In a quiet hallway at Texas Memorial Stadium, one of the largest stadiums in the country, there is something called the Longhorn Hall of Honor. It’s a Hall of Fame for former University of Texas athletes.
On the wall hang huge photographs of world-class athletes we’ve all heard of: former Longhorns running backs Ricky Williams and Cedric Benson. NFL Hall of Famer Earl Campbell. Tennis player Steve Bryan. Olympic swimmers Ian Crocker and Brendan Hansen.
But just around the corner are hundreds of metal plaques, many for athletes you’ve never heard of. This should be seen as something a bit bigger than just the highest honor bestowed upon athletes at one of the country’s most prestigious sports schools. With dozens upon dozens of former U.S. Olympians, here stands a homage to one of the nation’s greatest producers of Olympic athletes – as well as a testament to the unique, individualistic way American athletes are pumped into the Olympic pipeline.
There’s Neil Walker, a four-time medalist in swimming, next to Josh Davis, who won three gold medals in swimming in 1996. Carlette Guidry, who won track and field gold medals in 1992 and 1996, is honored not far from Sanya Richards-Ross, the sprinter who is aiming for her third straight gold-medal-winning Olympiad in London. Cat Osterman, the softball pitcher for the US team that won a gold in 2004 and a silver in 2008, is a short toss away from Whitney Hedgepeth, who won three swimming medals in 1996.
“It’s unlike any other country, really, the way Olympians are produced,” DeLoss Dodds, the Texas men’s athletic director for three decades, told FOXSports.com. “Universities are what make it happen. It’s kind of like America economically, kind of like America politically. America is just that way. We’re not so structured. We’re not one body saying, ‘Here’s how we’re going to do this.' We’re all these universities saying, 'Here’s how we’re going to do it for the universities and for the kids.'”
And so instead of a talented youngster being plucked from his or her classroom at age 12 and put into full-time Olympic training, America’s elite youth athletes end up aiming first for a college scholarship, then for success at the collegiate level and then to the world stage.
For schools like Texas, it has brought astounding results.
Since 1936, current or former Longhorns have won 117 Olympic medals, including 67 golds, 32 silvers and 18 bronzes. In Beijing in 2008, the 23 former and current Longhorns athletes won 10 gold medals – which, if UT had competed as its own country, would have ranked it eighth in the world, behind South Korea and ahead of Japan. For London, 21 current or former Longhorns are aiming for gold, including former medalists Hansen and Richards-Ross.
Other American universities compete with the Longhorns every Summer Olympics – collegiate athletes are less prominent at the Winter Games – for the mantle as America’s top Olympic athlete factory. The University of Southern California has produced more Olympians, more Olympic medalists and more Olympic golds than any other US university. USC’s 123 total gold medals total would rank it 12th all-time among countries.
Stanford sent more current or former athletes to Beijing than any other US school, with 47 athletes winning eight gold medals. And America’s biggest upstart school is the University of Florida, which, after winning six gold medals in Beijing, has now won 45 Olympic gold medals and 91 medals total since its first in 1968.
Dodds has experienced the Olympic journey from every angle. When he was a college athlete, he ran in the 1960 Olympic trials, trying to make the US team in the 400-meter dash. (He just missed making the team.)
Then, as a young track coach at Kansas State in the early 1960s, Dodds went on his first recruiting visit. It was to meet with a young man named Conrad Nightingale. Dodds asked him what his goals would be if Nightingale came to Kansas State.
“I want to be a veterinarian, and I want to make the Olympic team,” said Nightingale, who was running a 4:26 mile at that point. He ended up making the U.S. team for the 3,000-meter steeplechase in the 1968 Games in Mexico City.
“The reason to do it, you just wanted to do it,” Dodds said. “There was no job, there was no money, there was no shoe contract, there was no nothing. It was just you wanted to do it.”
Say what you will about how schools like Texas make a mockery of the supposed philosophy of amateurism on which the NCAA stakes it high moral ground and on which the Olympic movement was founded. The world is different now. Search the world over for a truly pure representation of sport, and you might just come up empty. You won’t find it in the huge money pit that’s today big-time college sports. And you surely won’t find it in London this summer, as the Olympic Games have become as commercialized as any professional sport.
Yet there’s still something special about the way American Olympians are made. Sure, the most talented are noticed at a young age, sent to special training camps, given the finest coaching. But it’s still something that bubbles up from the bottom, goes through places like the University of Texas and ends up on a podium, with America’s national anthem playing and a medal draped around a neck.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.