In his father's footsteps

The Baltimore Sun

Matthew Centrowitz would take pleasure in pulverizing the course record at the Bull Run Invitational, the one cross country race the Broadneck High ace hasn't dominated.

Why, then, will The Sun's two-time Runner of the Year be missing at Hereford on Saturday?

A college visit will trump the state's most prestigious invitational, but this is more than just another recruiting trip.

It's a return to roots for a 16-year-old who was born, literally, to run.

Centrowitz will spend the weekend at the University of Oregon, where the Eugene dateline inspires anyone who ever laced up a pair of flats and tromped through pine straw. It's where coach Bill Bowerman invented the first Nikes, the backdrop for the legend of Steve Prefontaine and the site of the 2008 Olympic trials.

It's also where Centrowitz's father filled a portion of the void left by the 1975 death of Prefontaine, if not the nation's best distance runner ever, then certainly its most lionized.

A two-time Olympian, Matt Centrowitz is now the coach at American University. The weekend's symmetry will also have him in Oregon, as AU will race in the inaugural Bill Dellinger Invitational, honoring the coach who turned to tutoring the elder Centrowitz after Prefontaine died.

That relationship is among the subplots in Kenny Moore's book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. Moore was born in Eugene, ran for Bowerman, and finished fourth in the 1972 Olympic marathon. He wrote the screenplay for the Prefontaine film Without Limits, and long ago noted Centrowitz's arrival in Eugene.

"You saw this big machine of great sensitivity, a strength and smoothness with his hips," Moore said. "He moved with wonderful grace."

Hearing that, Matt cracked, "Only when I was running fast."

He was a moose of a miler. A native of the Bronx who never lost his love for the New York Yankees, Matt Centrowitz was 6 feet 1 and 170 pounds in 1973, when he nearly became the fourth American schoolboy to break four minutes.

Later that year, as a Manhattan College freshman, Centrowitz was in the field when Prefontaine became the second man to win three NCAA cross country titles. He transferred to Oregon, to run for Dellinger, who had succeeded Bowerman as the Ducks' coach. When Prefontaine died in an auto accident, Dellinger soaked some of his sadness into coaching Centrowitz.

"When I see my dad and Dellinger together," Matthew said, "it's easy to see their bond."

A U.S. record

His father represented the U.S. in the 1976 Olympic 1,500 meters, then won the 5,000 at the 1980 Olympic trials. The U.S. boycotted Moscow, where the 5,000 was won in 13 minutes, 20 seconds. Two years later, racing in Europe, Centrowitz lowered the American record to 13:12.91 and got his mile down to 3:54.94.

"You can talk about a lot of great American runners," said Frank Gagliano, another of his mentors. "Matt did run 13:12. Only two ran faster this year."

That is only half of his son's legacy.

"We joke around the house," Matthew said. "My sister is a Centrowitz. I'm built more like my mom, a Bannister."

How's that spelled?

"Just like Roger," said Matt, using the first four-minute miler as a reference.

Beverly Bannister Centrowitz played field hockey as a girl in British Guyana. That sport wasn't offered at Hunter College in Brooklyn, so she tried running, and was good enough to become a 2:08 half-miler.

She and her husband did not push their children into running.

Matthew played junior varsity soccer for Broadneck in the fall of 2003, when his sister Lauren repeated as Class 4A state cross country champion, starting the push that would make her The Sun's Female Athlete of the Year. Matthew had played soccer for Greater Harford and the Soccer Club of Baltimore, and had he weighed more than 96 pounds, he might have made the Broadneck varsity as a freshman.

Good genes and the aerobic base he acquired in soccer were evident in the spring of 2004, when Matthew ran the 3,200 in 9:47 and placed fourth in the state meet. He has since been nearly unbeatable beyond a mile, with a natural lean and efficient form that makes full use of his 5-foot-8, 122-pound frame.

Through it all, he has adhered to an Oregon basic, one Bowerman passed along to Dellinger, who won bronze in the 1964 Olympic 5,000, and in turn Centrowitz father and son.

"His credo," Moore wrote of Bowerman, "was that it was better to underdo than overdo."

From Prefontaine to Alberto Salazar to current Ducks sophomore Galen Rupp, some men of Oregon have gone against that grain and loaded on the work. Locally, Dave Cornwell routinely logged 100-mile weeks when he starred for Hereford in the early 1970s.

Last week was the first in which Matthew Centrowitz ran 70 miles. It included his first doubles, i.e., morning runs. The only company on some of his 10-milers is Dana Dobbs, the Broadneck coach who lost his hearing two decades ago, but none of his athleticism. An accomplished triathlete, Dobbs was a 7,000-point decathlete out of Edinboro (Pa.) College.

How does Dobbs feel about input from a runner's father?

"It's a unique experience, having an elite athlete," Dobbs said. "Matt Centrowitz has respected everything I've done with Lauren and Matthew. If anyone has the background to interfere, he does, but that hasn't been the case. He's definitely a resource. It's collaborative."

American hero

After assisting Gagliano at the Georgetown-based Reebok Enclave, Centrowitz went to American University in 1998. A college that a decade ago didn't have a track team is now an Eastern distance force, using what he learned in Eugene.

As fans clamor to see Matthew run, it's easy for those in his camp to stand their pragmatic ground. The decathlete in Dobbs was only good for three of those a year, and besides, Matthew won't turn 17 until Oct. 18.

The caution remained in place even after the 2006 Penn Relays turned into a Centrowitz celebration. Lauren, who last fall completed the first father-daughter duo to run on NCAA cross country champions, helped the Stanford women win the 6,000 relay, and Matthew won the 3,000 with the meet's fastest time in two decades.

That 8:20.9, for 7 1/2 laps, led to speculation that he would blow by the state 3,200 meet record of 9:07.0, and even break nine minutes. At the states, he ran under control and won by less than a second, repeating in 9:13.68. He probably could have come back the next day and won the mile, but by then he was already pointing to national competitions.

Besides Oregon, Centrowitz is planning visits to Georgetown, Michigan, Notre Dame and Stanford. He was at Texas for the Ohio State football game, a visit that conflicted with Dulaney's Barnhart Invitational. He'll conclude an abbreviated invitational season at Linganore on Oct. 7, then attempt to make it five straight years in which a Centrowitz heads a Broadneck High state championship team in cross country.

"We give him a hard time about missing meets, but we're just joking," said Jeremy Buyer, the junior who is Broadneck's No. 2 runner, of a Bull Run minus Centrowitz. "We know he'll be there when it matters."

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

Going distance

In chronological order, here are five local runners who were able to transfer their high school middle-distance and distance potential to college and beyond.

Dave Patrick / / Patrick helped Kenwood win the distance medley at the 1964 Penn Relays, then had a distinguished career at Villanova. He had earned a 1968 Olympic berth in the 1,500, until the selection process was altered - by head U.S. coach Bill Bowerman.

Bob Wheeler / / Wheeler ran mile and 880 times for Dulaney High that have rarely been approached by Maryland schoolboys. After his sophomore year at Duke, he represented the United States in the 1,500 at the 1972 Olympics.

John Scherer / / A fine two-miler for Glenelg High, Scherer went to Michigan and won the NCAA 10,000 in 1988 and 1989. Only one man has repeated in that event since.

Jeff Campbell / / The first boy named first-team All-Metro in cross country four straight times, the former Randallstown standout represented the U.S. seven times in international cross country and half-marathon championships.

Matt Holthaus / / Holthaus came to running late at Wilde Lake, but became the third - and most recent - Marylander to break four minutes in the mile. When he dipped to 3:54.83, in 1999, it was for the Reebok Enclave, where Matt Centrowitz was one of his coaches.

[Paul McMullen]

An article in Wednesday's Sports section stated incorrectly that Matt Centrowitz set an American record for the 5,000 meters while running in Europe in 1982. He actually set the record in Eugene, Ore.
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