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Harbour, former 3:50 miler, Baylor track coach, returns to Texas high school alma mater

Updated: Feb 6

Todd Harbour (top row, far left) was a member of the coaching staff for the Port Isabel junior high girls who won the district track championship last spring

By Jim Irish

Courtesy photos

Todd Harbour is thriving in Port Isabel, the small community on the Texas Gulf Coast where he spent his formative years and jump started what would become a remarkable international track career.

Harbour, Baylor University’s former director of track and field and cross country coach, returned to his roots in the summer of 2021.

He actually lives on South Padre Island with his wife, Cindy, and crosses the 2.4-mile Queen Isabella Causeway each day to teach junior high American History and coach track and field at the Class 4A school.

After a 25-year career at Baylor, Harbour explained to Bears athletic director Mack Rhoades that he desired to return to South Texas because Cindy’s parents were in their mid-80s.

”We needed to get home,” he says. “We’d been in the (Waco area) for 40 years. I wanted to get her close to her family.”

Harbour had a couple of years remaining on his Baylor contract when he retired at age 61.

”I was happy at Baylor,” he says. “Nobody was forcing me or pushing me to think about resigning. It was the right time for me to step down.”

One of his most thrilling moments at Baylor was coaching Aaliyah Miller to the NCAA indoor title in the 800-meter run at Albuquerque, N.M. in Harbour’s final season. Miller’s time of 2 minutes, 00.69 seconds set a meet record.

Baylor freshman Todd Harbour (left) nips a diving Mike Clark of Arkansas in the 1,500-meter run at the Southwest Conference championships in 1978

”She was one of our all-time greats,” says Harbour about Miller, currently a professional runner training in Colorado. “That was amazing. That was a great memory for me. We’re still close to this day.”

Harbour created many athletic memories himself at then-Class 3A Port Isabel in the 1970s. After moving from Kansas to South Padre with his family at 10 years old, he spent many hours swimming in the surf and running along the sandy beach, where he developed his aerobic capacity. 

In high school, he competed as a 5-foot-10, 130-pound receiver in football, the point guard on the basketball team, and middle-distance runner in track. During the summer, he played baseball, his favorite sport. 

Harbour says with certainty that he would have played baseball and not run track at Port Isabel, but the school had no baseball team at the time.

”I would never have run track,” he says. “I ran because it was what we did after basketball.”

Harbour inherited genetic ability in track from his father, Elmer, a star quarter miler at Pittsburg State University in Kansas in the 1950s.

He required little time to assert himself as one of the top 880-yard runners in Texas. He finished second in the event as a sophomore at the state meet, but he and the first-place finisher were disqualified for accidentally “tangling up their arms” at the finish line.

"By that time, I knew where my future was."

-- Harbour after winning the Texas Class 3A state title in the half mile as a junior

As a junior, he won and broke the Class 3A state record in the half mile.

”By that time, I knew where my future was,” he says. “It wasn’t until then because I was still playing baseball.”

He repeated as state champion as a senior in 1977 and owns the state half-mile record of 1:51.14 to this day.

Invited to the prestigious Golden West Invitational in Sacramento, Calif., which attracted the best track athletes in the nation, Harbour came from behind in the two-lap event to win in 1:50.1 (1:49.4 in meters), the fastest time in the nation that year.

”I wasn’t expected to win,” he says. “I remember bringing them back. My dad (Harbour’s coach) jumped the fence and gave me a big ol’ hug.”

Before the race, Harbour was so nervous that he vomited. He had a self-talk after the race.

”If I ever do that again, I’m not running,” he remembers saying to himself. “I don’t want this to not be fun. From that point, I never got that nervous.”

Recruited persistently by then-Baylor track coach Clyde Hart, Harbour accepted a full scholarship offer following the regional meet in his senior year. Hart even visited to watch Harbour compete.

After high school graduation that summer, he made what he considers the most important decision of his life. He and a couple of classmates had bought a six pack of beer and planned to drink it in his pickup truck. They heard a public service announcement on the radio about a Christian crusade with evangelist James Robison at the football stadium in nearby Harlingen.

”What have we got to lose,” Harbour said to his friends.

At the crusade, he realized he was a sinner and needed a Savior. When Robison gave an invitation, Harbour moved quickly forward and accepted Jesus Christ’s offer of salvation.

Although he had success that first season, becoming the first Baylor athlete to break four minutes in the mile and capturing the first of four 1,500-meter runs at the Southwest Conference, he and his family struggled with the death of his mother, Barbara, the nurse at the high school, from the effects of alcoholism. Harbour consoled himself, knowing that she had made a commitment to Christ in her final year.

Harbour had a stellar career at Baylor, finishing runner up in the NCAA 1,500 in 1979, ‘80, and ‘81.

Hart, whose ability to attract and develop world-class sprinters led to the moniker “Quartermile U,” knew that he had an extraordinary talent in Harbour from Day 1.

"You could see that he did not like to lose. He was very competitive."

-- Former Baylor head track coach Clyde Hart speaking about Harbour

”You could see that he did not like to lose,” Hart recalled in an interview in 2017. “He was very competitive.”

As an undergraduate in 1981, Harbour spent the summer competing against the world’s best in Europe for the Santa Monica (Calif.) Track Club. He was initially turned down to compete in the “Dream Mile” in Oslo, Norway. However, future nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, also a member of the Santa Monica Track Club, told the meet director he wouldn’t compete unless Harbour was added. The meet director relented.

On July 11, before almost 13,000 spectators and a live ABC Wide World of Sports broadcast in the U.S., Harbour catapulted himself past some of the greatest milers of the era. He finished fifth in 3:50.34. British Olympic champion Steve Ovett won in 3:49.24. Harbour’s time remains a collegiate record with an asterisk only because it was run after the NCAA outdoor meet.

”I was so relaxed because the Holy Spirit had spoken to me: ‘You will run well.’ I had a strange confidence that I was going to run fast,” Harbour says.

Joining the professional ranks, he established himself as one of the top middle distance runners and was ranked No. 9 in the world in the 1,500 meter/mile in 1982.

During his first year after retirement, Harbour repaired and painted his home and volunteered as a track coach. He held a Saturday run on the beach for high school runners across the Rio Grande Valley and then cooked pancakes for them.

Word spread that he might be interested in coaching. He received offers and accepted one as an assistant track and cross country coach at Port Isabel in 2022.

Then-Baylor head track coach Harbour embraces an athlete after a race

He is content as an assistant coach, having basked in the limelight for many years as an elite runner and then as a Division I head coach.

At the outset, he formed a running club at school. Nicole Sanchez, a seventh-grader, ran every day, in good weather and bad. At first, he wasn’t certain if she had the ability to match her dedication. At the district meet, however, Sanchez captured the title in the 400 and 800.

”I can use her as an inspiration to the other kids,” Harbour says. “You can be whatever you want to be. I love that about track. It’s all on you.”

The junior high girls won the district team title after finishing far behind the previous year.

“I came across the causeway that day after the meet with a little tear rolling down,” Harbour says. “This is why I still coach. I had just as much fun that day as I did watching Aaliyah win the 800 at nationals.”

At track meets, the “legendary” Harbour has been interviewed for a running club podcast. The students and athletes had access to the podcast, and it spread throughout school on social media. 

“Coach, you’re famous,” came the replies on Google and X (formerly Twitter).

"Todd is a role model to our athletes, and they respect him. He cares for them, and they know it."

-- Ceci Trejo, Port Isabel girls track coach

Ceci Trejo, the junior high girls coach last season and now the varsity coach, is thrilled that Harbour is a member of the coaching staff.

”Todd is a role model to our athletes, and they respect him,” Trejo says. “He cares for them, and they know it.”

When he was hired, Harbour mentioned that he wanted to form a Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle. The superintendent supported it. The huddle meets every two weeks and attracts 20 to 30 students.

Harbour and Cindy — the junior high girls athletic coordinator — pray before school, asking God “to use us and give us an opportunity to be salt and light.”

One of the scripture verses he prefers is John 14:6, in which Jesus Christ said: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

His ultimate desire is to point the students and athletes to Christ, who offers love, hope, and a future.

Jim Irish is a freelance writer in Bastrop, Texas

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