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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Bill McCurdy

Closing Out a Three-Decade Coaching Career

By Becky Hartman

The Harvard track team has just upset Northeastern to conclude its regular season. Leading the pack of jubilant runners in the customary victory lap, one member--decked out in his usual red sweat suit--suddenly sprints ahead and is the first to cross the finish line. His gait is as smooth and quick as that of those he has left behind: only his grey hair betrays the fact that he is no college student, but a man ready for retirement at the ages of 65.

The leader of the pack--Harvard track Coach Bill McCurdy--will conclude his career at this weekend's IC4A meet after three decades at the forefront of the Harvard track community. Since he became the head coach of both the men's cross-country and track teams back in 1952, his harrier squads have won 11 Big Three titles and four Heptagonal championships. His indoor and outdoor track teams have had even greater success, and his career won-lost percentage in dual meets is over 800.

What make this man so special, though, is neither his longevity nor his achievements but the way he approaches his profession. In a sport known for its individualism, McCurdy has developed a program that revolves around team unity and produces teams which can win dual meets, not superstars who rake in individual titles. And, as a result, during his 30-year tenure, the Harvard track mentor has consistently turned out teams whose successes surpass all expectations. In 1950, McCurdy's first year as the Crimson's assistant coach, a powerful squad from Yale ran away from everyone at the Heptagonals and the Big Three meet, while Harvard barely escaped the cellar. But three years later, under McCurdy's direction, the Crimson thinclads beat their heavily favored archrivals in the annual head-to-head confrontation. Currently, Northeastern and Princeton are Harvard's chief competition, and the Crimson downed both teams in regular-season contests, attesting to the effectiveness of McCurdy's continued emphasis on the dual meet.

McCurdy has always gotten the most out of his teams by making superhuman demands on his athletes, and more than one Harvard runner has found training under the venerable coach a more cerebral than physical exercise. McCurdy is particularly renowned for playing mind games on his runners, and at a recent banquet held in his honor, the University recognized McCurdy's motivational abilities by awarding him an honorary degree in psychology.

"He was always a con artist," Chairman of Friends of Harvard Track Jerry Kanten said. "He would get you irritated and challenge you mentally and physically."

Just a few years ago. McCurdy challenged team captain Thad McNulty to a pull-up duel, claiming that he could outdo McNulty by one The captain managed 14 pull ups, but true to his word, McCurdy did 15 Humiliated in defeat, McNulty trained for an entire week, and in a rematch he upped his total by five, but once again the team's mentor beat him by one Still determined to beat his cocky coach. McNulty tried again and did 29, more than doubling his first effort. Of course, McCurdy did 30.

Bow to Stern

It goes without saying that few septagenerians can keep pace with collegiate athletes--let alone outperform them But after devoting over 50 years to his sports. McCurdy has little trouble winning pull-up duels or victory laps.

As a senior in high school, the California native won the state championship in the half-mile. Four years later, McCurdy captained the Stanford track team and qualified for the Olympic trials in the 880

"I placed sixth in the half mile at Nationals," McCurdy said "But I was so disgusted by losing to five other guy that I didn't go."

After graduating from Stanford, he went to work for the Western Paint company but soon found the job unchallenging. "I really didn't give a damn if any body bought paint and wallpaper."

Meanwhile, he continued to run with the West Coast Athletic Club and was captain of the team that won the 1939 national title.

However, it was not until be was drafted into the army in World War II that McCurdy began to consider coaching as a career. He taught physical fitness at an officers school, where among other things, he was named "most fit man in they army."

At the end of the war, McCurdy went to work at Springfield College where he taught Physical Education and coached the indoor track team But he never considered making it his career until 1950 when the Harvard athletic director Bill Bingham offered him the job of assistant coach with the promise of promotion two years later.

McCurdy was dubious about the offer and even considered quitting after his first year.

"Harvard meant nothing to me," he recalled "But then arrogant west cost people don't know about provincial Eastern colleges. It I wasn't committed for two years I would have quit I didn't see what the big deal about coaching was."

McCurdy found his job more rewarding the following year, and before long, it became an obsession "I realized that there was more and more to do and soon it became a workaholic-type thing," he said.

McCurdy has always given his all to everything he has undertaken It is the fear that as a coach, he will not be able to sustain his usual level of effort that prompted his decision to call it quits.

"I felt that I couldn't do as much or offer as much as I had in the past I was afraid of becoming an old duffer just hanging around, he said

Although McCurdy's coaching record has made him a Harvard legend, his quick wit has earned him a reputation as one of its most colorful personalities After an impressive third place showing in the GBCs earlier this season, the Crimson coach quipped. "It's a moral victory, but I'm not a moral man, so I'm not very happy."

"He's a man's man," next year's captain. Scott Murrer said No matter what you say, he has an answer and takes it in stride. You could say you were going to blow up his office and he'd say. Okay, let me just get my beers out of the fridge"

McCurdy is not only witty, but he can comment incisively on virtually anything, particularly the direction Harvard track and college track in general is taking these days.

"Because of today's pressures, a student's commitment to others and the team are suffering," he observed "There's been a change in attitudes In the past, being on the team meant more. There were no excuses for missing practices, and no one would dare miss a meet Now everything is a good reason to miss practice. Everyone's got a lab or a Rhodes Scholarship interview or some thing."

McCurdy sees a trend towards more emphasis on the individual runners and less on the team in general, and he is particularly disturbed by the increasing emphasis on recruiting.

"I don't believe a coach should be a promoter. A coach should not connive for stars but do the best for the athletes he has," he said "It bothers me that a coach's merit is measured by his ability to recruit."

"I'm afraid that the Ivy League is heading in that direction," he continued. "I don't agree with the philosophy that we can't keep up with other school's that do recruit. I don't snatch handbags just because others do. Recruitment leads to refinement. The student body ends up fitting the teams needs and not vice versa.

After this weekend's meet. McCurdy intends to spend time with his wife and see more of his five children--none of whom are runners--but the rest he plans to play by ear. Said the man who has so carefully directed generations of Harvard runners. "I've never made any plans in my life. Why should I start now?"

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