UTEP's near perfect score - NCAA XC - trackboundUSA

Breaking the UTEP perfect score

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Picture the scene. It’s November 1981, Wichita, Kansas, and you’re on the start line of the NCAA DI Cross Country Championships. You are your school’s sole representative. To your right stand the most formidable ensemble in NCAA distance running history and winners of the previous three editions of the race. They stand tall in the colours of University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). A sense of foreboding is only natural. After all, you are a 21/22 year old British kid, and this dream team has an average age of 25. And Suleiman Nyambui, defending champion from 1980, had won the silver medal in the 5000m at the previous year’s Moscow Olympics. This was many years before the NCAA turned into an officious behemoth, or perhaps because of. Now, NCAA regulations limit eligibility, with very few exemptions for athletes over 25 in place.

With the scene set, the all-conquering UTEP team entered nationals as the biggest favourites in championship history. There had been mooted talk from external sources that Ted Banks’ team could do the unthinkable and notch up the perfect score. That is, have athletes in all scoring positions 1-5, and total 15. Banks, however, was quick to quell such talk like any good Sky Sports managerial interview.

Such an achievement at UTEP however would still arguably rank as the school’s second best athletic achievement. 15 years previously, then known as Texas Western College, Don Haskins famously lead the mens’ basketball team to the national title upsetting Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky in the final. So? Well, in a socially divided 1960s America, Haskins was the first NCAA coach to fill all five slots with African-American players, much to outrage across the country’s middle class suburbia. This achievement was immortalised in the 2006 film ‘Glory Road’. This was a school accustomed to breaking convention.

You could say that Tonbridge’s Mark Scrutton, aged 21, and Londoner, Graeme Fell, aged 22, had their work cut out. Scrutton had the credentials from a 6th place finish in 1980 with his Colorado Buffaloes team. However, in 1981, Scrutton’s team failed to make the big dance so he would be alone and isolated, like Fell running for San Diego State, both up against UTEP’s domineering all-African roster.

That didn’t seem to matter. In arguably the best achievement by UK or Irish NCAA athletes outside of winning titles, Scrutton and Fell split UTEP in two. Top results from the day below.

Athlete School Nationality Time Credentials
1(1) Matthews Motshwarateu UTEP RSA 28:45 10K Road WR 1980 – 27:59
2(2) Michael Musyoki UTEP Kenya 28:46 1984 Olympics 10,000 Bronze, 1982 Half Marathon WR
3(3) Gabriel Kamau UTEP Kenya 29:19 10,000m 27:36, 2:10 Marathon
4 Mark Scrutton Colorado GBR 29:22 1982 NCAA XC Champ, 1983 NCAA Indoor 2 mile Champ
5 Graeme Fell San Diego State GBR 29:30 1986 Commonwealth Steeple Gold (for Canada)
6(4) Alan Scharsu Penn State USA 29:30 5000m 13:36
7(5) Suleiman Nyambui UTEP Tanzania 29:32 1980 Olympics 5,000 Silver, 3:35 1500M, 13:12 5000m
8(6) Gidarmis Shahanga UTEP Tanzania 29:33 10,000m 27:38
9(7) David Taylor Arkansas Ireland 29:35 3.54 mile, 3 time XC All-American

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There was no need for a calculator on the day to determine the team score. Primary school arithmetic produced 17. Previously thought of as an impossible feat, only Alan Scharsu from Penn State prevented the sweep. With Sam Ngatia (19th) Tom Mawan (20th) both finishing in the top 20, UTEP also became the only team to ever have all seven runners finish in the All-American positions. If we look at the credentials of the UTEP scorers, it becomes clear just how good the performances of Scrutton and Fell were to break this team up. Also worth noting was that Irish miler David Taylor of Arkansas finished inside the top 10.  The closest any team has come to this sum of 17, is Arkansas in 1993, scoring 31 where featured athlete Niall Bruton finished 3rd.

Of the all-conquering UTEP team, Nyambui went on to become the most successful collegiate athlete in history at any sport. The Tanzanian native won an incredible 15 NCAA individual titles, as well as an Olympic silver medal in Moscow over 5000m. Tragically, the champion from that day Matthews Motshwarateu was killed in 2001 in a shooting outside his home in South Africa.

The following year, Scrutton went on to take the title, and in doing so became only the second British athlete to win the event, after Nick Rose in 1974. John Nuttall became the third, seven years later, in 1989. Twenty-three years on, we are still waiting for our fourth British winner.

Below: The plaque in the UTEP Hall of Fame on our last visit

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