Jim Ryun has ‘mixed feelings’ about the track being removed from KU’s Memorial Stadium

Memorial Stadium will have a new look when the Jayhawks take the field this season. 

John Rieger/John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Charlie Weis’ big win is Jim Ryun’s big loss.

"You know, I have mixed feelings," the iconic former Kansas Jayhawk runner and Congressman tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "I would rather have seen it more centrally located. Again, you’ve got the tradition."

Ah, yes. The tradition. The track inside KU’s Memorial Stadium starting coming out last week, a project that’s expected to wrap up in mid-August.

That old track — which replaced the old cinder one in 1969 — is chunks and rubble now, an eyesore and a safety concern to Jayhawks football fans and to Weis, KU’s coach.

But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

And oh, if that rubble could talk.

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From 1923-2013, Memorial Stadium hosted the Kansas Relays, one of the premier track and field celebrations of its kind in the United States. Ryun practically grew up there, from his emergence as a record-breaking high-schooler from Wichita to his salad days as a celebrated collegian and Olympian. His mile run of 3:55.8 in April 1966 at the Relays — shattering the old meet record — remains an iconic Mount Oread moment.

Ryun remembers his old coach working out an arrangement with the Kansas Turpike Authority so that on rainy days, the KTA’s giant asphalt-driers could be brought in to blast away the moisture on the track. He remembers the last line of "The Star-Spangled Banner" ending to the sound of a mighty clap of thunder, as if on some kind of holy cue.

"We always made (a point) in high school and college to be rested, to be prepared to run our races before the Kansas crowd," says Ryun, now 67 and based in San Diego, "and to say, ‘Thanks for your support and we appreciate it.’"

Memorial Stadium was one of the few major-college football facilities with a giant track surrounding the playing field, a source of pride for some and a source of major contention for many others in the KU athletic community. In the end, those "others" won, and the Relays and the old building went their separate ways this spring.

The 2014 Kansas Relays opened the new Rock Chalk Park, a 7,000-seat complex in west Lawrence that can hold up to 10,000 patrons for track. On the plus side, it’s believed to be the fifth of its kind in the U.S. to meet international track and field standards, with nine lanes, each 48 inches wide. (At Memorial Stadium, the max was eight lanes, at 42 inches each.) With a high-tech running surface, a six-lane warm-up straightaway and roughly 90,000 square feet of locker rooms, offices and training facilities, it’s state of the art.

But it doesn’t hold 50,000 and change, the way Memorial Stadium does. It doesn’t hold the same backstory. The same legacy.

"And that’s the sad part about it," says Ryun, who’s busy these days with running camps — for more details, check out RyunRunning.com — across the country, including one this past week in Southern California. "I know that time moves on and they need to make some adjustment."

Of the six fastest mile times ever recorded by high-school runners in this country, Ryun — who would represent Kansas’ 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1996-2007, has five of them. He’s the only U.S. prep athlete to record more than two sub-four-minute miles.

As a freshman in Lawrence in ’66 — where he ran unattached because of NCAA rules — the Wichita native broke the Kansas Relays mile record. It was the first set of steps toward what was to be a golden summer: Over the next three months, Ryun would shatter U.S. records in the 2-mile run and world records in the 880 and the mile (3:51.3).

The former Wichita East High standout was named Sports Illustrated’s "Sportsman Of The Year" for his efforts, but "Ryun’s Run" wasn’t his favorite moment at Memorial Stadium. His personal choice was the 1972 Relays; Ryun remembers a full house — more than 32,000 on hand, reportedly — as he ran the Glen Cunningham Mile in under four minutes. Again.

"It was like having a football game (there)," he says. "It was a very special time."

And a very special place.

"Now, where you are, it’s a beautiful facility," Ryun says of Rock Chalk Park. "It just doesn’t have quite the tradition. Maybe after 100 years, it will."

Time moves on. The track does, too. One piece at a time. 

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @SeanKeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.