GEARHART — He’s the North Coast’s own running legend.
And while Jim Grelle takes as much pleasure nowadays playing and talking about golf, he still loves reminiscing about his running days, which took him from Lincoln High School to the University of Oregon to the Olympics.
For nearly three decades, he ran with and against some of the all-time legends of track and field.
Most Oregon track afficionados know the current names by heart – Ashton Eaton, Galen Rupp, Matt Centrowitz, Andrew Wheating, etc.
And Duck fans are certainly familiar with the names of the past. But few saw them compete, and even fewer know them personally. When those legendary names are mentioned, they’re usually attached to statues, trophies, buildings or races – i.e., the Bill Bowerman Building, the Bill Dellinger Invitational, the Steve Prefontaine Classic …
Jim Grelle, you might say, is the source if you want to talk Oregon track and field history. He ran with Knight, ran with Dellinger, ran for Bowerman … and he did a whole lot more after his college days were over.
And you can still find Grelle, 76, in Gearhart. Not so much on the track – you’re more likely to run into him on the golf course.
Running, however, is still one of his favorite subjects. Get him talking, and Grelle remembers times and places of races – even strategies and specific laps of specific races that took place more than 40 years ago.
The Early Days
Before the Ducks and before he became an Olympian, Grelle was one of the state’s top high school runners as a student-athlete at Portland’s Lincoln High School.
As a junior in the spring of 1954, Grelle won the state title in the 880-yard dash.
“I was lucky to win it that year,” he said. “It was just exciting to catch this kid (Bob Drynan) from Albany. And then my senior year, I was under two minutes and nobody else in the state had ever broken two minutes for 50 years.”
Later that year, Grelle finished sixth overall in the 1954 state cross country meet, helping lead the Cardinals to an impressive team title.
Back on the track in the spring of ’55, Grelle won another state title in the 880, finishing in a state record time 1:58.0. The fourth-place finisher was a Cleveland High School senior named Phil Knight.
And it was Knight who teamed up with Grelle at the University of Oregon, as the pair lettered the same three seasons (1957, ’58, ’59) with the Ducks.
Choosing a college
“I went down to Corvallis and met the coach in 1956,” Grelle said. “He was also the A.D. (athletic director) at the time. But I was pretty sure I wanted to go to Oregon. (Bill) Bowerman didn’t recruit me, though. He didn’t believe in that.”
The Bowerman Style
Bowerman coached the Oregon track team from 1949 to 1973. In the late 1960s, “Bill Dellinger was his assistant, and Dellinger and Kenny Moore went down to Coos Bay when Steve Prefontaine was already setting national high school records,” Grelle said. “Bowerman had never talked to Pre, but he was begged by Dellinger to send him a letter, so he did.
“And it was just a polite, flowery letter. It said ‘If you decide on going to Oregon, we’re sure you will have a good career.’ It didn’t promise anything.”
When it came to running at Oregon, you went to Bowerman – Bowerman didn’t come to you.
Another favorite Grelle story involves Marty Liquori, the American middle distance runner from the 1960s and ’70s.
There were three high schoolers in the ’60s who ran 4-minute miles … “only three,” Grelle said, “and no high schooler ran a 4-minute mile for the next 37 years.
“Jim Ryun in ’64, Tim Danielson in ’66 (went to BYU and ran well, 4:01s and 4:02s) and the third one, the very next year, was Marty Liquori.”
Ryun “went under four minutes his junior year in high school and beat me in the Olympic Trials in 1964,” Grelle said.
Liquori became the third prep runner to break the 4-minute mile, and Grelle was there, too, at the 1967 AAU Championships in Bakersfield, Calif.
“So Liquori breaks four minutes. Roscoe Divine was at Oregon, and he was under four minutes; and Dave Wilborn was a junior or senior, and I had been out of school for six years. I caught Wilborn at the finish line – he set a school record of 3:56.2, and I ran a 3:56.1, and Wilborn said, ‘I thought you were an old man! How did you beat me?’”
After the race (which aired on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and in which Ryun set a world record in 3:51.1), “all three of us took Marty Liquori over to meet Bowerman, and I knew what would happen,” Grelle said.
“Bowerman is sitting in the front row, and here’s Marty Liquori, who’s just placed in the mile in 3:58.2 or something like that, and Bowerman said, ‘Where did you go to high school son?’ And Marty said, ‘Essex Catholic in New Jersey, sir.’ And Bowerman said, ‘You should go to college back there. There’s some good schools around there, like Villanova.’ And that’s where (Liquori) went.
“Bowerman didn’t want to recruit anyone to come to Oregon. He didn’t want any crybabies who would complain about the weather.”
Grelle the Olympian
After graduating from Oregon in 1959, Grelle set his sites on the 1960 Summer Olympics, in Rome.
At the Olympic Trials, held in Palo Alto, Calif., Grelle finished second (3:47.4) to Oregon teammate Dyrol Burleson (3:46.9) in the 1,500-meter final, qualifying him for the USA Olympic team.
Once in Rome, Grelle finished second in Heat 2 of the preliminaries, running a 3:43.65, to qualify for one of the nine spots in the finals.
Herb Elliott of Australia won the gold in a world record time 3:35.6, Burleson placed sixth in 3:40.9, and Grelle finished eighth in 3:45.0.
“I would have rather gone to the Olympics in 1964 than ’60,” Grelle said. “Burleson and I went in 1960, and we hadn’t been beaten by anyone else the two years prior to that. So it was kind of a foregone conclusion that we’d make it.
“There were three or four guys who were close for third, but they weren’t close to us. I’m not bragging – it was just that we were that far ahead. When we got to Rome, I was lucky to make the finals.
“There was a nine-man final, and there were maybe 15 guys who had faster times than I did. So I felt lucky to make the finals.”
In 1964, “I was running a lot faster, and Ryun hadn’t beaten me all year,” recalled Grelle. At the time, Ryun was a 17-year-old junior at Wichita (Kan.) East High School.
At the Olympic Trials in Los Angeles, “I kind of forgot about (Ryun), and I tried to ‘win’ the race, because we were all real close.
“Archie San Romani (another Oregon grad) took the lead with a quarter-mile to go. Most of our races that year were real slow, with a real fast finish. So you don’t necessarily get the best miler – you get the best sprinter. But it’s awfully hard to lead the whole thing.”
The result – in an amazingly close finish, Burleson again won the trials in 3:41.2, and he was followed by Tom O’Hara (3:41.5), Ryun (3:41.9) and Grelle (3:41.9). San Romani took fifth in 3:43.
Although Ryun and Grelle officially had the same time, Ryun edged Grelle by an inch at the finish line. Ryun went with the USA team to Tokyo, Grelle’s Olympic experience was over.
But his competitive days were far from finished.
On June 18, 1965 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Grelle lowered the U.S. record in the mile to 3:55.4. Nine days later, Ryun broke that record by a tenth of a second.
It must be the shoes … or maybe not
When Grelle was running, “American track shoes were terrible, even when I was in school,” Grelle said of the early days. “You couldn’t get Adidas shoes anywhere in Oregon, but Bowerman got Phil Knight and me and a couple other guys together, and said he had a source in San Francisco (Clifford Severn, at the time the distributor of Adidas shoes on the West Coast). Severn went on to become the founder and chief of Koolaburra footwear.
“You had your choice of everything – even the colors,” Grelle said, and Adidas it was.
This was in the prewaffle iron days of Bowerman, who eventually designed the sole of a shoe (with the help of a waffle iron) that became the Nike running shoe.
“Before that, we only had Spot-Bilt or Spaulding, with a stiff leather sole. Adidas was a big improvement, with the way it fit your foot.
“I have some pictures of Phil Knight in Adidas shoes, and I’ve told him, ‘I’m going to blow that picture up and send it in to the paper, and they’ll use it.’”
Which leads Grelle into more stories on Knight.
“He’s a very funny guy,” Grelle said of the Nike co-founder and chairman. “And he has a mind that remembers everything. He’s quick. He loves good jokes.
“He’s kind of like Bowerman in a way. He’ll correct you on something, and you’re not sure if he’s right, because the only person who knew the story was Bowerman, and he’s been dead for years.”
An example, Grelle remembers, was a mile relay he ran for the Ducks, along with Knight, in a meet against the University of Washington.
“We weren’t quarter-milers, and we were running against the University of Washington, and their miler was running the anchor leg,” said Grelle, who ran – unofficially – a 47.5 leg to help Oregon win the race.
“Somebody asked me a few years ago what my fastest quartermile was, and I said ‘47.5 on a relay.’ Knight was right there, and said, ‘You know what Bowerman did? He gave us all 50-flat, and there was only 47.5 seconds left, so that’s what you got.’ I don’t know if that’s true or not.”
On Ducks and Rupp
“Vin Lananna (Oregon associate athletic director) is a very good coach,” Grelle said. “He was a distance coach at Stanford for 10 years (where Lananna led his cross country and track teams to five NCAA team championships), and they’d always beat Oregon in all the distance races.”
Galen Rupp is just one of Oregon’s latest success stories, when the former Duck took the silver medal in the 10,000 meters in last summer’s London Olympics.
“(Alberto) Salazar has done a great job with him,” Grelle said of Rupp’s coach. “I was thinking that he didn’t have enough speed to a sprint finish, but I was impressed with Salazar’s ability to get more out of him, by starting his kick a lot earlier. That’s gutsy. He’s not shear speed. I was sort of shocked that he got second in the Olympics.”
The Grelle Legend
When Oregon’s milers/1,500-meter runners finished first or second (or both) in the NCAA Championships for nine straight seasons, Grelle played a significant role. He was called “the most durable” of the Ducks’ string of distance standouts, finishing his career as a three-time all-American.
From goducks.com, Grelle “was at his best in the big meets, streaking to runner-up honors in the 1957 and ’58 NCAA meets despite not winning the conference title either year. He swept all of the major races the next year, adding the national mile title to his collegiate spoils. He went on to finish second in the Pan American Games in the 1,500 that summer, then made the U.S. Olympic Team and won the AAU championship in 1960. He also won the Pan Am title in 1963 and two AAU indoor mile crowns later in his career.”
His sophomore and junior years at Oregon, Grelle placed second in the NCAA mile, and won the event his senior year (1959) in 4:03.9.
In 1963, he set the U.S. two-mile record in 8:25.2. He also won the prestigious Mt. SAC Relays mile in 1962, ’64, ’65 and the three-mile in 1966.
Grelle ran his first sub-4-minute mile at Mt. SAC in 1962 (3:59.9). The meet record stood until 1998.
In 1981, Grelle was inducted into the State of Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.