In this column, David Hunter writes of Elmore Banton, who has experienced the sport from high school runner, to college to the coaching ranks.
One Coach’s Story
Elmore Banton’s Love Affair With Running
November 10, 2013
If you hang around running for any length of time, you soon observe that the sport has a certain addictive quality. It starts out innocently enough. A young athlete begins with a curious interest about the sport, perhaps a desire to learn more, to see what he or she can do. But then it begins. It may be a revealed natural talent for the sport. Or it may be a taste of some success as the result of some focused effort. But often – before long – a dabbling novice can quickly become a committed competitor, eager to see what can be achieved.
The life of Elmore Banton is a wonderful illustration of this. “Mo” Banton grew up during the ’50’s and ’60’s in Akron, Ohio’s inner city. As a young high school athlete, he fancied himself as a basketball and baseball player. But as often happens in life, fate intervened to influence Banton’s direction. “I really got into running by accident. I thought I was a baseball and basketball player,” he explains. “At Akron Central High School at that time, you had to play football or do some other sport to get into shape for basketball. I started running cross country at the beginning of my junior year, but I didn’t take it very seriously to be honest with you.”
But that small taste was all young Mo needed. “I actually ran pretty well without much practice,” Banton confides. A solid – but not spectacular – junior year of cross country performances was just enough to prompt Banton – and others – to wonder about his untapped potential. “Between my junior and senior year a friend of mine took me aside and told me I could be pretty good. So the summer before my senior year, I really trained seriously.” His curiosity piqued, Banton was inspired to look at running differently – not as a lark, but as a sport where he might excel. When the young runner’s summer dedication led to top shelf cross country performances in the fall, mail delivery at the Banton household picked up. “I started to get all of these letters from college coaches,” explains Banton. “Most of them were from track and cross country coaches – and only a few of them were from baseball or basketball coaches,” adds Banton with a laugh. Looking back, Elmore Banton recognizes that moment for what it was – a turning point. “I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I can do something with this running stuff.'” In less than a year after Mo took up the sport, running was beginning to present opportunities the young athlete never thought possible. “Before my senior year in high school, I wasn’t even thinking about college. I was thinking about going into the army or something like that. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do” admits Blanton. “But with these coaches calling me, I thought maybe I should give college a look.”
Banton – with less than two years of organized running under his belt – headed off to Ohio University. It was an educational opportunity made possible by his running. “I couldn’t afford to go to college,” admits Banton. “But I met with Coach [Stan] Huntsman. He got me a job and gave me a little money and I went off to OU. I just had this feeling that I could be pretty good at this.”
Banton flourished under Huntsman’s wing – dutifully following his coach’s carefully crafted training regimen. After a highly successful break-through season on the frosh squad, Banton joined the varsity OU XC squad and two other African American distance stars. With three accomplished black teammates – far from commonplace in the mid-60’s – Huntsman and the OU harriers forged the Bobcat team into a national power. “That was one of the most fantastic things about it,” reflects Banton. “People couldn’t believe that we had three black guys as the top runners on our team.”
That unique team characteristic also prompted some uncomfortable moments. During a dual meet versus Tennessee in Knoxville, Banton witnessed the dark side of the South in the ’60’s. “We were all tired from the long trip. When the gun went off, I took off like I usually do. But I felt like crap,” explains Banton. “At the two mile mark, the top Tennessee runner caught me and took a 20 yard lead. Just then, I heard a fan yell to the Tennessee leader, ‘Way to go! Don’t let that black boy beat you.’ I don’t know what happened. Suddenly, I just took off. I caught the leader and just killed him. I set a new course record that day. Later when I saw the top Tennessee runner that year at nationals, he came up to me and asked what happened back in Knoxville that day. I didn’t want to tell him what really happened; I just said ‘One of your fans inspired me.'” Banton not only discovered the harsh realities of a certain unsavory sliver of southern culture; he also discovered his inner fire.
It proved to be a fire the collegiate standout could direct in stunning ways. When a freak trip and fall in the NCAA championship race denied Banton All American status as a sophomore, the collegiate runner channeled the emotion from that disappointment into his training. “I came home that summer determined to make All-American my junior year. That summer, I worked my tail off like I never worked before. I ran a hill in front of my house hundreds of times getting ready for the fall,” offers Banton. After methodically steeling himself for the then-shorter cross country distance, Banton returned to Athens ready to do battle. “I had four miles down to a science.”
After a sparkling fall cross country season as a junior, Banton was on his way to East Lansing for the season-ending NCAA championship race – and a long-awaited shot at redemption. “I knew I could compete with the big boys. And I knew I could do well on the hilly course at Michigan State. Before the meet, it started snowing. And I thought this was wonderful. I love running in the rain, the snow, the mud. I told Coach Huntsman, ‘This is the greatest thing in the world: it’s a hilly course; it’s snowing like crazy; half the people won’t even want to run.'” Always a fierce frontrunner, Banton – undaunted by the miserable weather conditions – took the championship race out hard. “I had a 50 yard lead at the mile mark. I was scared as hell,” he laughs. “I was thinking, ‘They’re coming after me, I gotta keep on rolling.’ When I got to the 3 mile mark, I knew I could win. I knew if I could hold my composure I had it.” And he did. Finishing in 20:07.5 over Michigan State’s muddy, hilly 4-mile course, Banton rang up a comfortable wire-to-wire win – an NCAA championship first – to become the first African American to capture the individual national collegiate cross country title. “The others thought I was going to come back,” notes Banton on his front running tactic. “I never came back.”
Banton’s senior XC season – at the new 6 mile distance – featured many highlights, including a scintillating Mid-American conference win – “I broke the 4 mile course record on the way to the 6 mile victory.” While the magic wasn’t there for Banton at the NCAA championship meet, his 8th place finish nonetheless secured his second All-American honor.
As his days as a competitor were slipping away, Banton was resourceful enough to find a way to maintain his romance with running. Coaching proved to be the key. In 1980, Banton – after fulfilling a military obligation, earning an advanced degree, and serving as an as
sistant coach at the University of Akron – was named as the head coach for track & field and cross country at his alma mater – the first African American to be named to a head coaching position at Ohio University. Soon expanding his duties to the women’s programs as well, Banton went on to provide to his athletes more than two decades of the same type of thoughtful tutelage that he himself received as a collegiate athlete. The revered coach takes obvious delight in recalling the many special athletes he has coached (e.g. NCAA shot put runner-up Greg Jones and the All-American distance running Ritchie brothers) and the memorable team accomplishments he has experienced (e.g. 6 consecutive MAC titles for the OU women’s XC team).
Now serving as an assistant at John Carroll University where he has coached since 2003, Banton continues to bring the experience he has gained – both as an athlete and as a coach – to his task of guiding the fortunes of the JCU cross country and track athletes. The coach – in the twilight of his career, but savoring every moment – is playful in discussing his longevity and his inability to just walk away. “This is the first year that I haven’t coached cross country. I’m just working with the middle distance runners now,” Banton explains. “I was planning on taking the fall off. You know what I am doing now? I am running the fall track program!”
Approaching 70, Elmore Banton can look back with a quiet pride on his life’s work – a journey he never truly planned, but one that emerged so naturally from his love affair with running. As he reflects not only on his own accomplishments, but also on the many lives he has touched and shaped, he knows in his heart of hearts that the love affair – still burning brightly – is simply not over. When pressed about his future plans, Banton pauses before replying. “I’m just going to keep after it. I really enjoy these kids. Every year I say it’s going to be my last year.” And with a knowing smile he adds, “But then I always come back.”
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