Dyrol Burleson Interview
Greatest running moment: That first sub-4 Mile on Hayward Field thanks to Ernie Cunliffe – that would be it.
By Gary Cohen
Dyrol Burleson was a member of the 1960 and 1964 United States Olympic teams in the 1500 meters where he finished in sixth and fifth place, respectively. He won the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Trials 1500 meters which were two of his five USA Championships at 1500 meters or the Mile. Dyrol was undefeated in his three years of collegiate competition including NCAA titles at 1500 meters in 1960 and the Mile in 1961 and 1962. The Oregon Duck was the first to receive a full track & field scholarship from legendary coach Bill Bowerman and the first to run a sub-4 Mile at Oregon’s storied Hayward Field. He broke American Records at 1500 meters and the Mile two times each and once in the 2-Mile. Dyrol was a member of the World Record 4 x Mile relay and 1959 Pan Am Games 1500 meter gold medalist. He graduated from Cottage Grove (Oregon) High School where highlights included winning the Oregon State Cross Country Championship in 1957, the State Mile title in 1958 and breaking the National High School Mile Record by nearly three seconds in 4:13.2. His personal best times include: 880y – 1:48.2 (1962); 1500m – 3:38.8 (1964); Mile – 3:55.6 (1963) and 2 Miles – 8:39.6 (1966).
Dyrol has been inducted into the USATF Hall of Fame, the University of Oregon HOF, the State of Oregon HOF and Cottage Grove High School HOF. He earned both his undergraduate and Master’s degrees from the University of Oregon and retired after 31 years with the Linn County, Oregon Parks system. Dyrol resides in Turner, Oregon with his wife, Deberra, and has two daughters.
Gary Cohen: In track & field we evaluate competitors’ careers by championships, records and Olympic performances. When you look back at your three NCAA championships in the Mile / 1500 meters, five American Records and two top-6 finishes in the Olympic 1500 meters, what does this say about your competitive career?
Dyrol Burleson: I don’t now really how to answer that except to say that I was real fortunate to have Bill Bowerman as a coach. I was raised about 15 miles south of Eugene so I had his direct influence on me the whole time. My high school coach who started me was Wallace Ciocehetti and then my junior and senior year my head coach was Sam Bell, though Coach Ciocehetti set me on the pattern. Our colors were blue & yellow at Cottage Grove High School and our workout sheets were green & yellow so you know where those colors came from. I was incredibly fortunate and wouldn’t have done anything if not for circumstances putting me there and the influence of Bill Bowerman on Coach Ciocehetti and my running.
GC: Your performances at the University of Oregon were highlighted not only by the three NCAA titles, but by being undefeated for those three years. How tough of a task was it to be undefeated for those three years and what does it mean to you?
DB: This is going to sound egotistical, but I never had a close call. When I went to Oregon, Bill Bowerman gave me the first full ride. He had always given partial scholarships and then the athletes would have jobs or their families to make up the difference. I’m goal oriented so when I went to Oregon I decided that I was not going to lose a race for Bill because I got that full ride and that worked out. Most of the goals that I’ve had throughout my life in my professional career and in my competitive running phase have all worked out so if you want to tie it all back that undefeated running career at Oregon was something that I did for Bill. I’m sitting in my den right now and I have a lot of items from my professional career. From running I have a picture of Bill and me and the two covers of Sports Illustrated I was on as my kids like those and it was one of my goals to be on the cover. Then I have the University of Oregon Hall of Fame plaque as that is the one Hall of Fame I’m in that recognizes right on the plaque that I didn’t lose a race. That meant the most to me.
GC: What do you recall as highlights of your NCAA wins such as the feeling the first time, defending your title and setting an American Record at the 1961 edition? Was it at all similar to Peter Snell telling me that he felt exhilaration when he won his first Olympic 800 meter gold in 1960 and relief when he defending his title four years later?
DB: First I am very flattered you would even mention me in any comparisons or context with Peter Snell as what he did was truly amazing. As a freshman we couldn’t run in the NCAAs so I had to wait until the AAUs to get my position as number one. It was good to win the next year, but was expected me most people. In the second NCAA race I won the further along the race went I was increasingly concerned that something would happen like maybe I’d get spiked. I guess that no matter what happens in a race a runner gets concerned. But most of my collegiate races were not against the difficult runners to beat at that time as my toughest competitors were out of college. I never ran for records as what I liked to do was winning so I never really ran for time. That is why I remember my losses fairly well. So the American Record wasn’t a goal - it just came.
GC: What was your feeling and that of Coach Bowerman when you ran not only your first sub-4 minute Mile as well as the first sub-4 at storied Hayward Field, but also set an American Record of 3:58.6 in the process?
DB: He was very pleased. I would do anything for Bill. If he told me to go jump off of a cliff I would have. So it was great. It was very exciting as it was at my home track.
GC: How much did it help to have Stanford’s Ernie Cunliffe setting the pace?
DB: You hit the nail right on the head. It was Ernie that did everything and I ended up getting the credit. I guess those were the circumstances. If he hadn’t been there and done that it could have been a 4:10 or 4:12. That first sub-4 at Hayward Field should have Ernie’s name alongside mine with an assist, a major, incredible assist. He was really a fine fellow as I got to know him on the Olympic team and he was a nice gentleman though we haven’t been in contact for many years. [NOTE: Cunliffe clocked 4:00.4, his personal record.]
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