Wednesday, April 14, 1993
Where were you in 1972? If you were at the Kansas Relays, you were a part of history.
Never before and likely never again will a crowd as large as 32,000 file into Memorial Stadium to witness Mount Oread's traditional mid-April track and field fest.
In contemporary times, if as many as 5,000 fans show up for the Saturday afternoon spotlight events, it's considered a good crowd.
In 1972, a combination of circumstances -- but mainly an appearance by heralded miler Jim Ryun in an Olympic year -- so overwhelmed KU athletic department officials that they finally just opened the gates.
John Novotny was an assistant athletic director then, and the man in charge of everything from making sure "the National Anthem was played and that toilet paper got in the bathrooms."
Novotny, now with Packer Plastics, was also coordinating the gates. He calculated he had enough personnel working the admission booths because, in those days, the majority of fans purchased their tickets in advance.
Even with uncommonly wonderful sunny upper 70-degree weather, Novotny figured he had all bases covered. The year before they'd had a few more than 20,000 fans with decent weather.
What Novotny didn't count on was the chemistry of a brilliant spring day and Ryun, the one and only KU track and field athlete in history who could legitimately be called a drawing card.
Ryun, then world-record holder in three events -- the 880, 1500 and mile, was just beginning his training in preparation for the '72 Olympic Games.
"With Jim Ryun back we had a great advance sale," Novotny said. "The weather was good, too. What we didn't count on was the students."
Ryun, who had been named the most outstanding performer at the '71 Relays, was scheduled to go for his fifth Glenn Cunningham Mile title at 2:40 p.m.
Around 2 p.m. the mass influx began. Soon the lines at the ticket booths on the east and west sides of the stadium were stretching to unprecedented lengths.
"Starting at about 10 after two," Novotny recalled, "the backlog started forming clear into the parking lots."
Clearly, many in the student-laden lines would not make in time to see what they came for. What to do?
Novotny, wearing his business manager cap, decided he'd have too much explaining to do to boss Wade Stinson if he waived the admission price.
"I guess I was stubborn," Novotny said.
Meet director Bob Timmons wasn't, though. He didn't want anyone to miss the Cunningham Mile even though it would cost the athletic department precious revenue.
So Timmons ordered the gates opened and, said Novotny, "Boy, those students flooded in. I'd guess he let in about 10,000 peopl . . .It wasn't all just students."
Novotny was dumbfounded by Timmons' act of compassion because he knew, in the final analysis, he'd be held accountable by his boss and he knew the KU athletic director was a bottom-line man.
"I was in shell shock about how to explain this to Wade Stinson," he said.
As it turned out, neither Novotny nor Timmons was read the riot act by Stinson. However, in order to recoup some of that lost revenue and ensure the future of the Relays, a decision was made to boost ticket prices from $3 to $5.
Greed wasn't the underlying factor. Officials at Texas and at Drake, the other two stops on the midlands relays circuit, had also opted for a $5 ticket, the supposition being that they had to spend money to make money.
Today it costs a small fortune to import a well known track and field performer, but in those days you could secure one for expenses only. And the more name-recognition, the reasoning went, the greater the potential to draw a crowd.
To everyone's astonishment, though, those extra two bucks might as well have been 200.
"At $3 we had about 10,000 people buy Kansas Relays tickets in advance every year," Novotny said. "People all over the state bought 'em even if they weren't going. Many would give them away. But they'd buy 'em even if they weren't going.
"Then when we went to $5 hardly anybody bought 'em in advance anymore. We had sold only about 500 to 700 the week before the '73 Relays."
It's been 20 years now since KU officials boosted the ticket price of the Kansas Relays.
It was a mistake they haven't corrected, but one at least they've never compounded.
Today if you want to go to the Relays, you can buy a button that will allow to sit anywhere you want in the stadium anytime you want.
That button costs $5.