:48.3 time keyed Duke to the team title, ending a six-year run by the Maryland Terrapins. Duke’s Mike Graves finished sixth and Roger Beardmore seventh, as Duke defeated UNC 42-66.
Wheeler defended his ACC title the following year at North Carolina State, setting a course record of 24:16 over five miles. Duke placed four additional runners in the top 12, including Beardmore at No. 5 and Scott Eden at No. 7, but was still edged by North Carolina 34-36. Duke had defeated UNC in the regular season and would finish ahead of them in the postseason but, according to Buehler, “they were a little bit better than we were that day. No excuses. Give them credit.”
About that postseason. Duke had finished 17th in the NCAAs in 1970 and was primed to do better, maybe much better in 1971, especially after a third-place finish in the prestigious IC4A meet, held in New York City. But Wheeler stepped in a hole jogging the University of Tennessee course the night before the NCAA championship race. He tried to go the next day but was forced to drop out midway through the race. Duke still finished 12th, with Beardmore finishing 45th overall and Eden 64th.
Maryland regained the league title in 1972, defeating Duke 36-57. Beardmore, a 3,000-meter steeplechase specialist in the spring, captured the individual title, with Eden and Steve Wheeler (no relation to Bob) placing seventh and ninth respectively.
Duke regained the team title in 1973, edging Maryland 38-47, even though Bob Wheeler was forced to drop out because of illness. Eden, a 5-foot-7, 120 pound Virginian, set a course record on the five-mile Wake Forest University course in 24:04, defeating North Carolina’s Tony Waldrop by 10 seconds. Duke placed five runners in the top 13, with Reed Mayer coming in fourth. Eden would go on to finish 17th in the NCAAs, five spots ahead of teammate Steve Wheeler.
Maryland was back on top in 1974, solidly defeating Duke 29 to 56. Eden defended his title by a comfortable 23 seconds over North Carolina’s Ralph King, while Perkins finished fourth. Duke finished 11th in the NCAAs — its best team placing ever — led by Eden at No. 16 individually.
Duke dominated the 1975 ACC championship in College Park, defeating Maryland 23-38. Perkins says this was no surprise. “We were loaded for bear that day. We knew we were good and wanted to show it. It was a cold, rainy, miserable day but once the race starts, you forget all about that.”
Perkins won the individual title, with Duke’s Bynum Merritt (2), Peter Quance (3), Richard Schwartz (7), and Jim Clayton (10) giving Duke half of the top 10. Duke then finished a disappointing eighth in the NCAA District III championships.
Duke’s string ended in 1976. The Devils finished third behind Maryland and UNC, with Perkins as Duke’s top individual at 11th.
Duke has had its moments in men’s cross-country since then (such as the 2000 team and individual ACC titles) but has never duplicated that magical six-year run. Wheeler, Beardmore, Eden and Perkins were all named to the ACC’s 50th anniversary men’s cross country team.
Perkins, who went on to become one of the United States’ top distance runners, now lives in Greensboro. He has fond memories of his cross country career. “Cross-country was a sport all to itself. We knew we couldn’t compete in the spring with track powers that had depth in the sprints and the field events. Our one chance to win a team title was in cross country and we knew we could compete in that. We had a chance to win championships and that knowledge helped us focus all summer, running miles in the heat. Our summer vacations were spent running every day.
“We were a tight-knit group. Traveling 14 to a van can build some teamwork. You didn’t want to let the team down.”
Perkins emphasizes his respect for Buehler. “He’s a special man. He looks at the total life, not just athletics. He knew that life goes on after sports, he wanted to prepare you for life.”
Wheeler agrees. “It was a great time in my life. It was like baking a cake, putting all the ingredients together. The discipline, the time management, the self-motivation necessary to succeed in cross country, carries over to academics and the world after school. Our run shows what can be done with a limited amount of scholarships if you do it right. There’s no reason why Duke can’t do it again.”