On the first day of spring-semester classes in January, students enrolled in P.E. 49S, “History & Issues of American Sports,” shuffle into room 101 of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Most of them are varsity athletes, and the football players and wrestlers among them somehow manage to maneuver beefy bodies and oversized backpacks into the tight space crammed with plastic chairs, a creaky wooden bench, bronze trophies, DVDs, a sofa that’s older than the President of the U.S., and stacks and stacks of sports-related periodicals.
For more than thirty years, this has been the office of Al Buehler, a middle-distance track star at the University of Maryland who came to Duke in 1955 to coach cross country. Since then, he has become as legendary as football coach Wallace Wade, from whom he inherited the hand-me-down sofa. Plaques and posters cover nearly every inch of wall space, attesting to Buehler’s impact on both Duke and the international track-and-field community.
He led Blue Devil track squads to six ACC championships; was elected president of the NCAA Track and Field Coaches Association in 1970; arranged for Duke to host the USSR Meet in 1974 and the USA-Pan Africa-Federal Republic of Germany Meet in 1975; served as team manager for U.S. Olympic Track and Field teams in Munich (1972), Los Angeles (1984), and Seoul (1988); and was head manager for the U.S. contingent at the World Indoor Track Championships in 2001. Yet his accomplishments off the track are equally remarkable. Buehler has a record of being attuned not just to sports imperatives but to cultural shifts—quietly promoting interracial sporting events as civil rights protests took place across the country and giving up all of his men’s track scholarships so that Duke could offer athletic scholarships to women the year Title IX was enacted.
At the age of eighty, Buehler maintains his lean runner’s frame. Even though he officially retired in 2000, he continues to teach this intro course, which has attracted the likes of basketball standouts Grant Hill ’94 and Shane Battier ’01. Chances are that most of the students in the class—young enough to be Buehler’s grandchildren—don’t know much about his legacy. No matter. Buehler tells them that he wants them to walk away from his class every day having learned something. “If I see blank faces,” he says, looking around the room, “I’ll know I’ve failed.”
But he’s also quick to impress upon them that they are responsible for their own learning. In the weeks to come, he says, he’ll call on them to speak extemporaneously about a sports-related subject in the news, and the final oral exam will be “eyeball to eyeball, so I’ll know pretty quickly whether you know about the quest for racial equality in sports.”
“You are all starting off with 100 points,” he says in his raspy voice. “It’s yours to blow.”
As Buehler reviews the syllabus and distributes the course textbook, ESPN Sports Century, he begins to tell stories, weaving together his encyclopedic knowledge of Duke history with references and context that the teenagers in his class can grasp. He starts with a fantastic tale that unfolds in the early 1930s, when a fledgling Duke University was able to lure Alabama’s Wade, the best football coach in the country, to Durham. “He was the Mike Krzyzewski of his time,” says Buehler. (The next week he takes the class to the Football Hall of Fame in the Yoh Football Center, where the students seem genuinely surprised by the heights that the football program reached long before they were born: the undefeated and unscored-upon Iron Dukes team of 1938, the multiple bowl-game appearances, the long roster of All-Americans, the consecutive winning seasons.)
In the course of that first hour-and-fifteen-minute class, Buehler touches on the themes that will guide the semester—the evolution of American sports from amateur exercises into a star-making, big-money machine; how the advent of televised sporting events changed the game; the impact of desegregation, Title IX, doping scandals, and NCAA regulations; and the role of athletics in higher education. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s important, he says, because today’s student-athletes need to understand the history of the landscape they find themselves in. And someday, he tells them, they may find themselves on the Duke board of trustees and be faced with critical, complicated decisions involving athletics.
But that’s only a small part of his motivation for continuing to teach this class. At heart, Buehler is a mentor. Since his arrival on a campus still segregated by race and gender, he has outlasted six Duke presidents, become a father and a grandfather, battled a benign brain tumor that’s affected his hearing and balance, had a Duke cross-country trail named for him, and coached thousands of young runners, including twelve All-Americans and five Olympians. Yet the majority of people in Buehler’s generations of admirers include alumni who never went pro, but instead incorporated his worldview into their lives. This past October, at an advance screening of Starting at the Finish Line: The Coach Buehler Story, a documentary project by Amy Unell ’03, one of his former “History & Issues of American Sports” students, hundreds of alumni and friends gave Buehler a standing ovation as the final credits rolled in Griffith Film Theater. (Grant Hill serves as the film’s executive producer.)
For now, the students in P.E. 49S seem oblivious to the fact that the man standing before them genuinely cares more about their character than whether they grasp the pivotal role Curt Flood played in paving the way for athletes to become free agents or how controversial boxer Jack Johnson helped set the stage for Muhammad Ali. As Buehler wraps up the first day’s class, a young woman asks for clarification about the following week’s homework assignment. The football players sitting on Wallace Wade’s old couch look at one another blankly when Buehler instructs students to write down their personal goals for the class.
Buehler turns his students’ attention to a Latin phrase he has written on a flip chart.
“Esse Quam Videri,” he says. “ ‘To be rather than to seem.’ I want you to write that down. You know what that means? Don’t be a phony.
“I just read in today’s Chronicle that we had a record number of applications to Duke this year. You are lucky to be here. So make it count for something.”