Carl Lewis Hopes to Lead ‘Speed City’ to a National Title

Carl Lewis Hopes to Lead ‘Speed City’ to a National Title

When Carl Lewis left the University of Houston over 40 years ago, he was a 19-year-old world-record-holding long jumper and one of the best sprinters on earth.

Lewis would go on to become a colossal sports figure, his famous face gracing the top of the Olympic medal stand nine times, and appearing on the cover of Gentleman’s Quarterly Magazine plus a few Hollywood movies and television shows.

Lewis, now 61 with prickly grays on his balding head, is back at the school he left four decades ago, coaching on a track at a complex bearing his name.

He hopes to fill what is seemingly the only void in his storied track career: a collegiate team national title.

“I’ve always just felt like if I just stayed one more year, then it could have changed the whole trajectory of the program,” Lewis, who was named head coach in July after spending several years an assistant, said in a recent interview.

The N.C.A.A. Division I outdoor track and field championships are set to begin in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday.

Houston’s best chance at winning a title appears to be with its men, with junior Shaun Maswanganyi leading the group as one of the top sprinters in the country. The women’s team is a “few years away” from having a shot at the title, Lewis said. Sydni Townsend, a 400-meter hurdler, is the lone woman for Houston on the start list for the meet. She has the fifth-fastest time in Division I.

“I still think we have a shot,” Lewis said, acknowledging that his team was far from favored, “but the guys have to come through.”

In 2013, Lewis returned to Houston as a volunteer coach, largely to help his former teammate and then-Houston head coach, Leroy Burrell, with his son Cameron, who was a first-year sprinter on the team. Lewis joined the full-time staff a season later to work with sprinters and jumpers.

As an assistant, Lewis helped develop Houston into one of college’s premier sprint groups. Cameron Burrell became one of the nation’s best 100-meter runners, winning an individual title in 2018. The sprint group earned the moniker “Speed City,” which is written on the outdoor track’s fences and team apparel.

But a team title has evaded Houston. The Cougars appeared to have their best chance four years ago, when the men finished second at the indoor championships, behind Florida. Milesplit, the track and field website, created a weekly video series that followed the team throughout the 2019 outdoor season. But the men finished third, after first-place Texas Tech, and Florida.

“They should have won it,” Lewis said. “They just choked. I mean, they choked straight up. And, you know, we were frustrated because we had the TV show and everything going on.”

The following year, the N.C.A.A. canceled the national indoor championships and subsequent outdoor season because of the coronavirus pandemic, and in 2021, the men finished tied for 18th at the outdoor meet. Two months after that championship, the team was mourning the loss of Cameron Burrell. The 26-year-old died by suicide.

It was a painful time for the team, Maswanganyi said. Burrell was a role model for him, he said, and coming to practice wasn’t the same.

In 2022, Leroy Burrell left Houston for the head coach position at Auburn University. Lewis became head coach in July.

In August, he made his expectations for the Cougars clear. They were going for a national championship or they should “find something else to do.” A sense of urgency was instilled in the team.

When the teams walked into their locker rooms after their first indoor meet, national rankings for all events were posted on one wall to greet them. Lewis printed the sheets for the top 16 athletes in each event group because that marks who is likely to qualify for nationals. He updated the wall after each meet throughout the season.

“Every day in training, I’m thinking about how I’m behind whichever girl on the list and how I need to work on improving my time,” said Kelly-Ann Beckford, who finished the indoor season with the 10th-fastest 800 time in Division I.

Houston has historically dominated the American Athletic Conference. The program has run out of space to hang its conference championship banners from the ceiling of the indoor track facility. But in its final indoor meet in the conference, in February, the men lost to Cincinnati, which won its first men’s title, indoor or outdoor, since 2004. Both schools are headed to the Big 12 Conference next month.

The win was a disappointing beginning to Lewis’s tenure. After that meet, Lewis posted pictures of Cincinnati’s celebrations and a social media post from a trainer who said that “they would do it again outdoors” in the bathroom stalls, the refrigerator, the front doors, and just about every other place in the team’s locker room.

“It got me fired up,” Maswanganyi said. “That’s someone disrespecting you at something we’ve been winning for years.”

At the outdoor conference meet, the men were runner-up again, while the women improved from their third-place indoor showing to finish second. Wichita State’s men outscored Houston by just 2 points.

Still, Lewis seems undeterred. The team has some of the best athletes in Division I in multiple event groups, so wining a national championship is still attainable. Lewis made that evident on a scorching Monday practice earlier this year.

He yelled at the freshman long jumper Aaron Davis II about his form. He shouted directives at Davis and tried to demonstrate movements with his body and hands.

Davis wasn’t adjusting the way Lewis wanted, so Lewis walked over, ran down the long jump runway, and did the jump himself as sand bounced into his pant leg.

“It took me a while to realize,” Lewis said, pausing briefly to collect his thoughts. “Look, I never came out here saying they could do what I do because — come on — that’s never going to happen again.”

He added: “But look, I lose money every day I come out here. I mean, I’m giving up my, you know, vacation time, so I’m serious about it. So I’m happy to do it if you’re serious. But if you’re not serious, you’re wasting my time. So this is the year to get everything back on track.”

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