The history of Oregon track and field didn’t begin with Steve Prefontaine, or Bill Bowerman, or even with Bill Hayward.

The program was born in 1895 under the guidance of coach Joseph Wetherbee. The Webfoots were successful from the start, winning all but one of their meets in 1903.

The lone loss came to nearby Albany College, coached by Hayward. When Oregon was looking to hire a coach the following autumn, the team’s student manager, Virgil Earl, wrote a letter to university president P.L. Campbell recommending Hayward for the position.

“Hayward is now looked upon as one of the best trainers in the Northwest and I think he can develop a winning team for the University of Oregon,” Earl wrote.

That letter is among more than 40 items on display at the university’s Knight Library as part of a new exhibit called “Oregon Spirit: The Legacy of Track and Field.”

 

The exhibit, on display through March 22 in the library’s Paulson Reading Room, pulls from 20 collections curated by Oregon’s special collections and university archives. One goal was to fill in gaps from the early history of the program, said Lauren Goss, the university archivist who coordinated the display.

“We were very well known pre-Bill Hayward,” Goss said. “We were a strong program. I wanted to focus on some documents from before Hayward and scrapbooks from before he came.”

The exhibit includes a scrapbook of press clippings from the program’s first decade assembled by Clifton McArthur, Oregon’s first student body president and the namesake of McArthur Court. It also features an album of photographs collected by Hayward, who more than fulfilled Virgil Earl’s prediction during his 44 years as Oregon’s coach.

Goss said she also wanted to highlight the history of track and field as a women’s sport, which began long before the school’s first official women’s track meet in 1972. The exhibit documents women participating in field days pre-1920, accompanied by materials from the modern era donated by longtime women’s coach Tom Heinonen.

“I wanted to be sure track and field as a women’s sport was represented,” Goss said.

Of course, no exhibit of Oregon track artifacts would be complete without paying homage to Bowerman, Prefontaine and Oregon’s history of famous footwear.

Encased in glass are a pair of spikes made by Bowerman and worn by sprinter Dave Blunt in 1963. There’s also a letter written by Prefontaine in summer 1968, before his senior year at Marshfield High School, and sent to Bill Dellinger, who was then Bowerman’s assistant.

In the letter, Prefontaine discussed being recruited by Colorado State and traveling to an upcoming meet.

“I’m all ready except for finding out what I have to bring along and what time to be there for the track meet,” Prefontaine wrote in neat, almost child-like script. “I don’t know what kind of fishing gear to bring along or sleeping things.”

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The university has an “overwhelming” number of track and field artifacts, Goss said, spread out among numerous collections. Some items in the exhibition came from existing collections, such as Bowerman’s personal papers, and others were recently donated by former coaches and athletes.

“(The collection) has been growing,” Goss said. “We’ve done donor events around NCAAs, and it brings in people saying things like, ‘Oh, I have stuff in my attic.’”

The exhibit’s unifying theme is Oregon spirit, Goss said, reflected in the program’s earliest history and still evident in the modern day.

“Oregon spirit is something even Bill Hayward would talk about,” Goss said. “I thought that would apply well with the history of Oregon track and field.

“They’re almost synonymous.”