Al Buehler’s influence changed sports

July, 26, 2012
7/26/12
3:49
PM ET
Al Buehler hasn’t been to an Olympic Games in 25 years. But now that the legendary former Duke track coach plans to be in London, chances are something extraordinary will happen.

Buehler’s life reads like a travelogue through some of the most historic moments in U.S. track history.

Integration of the sport in the South? Buehler helped make it happen.

The black power salute on the Mexico City medal stand? Buehler drove Tommie Smith and John Carlos to the airport after they were thrown out of the Olympic Village.

The first USA-USSR track meets? Buehler and the iconic LeRoy Walker put them together.

Mary Slaney? Jackie Joyner-Kersee? Carl Lewis? They all have Buehler stories.

Those moments and dozens more have been gathered together in a new documentary about Buehler’s extraordinary life, “Starting at the Finish Line: The Coach Buehler Story.” The film by Amy Unell, which premiered at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, will be screened in London at a private event hosted by Joyner Kersee and basketball great Teresa Edwards on Monday at the USA House in London.

The film, narrated by co-executive producer and NBA star Grant Hill, is a must-see for any fan of the sport, or of the Olympics, taking viewers on a historic tour that never stops moving.

Just like Buehler’s life.

Buehler coached at Duke from 1955, when he took the head cross-country job and was an assistant for the track team -- he took over the top track job in 1964 -- until 2000.

Early in his career at Duke, Buehler violated racist norms in the 1950s by allowing athletes from the nearby historically black college, North Carolina Central, to train with his all-white Duke squad. It was the start of a lifelong friendship with Dr. LeRoy Walker, the Central coach who went on to head the U.S. track team and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“LeRoy had a miserable track; he didn’t have a full set of hurdles,” Buehler says. So the two helped quietly usher integration into Durham. “We weren’t sneaky about it,” he says. “We just did it.” The arrangement helped the U.S. win Olympic medals. In the 1956 Melbourne Games, Central’s Lee Calhoun won the 110-meter hurdles, and Duke’s Joel Shankle took the bronze as part of a U.S. sweep.

In Mexico City, Buehler had recently coached a U.S. team that included Smith and Carlos on a European tour. The two athletes were thrown off the U.S. team after their demonstration during the 200-meter medal ceremony. They knew Buehler and trusted him. He helped them get home. “They needed a ride,” he says, “and I was the logical choice.”

Carlos still refers to Buehler as “Coach Cool Cat.”

One of the most exciting moments of the film is the recounting of the first US-Soviet dual track meet, set up by Walker and Buehler at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium in 1974. Then the packed house thrilled to a 16-year-old Slaney, known then as “Little Mary Decker,” coming back on a Russian champion in the 800 meters.

With Slaney and more than 20 other Olympians on hand to see the premiere in Eugene (along with a crowd full of Oregon track junkies), the decades-old race again brought the house down during the film, as the premiere audience erupted in cheers.

There’s more to the film than track highlights, however. The film and an accompanying book are paeans to Buehler’s philosophies on coaching and life. “Small things matter,” Buehler says, like making sure that Carl Lewis had clean uniforms and warm-ups during his quest for four gold medals in 1984.

But one trait matters more than any other, says Buehler, who still teaches a popular Duke seminar on sports history and ethics after 57 years at the school.

“Persistence,” he says. “That’s the most important thing.”

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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