Tracking a Long-timer

January 31, 2004

 


Buehler: trail blazer

Buehler: trail blazer. Jon Gardiner.

Al Buehler is always on the move. A knock on his office door has him up, jumping out of his seat as if it's hotter than the jazz playing on his stereo. And then he's sitting you down, throwing lively, intricate stories at you while he prances around this spacious room in Cameron Indoor Stadium. His fit, crewcut-topped, five-foot-eight-inch, 130-pound, and seventy-two-year-old body is bouncing along so quickly that it's hard to focus on those objects in the room remaining stationary--seven trophies, twelve certificates, and thirty-seven plaques, to go along with three couches, three folded tailgate chairs, four cushioned seats, and seven stacked classroom chairs. Add that to the tattered brown chair behind the desk, and you could fit in twenty-three people. It's just enough room for Coach Al to cram in his "History and Issues of Sport" class, analyzing changes in American sports over even more years than he's lived.

He's popped out into the daylight now, bopping down a few steps and seating himself--for just a minute--in the alumni box at Wallace Wade Stadium. From here, the recently retired track coach has a good view of the stadium that saw him lead Duke's cross-country team from bottom of the barrel to undefeated conference champions in his first three seasons, that saw him push under-recruited athletes into twelve All-American and four Olympic track stars, that saw him longer than it saw anybody else--forty-five years, the longest tenure of any coach at the university.

Yet he's more interested in telling stories about Duke football, as if it were the program it used to be, when this stadium's namesake was still around. Coach Al mentions in passing that the renovations to the track surrounding the football field should have been done much earlier. "But we didn't have the money," he says. He finally admits that he was a champion runner himself, winning the Southern Conference half-mile title in 1951 and 1952 while at the University of Maryland. But he cuts himself off, talking instead about how he turned his ankle playing volleyball at a fraternity house while on the road for the Olympic trials, about how well his teammates did that year.

But now he's up again, out of Wallace Wade and sprinting out of the way of an oncoming bus, hopping up onto the sidewalk on his way for a walk. He strides down a steep path, right by the big blue sign reading "Al Buehler Trail." He's remembering when the Duke track team had to use bamboo shoots for pole vaulting and when the cross-country team had to train on the university golf course, until this trail was built around it. That was when they told him, "Al, I know you've had great success out here on the golf course, but you run your ass off, and we'll build you a trail so you won't be running right down the middle of the fairway."

Coach Al's taking longer strides down the trail now. He's tough to keep up with. He's moved on to stories about his greatest pupils--Olympians Joel Shankle '55, Dave Sime '58, and Bob Wheeler '74--when a young Duke tennis player who took his class last year runs toward him. Coach Al breaks from his story to smile, "Hey there! Good to see ya! Lookin' good!"

Now he's remembering 1969, when police broke up the takeover of Duke's Allen Building by black students, while less than a quarter mile away at Wallace Wade, Duke's all-white track team was practicing with North Carolina Central's all-black squad. He brushes off talk of any deeper meaning there, instead turning his head to another runner, probably one he doesn't even know, and says, "How ya doin'? Good to see ya!"

He stops to point out his home of thirty-five years, one that overlooks the fifteenth fairway and is connected to the trail by a hundred-foot path--he lives on a road named after him.

Farther down that road, he's smack-dab in the middle of a story about the USA-USSR dual meet that he organized in 1974, when 56,000 fans came to Wallace Wade and forgot about Communism for a day. He's describing how a USSR coach made him try on a blazer from his own closet, just to prove it really was his house, not some fake facility used to throw a cocktail party and impress the Soviets. The coach was hugging him, crying tears of joy. But now another jogger comes along. "Hey, Coach Al! How are you?"

"Good," Coach Al says. He's good all right, or at least he hasn't slowed down. He rushes through talk of his decision in 2000 to step down as coach, wanting instead to talk about why he chose to stay on as professor and chair of the physical-education department, why he chose to keep his life at Duke moving. "I decided I wanted to live another life."

What he's finding out, he says, is that just teaching "is a great way to downsize. Because I think I was not prepared to quit totally. So being a teacher and chairman of physical education allows me to keep things goin'."