Devon Allen's Story Reminiscent of Early Oregon Hurdler Jerry Tarr

Red ShannonFeatured ColumnistJuly 1, 2014

AZmilesplit/Margot Kelly

Devon Allen, the University of Oregon football recruit who "runs hurdles on the side," has possibly just ignited a turf war between track coach Robert Johnson and football coach Mark Helfrich.

The Oregon freshman has seemingly come out of nowhere to first shock the track and field world with an NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships crown two weeks ago at Hayward Field and then, this past weekend in Sacramento, a USATF Outdoor Championships title in the 110-meter hurdles.

At the NCAAs, Allen overshadowed all the big names in collegiate hurdling, winning in 13.16 seconds, the second-fastest time in college history. Then, at the USATF National Championships, the top pros did a double-take as Allen nipped longtime hurdles great and defending champion Ryan Wilson at the line to win in 13.155. World champion David Oliver and Olympic silver medalist Jason Richardson were also in that mix.  

The Phoenix native is attending Oregon on a football scholarship as a wide receiver but may soon be faced with deciding between a game of meters or a game of yards.  

In a case of history's uncanny tendency to repeat itself, Allen's dilemma hearkens back to the 1960s when another Oregon hurdler, recruited for his football prowess, found fame instead on the west straightway of Hayward Field.

Jerry Tarr came to Oregon by way of Bakersfield, California, on a referral by then-Oregon line coach Jerry Frei. Head football coach Len Casanova utilized Tarr's raw speed on offense as a receiver and took advantage of his versatility and sturdy build on the other side of the ball as a defensive end.

But it was on the rolled granite track of Hayward Field where Tarr—under the guiding hand of track coach Bill Bowerman—truly shined. The 120-yard high hurdles was Tarr's forte, though he excelled almost as well in the 220-yard low hurdles and the grueling 440-yard intermediate hurdles.

Like Allen, who has an expert hurdles partner in junior Jonathan Cabral, Tarr had legendary NFL icon Mel Renfro to push him along to greatness. That kind of one-two tandem punch in any single event is a rare and valuable asset indeed.

To further the eerie parallel, in 1962, Tarr's senior year, the NCAA Outdoor Championships had been awarded to the University of Oregon and Hayward Field. And just like 2014, the Oregon men dominated the competition in winning their first national championship by a wide margin in front of their adoring fans.

Jerry Tarr was a world-class hurdler.
Jerry Tarr was a world-class hurdler.Credit: University of Oregon Libraries

And yes, Tarr, like Allen, was crowned as champion in the high hurdles, winning in 13.5. Renfro, who had earlier leaped to a third-place finish in the long jump, ran beside Tarr all the way until hitting the final hurdle. Still, he did finish second in 13.8.

Tarr went on to win the 440 hurdles as well, in 50.3.

In 1962, the AAU meet followed the collegiate championships and was the equivalent of today's USATF National Outdoor Championships. Tarr, seemingly on a roll, was gunning for the undefeated world leader, Hayes Jones.

Would the parallel to Allen's unbelievable run be valid without a Tarr victory? He beat Hayes in 13.3 to become a rare dual champion—just like Allen.

Later that year, Tarr and Hayes went one-two in the historic USA vs. USSR meet in Palo Alto, sometimes referred to as the "greatest track meet of all time."

When it came time to choose between football or track, the choice was more clear-cut for Tarr than it is now for Allen. Due to the U.S. ban of professional athletes from the Olympics at that time, there was very little money to be made in track.

Despite the tempting lure of the 1964 Olympics (and the pleas of Coach Bowerman), Tarr chose football and played pro ball for the Denver Broncos for one year before deciding to give it up after having already suffered too many concussions for a man in his early 20s.

When the fall collegiate football season rolls around, Allen will have nothing but his own hard act to follow. If he can perform on the field as well as he did on the track, that Johnson-Helfrich war just might materialize.

Then again, half a century earlier, Bowerman and Casanova had no such tug of war with Tarr.

Perhaps Allen, like Jerry Tarr, can do both.

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