The Way I See It

By Pat Bigold

Tuesday, July 15, 1997

Can Masback save
U.S. track and field?

IF any sport ever needed a Peter Ueberroth or a Pete Rozelle, it is United States Track and Field.

With a budget deficit in the range of $2 million, Nike pulling out of the indoor circuit, events drying up left and right (four indoor and two outdoor meets this year), and its most popular female middle distance star (Mary Slaney) banned from competition, the sport is right where Anne Roberts, elite athlete recruiter for the New York City Marathon, told ESPN running commentator Toni Reavis it is in an interview earlier this year:

"On its knees."

When Ollan Cassell's unenlightened 31-year reign over U.S. running came to an end in December and a seven-month search began for his successor, Roberts, USATF long distance running committee chairman Bob Wood and Honolulu Marathon Association president Dr. Jim Barahal were among those hoping "a CEO type" savior might emerge.

Someone with the imagination, fiscal sense and boldness of a Rozelle or Ueberroth. Someone unattached to the sport with a completely fresh outlook.

Said the outspoken Roberts in her interview with Reavis, "Get somebody with an out-of-shape body and MBA from Harvard and we'd hit the ground running in two years."

THE 60-year-old Cassell, who came to power in 1965 as administrator for track and field in the old Amateur Athletic Union, was a member of the U.S. gold medal 4x400-meter relay team in 1964 in Tokyo.

"The last thing we need is another ex-athlete with a medal in anything," said Roberts.

So, how did USATF end its exhaustive search this week for Cassell's successor? You got it -- by hiring another ex-athlete.

The new USATF executive director is Craig Masback, the 1980 national indoor mile champion and former U.S. indoor record-holder at 3,000 meters.

The 42-year-old Masback is a lawyer, has been a broadcaster for NBC and is currently a columnist for Runners' World.

Now, let's not prejudge what Masback can do for the sport, but he can't offer the pure objectivity of the other two finalists for the $150,000-a-year position.

They were Thomas Chestnut, former executive vice president of the Philadelphia 76ers, and Robert Vowels, an assistant commissioner for the Big Ten Conference.

THE long process that landed at Masback's doorstep was strongly criticized by one of two search panel members who resigned in disgust.

Wood said he quit because the best candidates were not among the finalists and the best possible people to give the sport a fresh start were not even sought.

Masback is certainly a knowledgeable choice with a sense of the sport's history and he has been outspoken about what needs to be done to make it marketable again.

But Masback's file shows that he served six years on the board of directors for The Athletics Congress (TAC-the organization that preceded the USATF) and has been a member of TAC's marketing and media committee.

That kind of background is what worries the reform-minded USATF members about Masback.

Answerable to the USATF's executive committee, will his former working relationship with Cassell draw him into becoming a likeness of the deposed dictator of track and field?

Will Masback represent the USATF's lost chance to become a thriving business, supporting a booming sport?

For track and field's sake, I hope not.

Pat Bigold has covered sports for daily newspapers
in Hawaii and Massachusetts since 1978.

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