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Upstart Manhattan College stunned track elites to claim NCAA crown 50 years ago

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Manhattan College's NCAA distance medley relay team (L to R) Tony Colon, Joe Savage, Ray Johnson, John Lovett

By Jim Irish

Photos courtesy of Manhattan College

Newly minted Manhattan College head track and cross country coach Fred Dwyer never advertised the position for an assistant track coach in 1969.

Dwyer located him practically in his backyard in New Jersey. Frank “Gags” Gagliano was the head coach at Roselle Catholic High School, while Dwyer held the same position at Essex Catholic. The schools were 12 miles apart.

They were also fierce rivals. Both coaches had built powerhouse track programs. Neither had acquired a taste for losing.

Dwyer recalled an incident with Gagliano during a high school track meet at the 168th Street Armory in Manhattan.

“We were (both) very competitive,” Dwyer said. “There was an exchange of words. There was nothing physical, (but) it was close.”

The two were separated by cooler heads.

Despite the intense rivalry, Dwyer interviewed Gagliano for the assistant position. The interview lasted for hours, Gagliano remembers, and it revolved primarily around recruiting.

As it turned out, Gagliano was the only person Dwyer interviewed. He got the job. Together, they recruited. And four years later, tiny Manhattan College — with approximately 2,800 undergraduate students — knocked off the elite track universities in the country to capture the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.

Brief moments of glory since track inception in 1912

Since track’s inception at Manhattan in 1912, Jasper thinclads had experienced brief lightning bolts of glory on the oval. As an undergraduate, Lindy Remigino, Class of 1953, won the gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, earning the title of “World’s Fastest Human.” Lou Jones, Class of ‘54, held the world record at 400 meters and was a member of the 1,600-meter relay that captured gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Brian Kivlan, Class of ‘69, clocked 3 minutes, 57.4 seconds in the mile in 1968, which remains the college record to this day.

Once at Manhattan, Dwyer would not settle for an occasional shooting star or, heaven forbid, mediocrity. His burning desire was to build a consistently competitive program. He would accomplish it by the sheer force of his commanding personality.

Dwyer was also a rarity in track, having achieved remarkable success both as a coach and a runner. In the 1950s, he was the first in a long line of outstanding milers under “Jumbo” Elliott at Villanova. Only 5-foot-8½ and 135 pounds, Dwyer, known as the “Mighty Mite,” was fiercely competitive and even combative at times as a runner. That brash nature was on prominent display in the Wanamaker Mile at the 1955 Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. While Denmark’s Gunnar Nielsen was setting a world indoor record in the event, American Wes Santee grabbed Dwyer as the latter attempted to pass on the inside of the turn, and the two spun in a circle on the final straightway before a stunned packed crowd.

Dwyer, disqualified for his illegal maneuver, proclaimed to reporters after the race, “I can still beat them both.” The next week in the Garden, the pugnacious Dwyer did just that.

Dwyer’s resume as a runner included a personal record of 4:00.8 in the mile in 1956 and a fifth-place finish at the 1,500 meters Olympic trials in 1952 and fourth place in the same event at the 1956 Olympic trials.

A beaming Fred Dwyer holds NCAA Championship trophy surrounded by assistant coach Frank Gagliano and athletes

In 1962, Dwyer turned his full attention to coaching at Essex Catholic. He coached as he had competed: equal parts passion, intensity, discipline, and swagger. His training methods produced Marty Liquori, who became the third high school athlete in the country to break four minutes in the mile in 1967.

After hiring Gagliano, Dwyer’s next order of business was to recruit the athletes who would shake off the lethargy of mediocrity. Manhattan had not won a major team title since the IC4A Indoor in 1956.

The first recruiting class in 1970 was, by far, the best in Dwyer’s 24-year tenure. Gagliano corralled Joe Savage whom he had tutored at Roselle Catholic. Savage had clocked 1:50.1 in the half mile at the Penn Relays. Power Memorial’s Tony Colon, the fastest miler in the nation at 4:06, and Essex Catholic’s Mike Keogh, a Dwyer product and the top two-miler at 8:54, also came on board.

Contrasting coaching styles

Dwyer and Gagliano, then in their 30s, offered contrasting coaching styles. An Army veteran, Dwyer was demanding and confrontational when he suspected athletes gave less than their best efforts. Gagliano, a stocky quarterback and javelin thrower at the University of Richmond, was warm and affectionate, often embracing athletes in a bear hug.

“I was a taskmaster because I was trying to squeeze the best out of them,” Dwyer admitted 10 years ago on the 40th anniversary of the NCAA title. “Having been there and having a degree of success, I knew what it required.”

Gagliano displayed a deft balancing act, loyal to Dwyer yet deeply concerned about the athletes.

“He would be the disciplinarian -- big time -- and then I would come in and soothe it a little bit,” Gagliano said.

At that time, Manhattan, a private Catholic college located on a mere 22 acres in the northern reaches of the Bronx, had no track on campus. A stone’s throw from the college across Broadway was Van Cortlandt Park, the mecca for cross country and the host of the 1968 and '69 NCAA championships. The athletes ran intervals on the cinder track inside the park.

"That's the way we survived in the East."

-- Frank Gagliano about training outdoors in freezing winter weather

In the winter, they assembled a castaway wooden Madison Square Garden banked track at nearby Riverdale Country School and ran intervals. Wearing layered clothing, ski caps, and long johns, they shoveled snow off the track before running.

“That’s the way we survived in the East,” Gagliano said.

After a couple of years, Riverdale needed the land, and Manhattan was displaced. They moved training to the inflated bubble at Columbia University’s Baker Field, but that required jogging 1½ miles each way in the evening. By the time they jogged back to the college after the workout, cold food awaited them in the cafeteria.

“The circumstances we had to work under, it’s amazing they did what they did,” Dwyer said. “That’s where my heart goes out to the kids. That’s why they were extra special.”

Colon, Keogh compete in 1972 Munich Olympics

In the fall of 1972, the stars started to align. Earlier that summer, Colon competed for his native Puerto Rico in the 1,500 at the Munich Olympics, while Keogh raced for Ireland in the 5,000. Both returned in peak physical condition.

Under Dwyer’s watchful eye, the athletes increased their interval training from 20 to 30 repeat quarter miles at the Van Cortlandt track. In addition, they went on pre-dawn and afternoon runs on their own, often in sub-freezing weather.

Keogh, averaging 110-120 miles a week, won the IC4A individual cross country title in a course record for five miles in 24:03 at Van Cortlandt. But at the NCAA cross country meet in Houston, he started slowly and had to weave through traffic, finishing seventh over the six-mile course. Manhattan took 10th in the team standings, its highest finish ever.

The next significant meet was the IC4A Indoors in Princeton, N.J. With 45 points, the Jaspers almost doubled runner up Navy. Keogh stood out, clocking 8:39 to win the two mile and, 30 minutes later, running 4:05 on the anchor leg on the winning distance medley relay.

A week later, the team flew to Detroit to compete in the NCAA meet at Cobo Hall. The two-day meet beginning March 9 attracted 105 colleges and 420 qualifying athletes, including 1972 Olympic champions Dave Wottle (800 meters) from Bowling Green and Rod Milburn (110 hurdles) from Southern University. Both days attracted sold out crowds of 10,000.

Under the radar at NCAA Indoor championships

Southern California, the defending champion, and the University of Texas at El Paso, a rising power with African runners, were among the favorites for the title. Manhattan flew far under everyone’s radar, but Dwyer had an inkling that the college wouldn’t be anonymous for long.

“The kids were hungry, and they were prepared,” Dwyer said.

The athletes entered the meet with positive attitudes.

“We had a chance because we had two great men and coaches in Fred Dwyer and Frank Gagliano,” triple jumper Ken McBryde says. “They had figured we had a chance to score certain points if everybody came through, and it was going to be a low-scoring meet. And they were right.”

McBryde competed first on Friday and grabbed third on his final leap of 52 feet, 1½ inches behind Middle Tennessee’s Barry McClure (54-1¾) and Missouri’s Larry Curry (52-5½). (Scoring was 6-4-3-2-1).

“My job was trying to win,” McBryde says. “At the same time, I wanted to be in the top three, no less than that. Most of the time I was always there.”

"... You have to have a certain amount of moxie to win races like that."

-- Mike Keogh, winner of the two-mile race

In the two-mile run on Saturday, Keogh toed the line against the likes of Wottle, who later won the mile, and Tennessee’s Doug Brown and Wisconsin’s Glenn Herold, who both had beaten Keogh at the NCAA cross country meet in November. At the gun, the runners almost jogged the first mile in a pedestrian 4:27. Herold and Keogh realized that a slow race would be the perfect setup for Wottle’s finishing kick. Herold made a strong move to the front in the second mile. Keogh followed and passed Herold in the final 300 yards, running a torrid 4:11 second mile and winning in 8:38.7.

“I went into the NCAA pretty high,” Keogh says. “You have to have a certain amount of moxie to win races like that.”

Tony Colon, the mile anchor on Manhattan's distance medley relay, crosses the finish line with arms raised

Relay sets indoor world record

Next, the distance medley relay featured John Lovett, half mile; Ray Johnson, quarter mile; Savage, three quarter mile; and Colon, mile.

Lovett repeated his pre-race ritual, which included not chatting with opponents.

“I would never wish anyone ‘good luck,’ ” says Lovett, a member of the winning DMR on the same track as a freshman in 1970 with Al Novell, Mike Kenny and Tommy Donahue. “Why would I do that? I was competitive.”

Lovett’s tactic was to break faster than anybody.

“If I remember correctly, I led most of the (leg),” he said. “Maybe somebody got me at the end. I wanted to win and put my teammate in the best position.”

Lovett was timed in the half mile in 1:53.2. Johnson then ran the quarter mile in 50.4, handing the baton to Savage in a group of runners.

“I felt like we were packed,” Savage said. “My expectations were we would win this (relay), and it was a question of by how much.”

Savage, 6-foot-3 with long blond locks, blasted to the lead and left everyone in his wake, running 2:55.9 for the three-quarter mile.

“I took the lead, and that was all she wrote,” Savage said. “There was never anybody around me. (Colon) had to have had a 40-yard lead. I’m not exaggerating.”

Sporting a horseshoe mustache, Colon was never threatened and ran 4:04.3 for the mile split. A photo the next day in the Detroit News showed Colon with his arms raised and his mouth agape in a yell.

“I ran all alone for 11 laps…” Colon said. “I think as psyched up as I was, I could have run a couple of seconds faster if I had someone pushing me.”

Manhattan trounced runner up Colorado by almost five seconds, setting a world record of 9:43.8 on an 11-lap banked track. The public address announcer beckoned the Manhattan foursome on the track for a victory lap.

“We all had different color shorts on,” Colon recalled.

"We looked like a rag-tag band of guys. The coaches were mortified."

-- Joe Savage about Manhattan's mismatched uniforms

“We looked like a rag-tag band of guys. The coaches were mortified,” Savage said about their mismatched uniforms.

No budget for new uniforms

Unlike the public universities, Manhattan stretched a minuscule $12,000 operating budget, which excluded new uniforms.

Cliff Bruce, also 6-foot-3, remembered the 1,000-yard run as a “tactical race” against the likes of North Carolina’s Tony Waldrop and Boston College’s Keith Francis. With runners practically “walking,” Bruce grabbed the lead with two laps remaining.

“I was on the inside for the last two laps all the way to the finish,” Bruce said. “Tony Waldrop was on my right. I never saw Keith Francis, who was on the other side of Waldrop. I was so close I could reach out and touch the tape at the finish. That’s how close I was.”

Waldrop was declared the winner in 2:10.0; Francis second in 2:10.6; and Bruce third by one-tenth of a second in 2:10.7.

Following the mile relay, the announcer declared Manhattan the meet champion with 18 points. Manhattan had scored points in only four events, but it was more than enough. UTEP, Kent State, and Kansas tied for second with 12 points.

Dwyer’s strategy of limiting the athletes to one event each to maintain fresh legs had worked to perfection.

"You don't see me in the photo because I was pissed."

-- Cliff Bruce about losing a close race in the 1,000-yard run

On the podium, Dwyer grinned broadly holding the trophy surrounded by Gagliano and the athletes. Bruce was absent.

“You don’t see me in the photo because I was pissed,” Bruce said.

Dwyer recalls being in a state of “euphoria” after the meet.

“We were in heaven for hours,” he said.

Gagliano had his own assessment of the meet’s conclusion.

“They performed,” he said about Manhattan athletes. “I mean they performed.”

Athletes turned the coaches' vision into reality

Dwyer and Gagliano had conceived the vision, but the athletes — through sacrifice and rigorous training in all manner of weather — carried it to fruition.

“We didn’t expect it,” Dwyer said. “Then to see the way the kids all rose to the occasion. From a coaching standpoint, that was phenomenal.”

As it became apparent that upstart Manhattan would slay the track Goliaths, many coaches approached Dwyer to encourage him to ask Manhattan’s administration for a bonus for him and Gagliano.

“This is quite an accomplishment,” Dwyer recalled his former coach, Elliott, telling him.

"He just immediately shot me down. ..."

-- Fred Dwyer asking athletic director Ken Norton for a $500 bonus

Dwyer took the suggestions to heart. Upon returning to the college, he met with athletic director Ken Norton to ask for a $500 bonus.

“He just immediately shot me down,” Dwyer recalled. “It didn’t take him more than 10 seconds to say no. Kenny was a company man, 100%

“He took care of the dollars. How Manhattan College was as successful as she was in all sports is almost beyond comprehension. You need money to go out and recruit. Many times, I went into my own pocket. We simply didn’t have the budget. We were expected to do it on our reputations.”

Later, Dwyer approached Norton again to ask the college to promote Gagliano to full-time status. Up to that point, Gagliano had been working part time at Manhattan and full time as a physical education teacher and driver’s education instructor at Sacred Heart High School in Yonkers.

Norton turned down Dwyer a second time.

“He wasn’t the type of guy you could barter with,” Dwyer said. “No was no.”

NCAA victory first by a New York City college

The NCAA victory in 1973 was the first in Manhattan’s history and the first by a New York City college. Manhattan remains the smallest college ever to capture an NCAA Division I title.

“The smallest school, the smallest budget,” Dwyer said.

The early 1970s shine as the golden era for track in New York City. On a meager recruiting budget, Dwyer and Gagliano landed the top-ranked athletes from the metropolitan New York-New Jersey area, within a 60-mile radius of the college.

Manhattan College has not scaled the mountaintop again. But 50 years ago, Dwyer and Gagliano defied the odds, proving that a tiny college with homegrown athletes could topple the track powerhouses.

Fifty years later

Before retiring from Manhattan in 1993, Dwyer, 91, captured four IC4A titles in addition to the NCAA crown. He suffers from short-term memory loss and receives physical therapy each week, according to his wife, Jane.

“I’m lucky to be around,” Dwyer said.

Gagliano, who turns 86 in March, departed Manhattan for a full-time position at Rutgers in 1974. Georgetown hired him as the head track coach in 1984. The Hoyas took second in the NCAA Indoor meet in 1991. After retiring at Georgetown in 2001, he became a Nike elite coach, first in California and then in Oregon. He returned to the East coast in 2009 and founded the New Jersey-New York Track Club, which he guided until his retirement in 2020.

McBryde continued as one of the top triple jumpers in the country, finishing second in the NCAA outdoor meet in 1974. He was seventh in the 1972 Olympic trials and ninth in the 1976 Olympic trials. After his career as a competitor, he was an athletic director at Connecticut College, Ramapo (N.J.) College, Virginia State, and Morgan (Md.) State. He has also been a church pastor for 26 years. In 2012, he had a four-inch titanium rod attached with seven screws in his neck because of damage from the sport.

Despite a tooth extraction the night before the final, Keogh placed sixth in the 5,000 in the 1976 Olympic trials. He coached distance runners at LSU from 1981-83 and has had a career as a chiropractor since 1990.

Savage took fifth in the 1,500 at the 1972 NCAA Outdoor meet in 3:41.6, the equivalent of a 3:59.33 mile. He worked in the banking industry for 40 years.

Colon ran a sub-four minute mile in 1974 and competed again for Puerto Rico in the 1,500 at the 1976 Olympics. He has taught high school Spanish in Garland, Texas for 21 years. Until recently because of arthritis in his knee, he ran 5K road races in the Dallas area.

Lovett, a five-time All-American, took third in the NCAA indoor half mile in 1972. He worked as an Allstate Insurance claims adjuster for 38 years and coached track at Bishop Kearney High School in Brooklyn. Since 2016, he has been an assistant coach at Manhattan.

Bruce still holds the Manhattan 1,000-yard record of 2:08.3. In his senior year, he took first in the 1,000 meters at the Olympic Invitational at the Garden. He eventually had a 30-year career with American Express and has lived in Salt Lake City since 1982.

Jim Irish, Manhattan College Class of ‘74, is a freelance writer living in the Austin, Texas area

Jim Irish, Manhattan College Class of ‘74, is a freelance writer outside Austin, Texas

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