Houston McTear, left, competes in the Sunkist Invitational at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1982.
Houston McTear, left, competes in the Sunkist Invitational at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1982. (Getty Images / Getty Images)

Houston McTear died Nov. 1. He was 58.

That sentence, of course, will prompt the immediate question (unless you are over 50 or a track geek): Who is Houston McTear?


We will tell you as best we can, although McTear is a book, not a sports column.

In the late 1970s, McTear was the fastest man in the world, a title best bestowed on Olympic 100-meter champions. It worked for Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, Carl Lewis. Now, for Usain Bolt.

McTear never even got into an Olympic starting block. In 1976, he was stopped by a hamstring injury. In 1980, he was stopped by Jimmy Carter's Olympic boycott.

Nevertheless, McTear was a national sensation.

On May 9, 1975, a star prep runner in Florida, he clocked 9.0 seconds in the 100-yard dash. That tied Ivory Crockett's world record at the time. No matter that it was hand-timed and that the 100 yards would soon be less relevant because they ran 100 meters in the Olympics. It was still spectacular, and it made national headlines.

McTear lived in rural Florida, and stories often described his home as a shack, housing a family of eight in one room.

He described his most joyous childhood moments as racing the local train and beating it.

Soon, lacking a high school diploma and any interest in history or calculus, McTear was gathered up and brought to California. He had several godfathers in this endeavor, all talking about his education and most thinking about the 10% agent fees generated by Olympic stars.

Muhammad Ali read about McTear and bought his family a new home in Florida. A fast-talker named Harold Smith — not his real name, but more on that later — persuaded Ali to start a track club in his name, finance it and make McTear the centerpiece. Ali did, and the fun had just begun.

Ron Allice drifted into the middle of all this. Allice is nationally renowned and retired two years ago as USC's track coach. In the McTear days, he was working in track's middle class, coaching at Long Beach State.

"I had three scholarships," Allice says now. "I was pulling elephants out of hats."

So, when Smith asked Allice to borrow a starting block for McTear's training at Santa Monica City College, Allice said yes.

"I was tantalized with the thought of getting Houston McTear," Allice says.

Starting blocks led to bigger things. Allice ran meets for the Ali Club at Cerritos College, with its 12,000 seats and long straightaway, with a gate to the street on one end.


"We're one-third through one meet," Allice says, "and the gate flies open. Three limos drive right in and down the straightaway. They stop, Ali and his entourage get out, walk over and sit in the officials' chairs. The officials threaten to boycott. The meet stops and I run around to fix it."

Smith also enticed Allice into running several indoor meets. Smith (Ali) paid $65,000 to have a wooden indoor track built and shipped. After a couple of years, with Al Franken's Sunkist meet dominating in L.A., Allice's indoor track-managing career ended. The expensive track was stored in the Long Beach Arena. When that space was needed for the '84 Olympics, it was moved to a storage unit.

Soon, when there became a market for the track and it was owned by a bank — more on that soon — the bank asked Allice to get it, thinking they'd get $90,000 for it. Allice went to the storage unit and found no track, just lots of dry rot.

All this time, McTear had been well taken care of. Smith had provided a Westside apartment and lots of cash. McTear later told a reporter he had about $400,000 in the bank.

But one day, the police came and gathered up Smith, whose real name was Ross Fields and who had conned his way from the East while seeking a career as a boxing promoter. A con man wanting to be a boxing promoter? Who knew?

It turned out that Harold Ross Fields Smith had embezzled $21.1 million from Wells Fargo Bank.

McTear stayed around. Track dreams gave way to a cocaine habit. He said later he was going through $200 to $300 a week on cocaine. He also spent 29 days in jail in 1988 on a drug-dealing charge.

Soon, nothing was heard from Houston McTear. Smith was in jail. McTear had gone through all his money and was homeless, living on the beach in Santa Monica, for about three years.

Later in 1988, a Fort Lauderdale News & Sun Sentinel reporter found him and described that as follows:

"Houston McTear, 31, squints to the south as he sits on a bench, streaked with bird dung at the end of the Santa Monica Pier."

When asked about Smith, McTear said little, other than to identify some rich coincidence. "I had all my money in a Wells Fargo Bank," he said.

Through Allice and one of his recruits, McTear eventually met a woman, married her, had children, tried a track comeback that failed and drifted again for a while. His marriage broke up and his wife returned home to England with the children.

Eventually, McTear met Linda Haglund, a Swedish track star, when she was coaching at Santa Monica City College. They married, moved to Sweden and, by all reports, have been there, for more than 20 years. McTear died of lung cancer.

Smith may still be around. He served as a boxing consultant after his release from jail, and eventually acquired enough prominence to have Don King call him a "crook."

With the passage of time, Allice has been able to enjoy memories of those days. For all the work he did, he was paid exactly zero.

"I hadn't talked to Smith in years," Allice says, "and then, one night, the phone rings and it's him. He talks like we are long lost friends. He says he is going to jail the next day, but he's having a big going-away party.

"And he invited me."

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes