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Olympic Diary: Morrow put ACU on the map

Abilene Christian University (then still a college) and its hometown were the same size before Bobby Morrow (’58) won three gold medals in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. But afterward, it seemed like the world discovered both, nearly overnight.

Morrow was a sophomore when he won Olympic gold.

Morrow was the star of the U.S. team, “the fastest man in the world” and the eventual winner of the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete. When Sports Illustrated magazine decided on its 1956 Sportsman of the Year honor, it considered New York Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle and pitcher Don Larsen, who had just thrown the first perfect game in World Series history; heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson; golf’s U.S. Open winner, Cary Middlecoff; Notre Dame’s Heisman Trophy winner, Paul Hornung; and NFL icon Frank Gifford of the New York Giants. SI chose ACU sophomore Morrow, who went on to win 80 of the 88 races in which he competed as a Wildcat collegian, and pictured him on the front cover.

Somewhat lost in the tremendous notoriety Morrow brought to the school of 2,000 students was the PR engine quickly built to help the young track star and his college manage each other’s new-found fame. Morrow appeared on TV’s popular The Ed Sullivan Show and on the covers of magazine and front pages of newspapers around the world, and received hundreds of requests for speaking engagements and interviews, each handled by phone or letter. From speeches to civic clubs, guest sermons at churches and lessons at youth rallies, invitations to lead parades and serve as the starter at track meets, there were few limits to what the public asked of its new hero, who was named one of nine “Greatest Living Americans” by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Dr. Charlie Marler

Dr. Charlie Marler (’55), professor emeritus of journalism and mass communication and ACU’s first full-time sports information director (SID), remembers:

“The foresight of ACU publicity director Walter Burch prepped us for the Bobby Morrow era. I went to work for Walter on Monday after Commencement in 1955 as his publicity assistant for sports and other assignments. The next weekend, Morrow won the NAIA 100-yard title in a wind-aided time of 9.1 seconds on the McMurry track.

Three weeks later, Walter and I went to Boulder for the National AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) Championship, the granddaddy of sprint titles at Colorado Stadium. With a one-page data sheet about Morrow, we worked the press box filled with the likes of Tom Harmon, the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner. Vice President Richard Nixon and the Secret Service sat just below the press box.

Morrow, styled a “brand new phenomenon” by Sports Illustrated, claimed the granddaddy of national 100-yard championships in 9.5 seconds, unseating third-place finisher and former University of Texas great Dean Smith from the King of Texas Sprinters title.

In January 1956, anticipating a battle for a place for Bobby on the Olympic team in Melbourne, Walter sent me to the Rio Grande Valley to search newspaper archives for Morrow’s comprehensive competition record for San Benito High School. I returned to Abilene on sleet-cover highways with the data in hand from the Kingsville Record, Brownsville Herald, San Benito News and Weslaco Monitor. Walter understood the press’ insatiable desire for facts, and we were ready. I accompanied the Wildcats to the 1956 Border Olympics, a Rio Grande Valley homecoming for national champion Bobby. As usual, he won the sprints looking as if he was running with a tea cup and saucer on his head.”

Dr. Robert D. Hunter and Walter Burch

“When Uncle Sam intervened, putting me in the 8th Infantry Division in Colorado and Germany from March 1956 until January 1958, I followed the 1956 Olympics via The Stars & Stripes newspaper every morning at the mess hall. Thus, I missed the Morrow parade, the Morrow banquet and his entire sophomore and junior seasons.

Bob Hunter (’52), who came back to ACC as director of special events after completing his Navy duty in September 1956, became Morrow’s PR manager for speaking engagements and fan mail. I think that the fame of coach Oliver Jackson (’42) and Morrow did work into president Don H. Morris’ agreement that I would return after my military leave to serve as the first full-time sports information director in January 1958.

My first day on duty as full-time SID was the day we won a five-overtime basketball game in Bennett Gym against McMurry. I had been following the early 1957-58 basketball games, also in The Stars and Stripes, and knew that the strategy of coach Dee Nutt (’50) was to let the air out of the ball with scores like 22-18. At some point during this era, the sports editor of the Waco Herald-Tribune wrote a column rating the SID services of Texas colleges, and ACU ranked first. President Morris asked Reg Westmoreland, who handled sports during my absence, if we were doing too much. The answer probably was, “No, coach Jackson and his stable of sprinters were doing the real work. He had the horses.”

Some historical photos of Morrow:

Morrow made time to sign autographs for young fans.
U.S. Rep. Omar Burleson and his wife, Ruth; Bobby Morrow; and Texas Gov. Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, posed for this photo with the Wildcats’ Olympic star. Burleson was a former ACU student and Johnson later became the 36th president of the United States.
Morrow addressed a joint session of the 55th Texas Legislature at the state capitol in Austin on Feb. 12, 1957.
In 1958, Bobby Morrow Gymnasium was dedicated in his honor in his hometown of San Benito, Texas.
Bobby Morrow’s gave his three gold medals to the Smithsonian Institution, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, and ACU.
The 4×100 relay team of Morrow, Bill Woodhouse (middle left), James Segrest (middle right) and Waymond Griggs set world records in 1957 and 1958. Morrow set world records on three other Wildcat relay teams, in the 100-yard dash, 100 meters (3 times) and the 200 meters (three times).
Bobby Morrow embraces his college coach, Oliver Jackson, in Moody Coliseum on Nov. 8, 1999.
Bobby Morrow playfully stepped into the starting blocks at Elmer Gray Stadium on Nov. 8, 1999, decades after he made world history there as a collegian.
In 2008, Bobby Morrow was a speaker at the Golden Anniversary Reunion of his Class of 1958.

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