U.S. Track's Alphabet Wars

(a recap of the turbulent ’60s from the pages of T&FN)

As the 2014 track season segued from indoors to outdoors, it was off-the-track action that dominated the headlines, with USATF under fire over some decisions made at the national championships and the TFAA (Track & Field Athletes Association) looking for change.

We were reminded that this isn't the first time the domestic sport has been in turmoil, so for historical perspective we decided to reproduce our coverage of a huge hoo-ha that began in our pages in the fall of 1961. The stories of what we like to call The Alphabet Wars, from more than 50 years ago (click on a T&FN issue date below to read a PDF of our pages):


Publisher Bert Nelson calls for the establishment of a new national governing body to replace the AAU in a piece titled "Failure Of AAU System Demands New Track Federation." The suggested name is the Track & Field Federation Of America (TAFFA).


A very long piece by Nelson chronicles varied reactions to the initial piece and lays out some fast-moving developments. Ken Doherty, director of the Penn Relays, chips in his point of view…


As T&FN continues its support for bringing the AAU into the modern world, the stage is set as the AAU, USOC and NCTA (National Collegiate Track Coaches Association) prep for their annual meetings.

Respected Tulane coach Johnny Oelkers chips in with a take-it-slow bit of reality in the Letters To The Editor section:

"Throughout the history of the world, many revolutionaries have failed to gain their objectives, however noble, mainly because in their impatience, they have destroyed the good as well as the evils of the old regime.

"The resulting chaos often retards or makes impossible the very things they hope to achieve. The NCTCA executive committee has proposed a number of things that will very definitely improve track in this country, but not, I think, if at the same time they result in the crippling or death of the AAU."


This month's piece was titled AAU Personnel Changes and began, "High command of the AAU has undergone the most complete change in decades, which if not the direct result of recent criticism of the AAU, can be pointed to as a strengthening of the AAU."


Fully supported by the NCAA, the National Collegiate Track Coaches Association (NCTCA) announces the formation of the United States Track & Field Federation (USTFF). Reaction is mixed.

•The NCAA, of course, is all for it.

•The AAU, of course, is opposed and says it will not join.

•The NAIA takes a wait-and-see attitude.

•The USOC calls for a "compromise of differences."

•Coaches, as sampled by an informal T&FN poll, are divided, but more seem against the new federation than for it.

•Athletes are described as "unconcerned or confused."

•The public, at least "as is represented by the nation's press," is against the new federation. Press comments nationwide are running better than 5–1 against.

•T&FN, despite being the early voice in calling for a new federation, is reserved, saying that "we must withhold such a greeting until we know more about the outfit. Only near-meaningless generalities have been released."


The USOC brokers a February sitdown with the NCAA and AAU which goes nowhere. AAU head Louis Fisher says, "The meeting was a complete waste of time." More meetings are scheduled.

Meanwhile, it's unclear whether or not the USTFF was actually created in January as reported in last month's issue.

(An aside: the big issue of the month is the ongoing debate on whether or not the fiberglass pole should be outlawed.)

MARCH 1962

Formation of the NCAA-backed USTFF is postponed. A proposed meeting of major stakeholders falls flat when the AAU, NAIA and high schools don't participate.

T&FN editorializes, "Sadly overlooked in the heat of battle has been the athlete, whose betterment is the only justification for waging the fight. Once the AAU, NCAA and others have gotten together in newly planned committees they must see that never again is the athlete, and track as a whole, so mishandled as to allow such a bitter struggle to take place."

APRIL 1962

"All was quiet on the firing lines," was the lead of a very short piece. For the first time since the war erupted in September there were no public meetings or announcements, although the head of the national HS federation told T&FN that his organization "enthusiastically supports" the proposed USTFF.

JUNE 1962

After a month in which nothing happened, the latest update noted that July was now set as the target month for the founding of the USTFF. The NAIA remains firmly on the side of the AAU.

In an editorial, T&FN urges caution, saying, "The NCAA is attempting to sell the track world a new product. Before buying, shouldn't we know more about the product and its cost?" The editorial also notes that the IAAF "scholarship" system is not looked upon kindly by the IAAF, who believe in amateurism in its purest form, and that getting the international governing body to accept a new federation would be tough sell.


After a quiet month, the USTFF puts itself very much back in the news, setting up 4 "national championship" meets that would directly conflict with the AAU Championship meets on the same dates. The USTFF's new table of organization no longer sets aside a place for the AAU.

For its part, the AAU warns U.S. athletes that competing in USTFF meets can lead to suspension. The IAAF president says that as far as the international governing body is concerned, the AAU represents the sport in the USA.


After another quiet month, things really ramp up as the front page of T&FN headlines "Track Showdown Begins." The AAU and the new USTFF both lay down rules that athletes have to declare allegiance to one group or the other.

Other developments: Chic Werner resigns as coach at Penn State to take over as executive director of USTFF; the IAAF strongly reaffirms its commitment to the AAU; calls for government intervention in the dispute become more numerous.

In an editorial titled "Settle The Fight," T&FN says, "Something must be done about the intensifying struggle for control of track before the warring AAU and USTFF succeed in irreparablyharming the sport they both profess to serve so nobly."


After a year of making headlines, the NCAA/AAU squabble over governing track is apparently over, as T&FN's front page says, "Track Fight Ends." The new agreement hasn't been ratified yet, but apparently a new organization will be formed, including all parties.

The issue also contains the shortest editorial in print history, plus Publisher Bert Nelson's thoughts on where the new organization needs to go.


The AAU/NCAA war reached the highest level, as a piece titled "An Uneasy Peace" quotes a guy known as JFK (yeah, we're talking POTUS) who says, "The governing bodies of these groups apparently put their own interests before the interest of our athletes, our traditions of sport and our country."

Additionally, the national collegiate coaches association runs a full-page Ad in T&FN's pages, citing perfidy on the part of the AAU.


As a new year dawned, a T&FN story by Jim Dunaway headlined "Peace Breaks Out" is the big news on the AAU/NCAA war front. A new agreement was reached after two days of discussion mediated by none other than General Douglas MacArthur, appointed by President Kennedy to run the arbitration.


"Dispute Still Unsolved" is the headline on the latest AAU/NCAA developments, but the good news is that General Douglas MacArthur's arbitration effforts have "whipped the bickering factions into line in time to save a faltering indoor season."

MARCH 1963

"NCAA, AAU Still At It" was the sad refrain, as the war showed no signs of real resolution. General Douglas MacArthur says the arguments of each side is convincing but he is inclined to suspect that it's a fight for "international prestige" that's fueling the animosity.

APRIL 1963

By April of 1963, T&FN is lamenting, "No End To Track War?" Bert Nelson writes, "Trying to keep up with the NCAA/AAU war in which track is used as the battleground is as frustrating as trying for consistency with the fiberglass pole."

JUNE 1963

After a quiet month, a story by Jim Dunaway is titled “War Flares, Then Quiets” as the AAU and NCAA started to bicker again but are “put down firmly” by General Douglas MacArthur. In a separate piece, Dunaway asks of the new federation, “What Is The USTFF Up To?”


The uneasy AAU/USATF peace brokered by General Douglas MacArthur was never guaranteed to stay in place beyond the end of the Olympic cycle, and with Tokyo out of the way, a year and half of governance calm and quiet came to an end, as T&FN headlines on the front page, “NCAA-AAU War Revives.”

The story by Editor Bert Nelson begins, “College athletes are caught in no-man’s land as the NCAA resumes its war on the AAU. Called off until after the Olympics, the 3-year-old power struggle begins again. The NCAA still wants to take over, via its puppet USTFF many of the functions of the AAU. The AAU continues to resist the usurpation of its powers.”…


The NCAA/AAU War is back in action, but as the post-Olympic year dawn, T&FN headlines "Temporary Moratorium" as the NCAA Council votes to call off the boycott for the first two months of the year.

Having spent most of the time since the ruckus started in the fall of '61 being mostly reporters of the news, T&FN clarifies its editorial viewpoint on the whole thing.


By this juncture, the AAU/NCAA conflict is being referred to as "Track's Civil War" and the front page headline reads, "The Boycott, With Hope" and the lead story says that the sport is headed to the outdoor season under the cloud of restricted competition but with the hint of a silver lining in the form of more negotations.

T&FN conducts an opinion poll of leading collegiate coaches and finds little support for the NCAA's role in the whole affair. An editorial titled "The Coaches Speak" addresses the poll.

MARCH 1965

The front page of T&FN notes that April is relay month, but says, "The meets will not be the same as usual as the NCAA boycott of AAU sanctioned meets begins to take its effect on the athletes of America."

APRIL 1965

The front page of T&FN headlines "War Begins To Hurt" and continues, "The troubled times of track & field continue, and are likely to get worse before they get better," as NCAA restrictions on competition is affecting more and more athletes.

T&FN editorializes "Let There Be Reason," saying, "The war between the NCAA and AAU is of vital concern to track in the U.S., yet it is conducted in a sea of ignorance, confusion and misunderstanding."

MAY 1965

As the heat gets turned up in the AAU/NCAA dispute, T&FN's front page headlines "Concern Over Civil War Grows," saying "Concern for the plight of the American trackman is growing as the approaching climax of the season emphasized the division created by the NCAA boycott of AAU-sanctioned meets."

The monthly editorial is titled "You Can Help End Fight" and includes getting Congress and President Lyndon Johnson involved.

JUNE 1965

At this juncture, track's civil war is really on, as the front page of T&FN says, "Athletes To Defy NCAA" as the AAU Championships are about to be staged.

In an issue with very deep coverage of the rift, T&FN editorializes twice, with Bert Nelson writing "Come On, Let's Arbitrate" and Cordner Nelson adding "Five Ways To Peace."

JULY 1965

U.S. track & field finds itself in a very bad place in the middle of '65. T&FN's coverage of the AAU/NCAA civil war headlines "Now What Happens?" as a hardline stance on sanctioning by the NCAA has led to many top collegians skipping the AAU Championships and others risking a ban for having competed.

T&FN editorializes, "A Disgusting Chapter" as scholarships for some athletes are now in danger of being pulled and some notable collegiate stars were denied the chance to make the national team.


In the wake of the NCAA's forcing athletes out of the AAU Championships, T&FN headlines "Senate Investigates" as the federal government schedules hearings that will feature such prominent athletes as Gerry Lindgren and Randy Matson and coaches like Bill Bowerman.

Chair Warren Magnuson tells the Senate, "This dispute has gone on long enough. It is now the duty of the Senate to speak out for those who have no voice…"


The new is minimal, but significant in track's Civil War. "Solution Up To Senate," headlines T&FN, noting that the outcome of the NCAA/AAU war now rests in the hands of the Commerce Committee of the United States Senate. Binding arbitration seems to be the way to go.


In the first good news on the subject of the AAU/NCAA Civil War on the front page of T&FN in many a month, the headline reads "Finally There's Hope." An "uncertain by hopeful truce" has been declared between the warring bodies after a Senate resolution.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey will be naming a 5-man arbitration board whose decisions will be binding on both parties.


The news is good as this issue contains just one short story, and it's headlined "Unrestricted Competition" as the NCAA's boycott of AAU-sanctioned meets has been lifted. An arbitration board is still being formed by the Senate, however.


What a nice Christmas present for the sport as the front page of T&FN headlines "NCAA, AAU Agree!" An arbitration panel still has to release its findings, but the two warring bodies have each agreed that each others' sanctions for meets will be sufficient.

And they all lived happily ever after… right?