Syracuse University Magazine

CC_main.jpgMichigan State was the snow-covered site of the 1951 NCAA cross country meet.

Fastest in the Land

Six decades after winning the NCAA title, members of the 1951 Orange cross country team reflect on their championship season

By Scott Pitoniak

Tom Coulter '56 chuckles as he recounts the crowd's reaction to those P.A. announcements heard at Syracuse University home football games 60 autumns ago. "When there was a break in the action, they would give the results of that morning's cross country meet,'' the former All-America runner recalls. "The announcer would say, 'Earlier today, it was Syracuse 15, so-and-so 45.' And you'd hear this collective groan fill Archbold Stadium. People would be saying things like, 'Oh, no, we got killed,' not realizing that in cross country, like in golf, low score wins. It went on like that throughout the 1951 season, and my teammates and I would just laugh about it. It took some time before people learned that we were doing the clobbering, rather than the other way around."

The lesson of Syracuse's dominance in the sport was driven home on November 26 that year on a snow-covered, four-mile course at Michigan State as five Orange runners combined to win the NCAA championship. Sophomore sensation Ray Osterhout '54 paced SU with a third-place finish. He was followed across the finish line by senior captain Bill Irland '52 (sixth), sophomores Coulter (12th) and Don Fryer '54 (27th), and freshman Steve Armstrong '55 (32nd). The combined 80 points by SU's "Fab Five" enabled Coach Bob Grieve's Orange to easily defeat runner-up Kansas (118) and 16 other schools in the meet. Gene Parker '54 and Bob Fine '53 rounded out the seven-member Orange squad that competed. Based on their finishes, Osterhout, Irland, and Coulter were named All-Americans. "It was," Irland says, "a very special achievement."

A somewhat improbable one, too, because Irland, the team captain and an Army veteran, was the only experienced varsity runner on the squad. "That kind of inexperience isn't exactly a recipe for success," Fryer says. "But we had some pretty talented guys and Bill was a fine leader."

Youth clearly was not wasted on the young that season as Osterhout and Coulter quickly established themselves as two of the swiftest runners in the country, teaming with Irland to form a potent triumvirate. After a two-point loss to powerful Army in the first meet of the season, SU won its next four dual meets and appeared to be peaking at the right time. At the IC4A championships in New York City a week before the nationals, the Orange finished a respectable third behind Penn State and Army, with Osterhout finishing second, Irland, fifth, and Coulter, seventh. "Unfortunately, the rest of our runners suffered off days," Irland says. "Otherwise, I think we would have won that title. But it did give us confidence heading to Michigan State for the NCAAs. We figured if Ray, Tom, and I could continue our strong running, and Don and Steve just had solid days we'd have a good shot at winning the whole thing."

And that's what happened. Ironically, Armstrong originally wasn't supposed to compete at the nationals, but Coach Grieve decided to play a hunch and use the freshman in place of a veteran runner who had underperformed in New York. "I thought I was just going along for the ride, and that I wouldn't finish high enough to figure into the scoring," Armstrong says. "I'm glad I thought wrong."

Upon their return from East Lansing, Michigan, the victorious harriers received a big spread in The Daily Orange and were invited to dinner by Chancellor William P. Tolley. "It wasn't a huge deal on campus, like football or basketball, and we understood because it wasn't particularly exciting watching a bunch of guys run four miles," Irland says. "But I do believe we boosted the spirits on campus a bit because football was down at the time, and a national championship is a big deal, regardless of the sport."

Each of the championship runners went on to enjoy successful careers after graduation. Coulter, who earned a total of 12 letters competing in boxing, track, and cross country, made a name for himself in pugilism, instructing amateur fighters for years before becoming coach of the U.S. Olympic boxing team at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. He continues to run the Syracuse Friends of Amateur Boxing Club, a nonprofit organization he formed in 1965, and recently traveled to Kazakhstan to help write an international training manual for the sport.

Irland had a long and rewarding career as a guidance counselor at Marcus Whitman High School in Rushville, New York, and currently lives in Geneva.

Fryer is retired and living in Fairview, Pennsylvania, after several fruitful decades as a chief engineer for various firms in western Pennsylvania.

Armstrong spent 20 years in the Marines before embarking on a law career and still practices law in Falls Church, Virginia.

Parker is retired and living in Ridgewood, New Jersey, after several successful decades as a partner in an accounting firm.

Following a long career as an attorney, Fine passed away on December 3, 2008.

Osterhout passed away on December 15, 2009, after several lucrative decades as an insurance executive.

"I definitely believe the discipline required to succeed in cross country translates to other endeavors," Irland says. "I know it did for me. And I'm sure it did for the other fellows, too."


The 1951 NCAA champion SU cross country team (top row, left to right): Gene Parker, Steve Armstrong, Don Fryer, Bob Fine; (front row) manager George Davis, Ray Osterhout, Bill Irland, Tom Coulter, and Coach Bob Grieve.


National champ Herb Semper and the Syracuse team exchange congratulations after the race.