Looking Back... Florida State's Outdoor Success in 1984
June 11, 2008
ACC runners and jumpers and throwers are competing in this weekend's NCAA track and field championships in Des Moines, Iowa. Few will be able to match the accomplishments of the 1984 Florida State women's track and field team.
The Florida State women's track team reached national prominence in the early and middle 1980s, culminating with an NCAA title in the 1984 outdoor championships. The team was built around a core of exceptional sprinters, world-class athletes who excelled individually and in relays.
Head coach Gary Winckler says, "We didn't plan it that way. We had a full-team, distance runners and jumpers and the rest. But sprinters love warm weather and that got us in the front door of any sprinter on the East Coast. We had some success and it just built from there."
Winckler identifies another reason. "Not many big schools in the East were committing resources to women's athletics in those days. Florida State was one that was. Barbara Palmer [FSU women's athletic director] was a real hustler. She set high goals and worked hard to put Florida State in position to be successful."
Winckler came to Tallahassee from Oregon State, where he helped coach while earning a doctorate in mathematics. He thought he might combine coaching and teaching but gave up the professor side of things. Winckler laughs "They were paying more for track and field coaches than math professors." He spent a couple of years as an assistant to Roger Smith, focusing on sprints, before taking over as head coach in 1981-82.
Florida State finished third in the 1981 AIAW national championships. The NCAA took over the following season and Florida State duplicated its third-place finish. Tonja Brown won the 400-meter hurdles and Marita Payne captured the 400 meters in 1982, Florida State's first NCAA track and field national champions.
The Seminoles were traveling in elite company by this point and they moved up to second place in 1983, trailing only UCLA. Payne, Randy Givens, Brenda Cliette, and Angela Wright combined to give Florida State titles in the 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter relays.
Payne, Givens, and Cliette all returned for 1984 and all were poised to help Florida State move up one position to the top.
Smith and Winckler had recruited this talent from a variety of locales. FSU had a number of international runners, Payne the most gifted of them. She was born in Barbados but moved to Ontario when she was nine. Her prep coach put her in touch with Florida State. She confirms that she loved the warm weather but even more she was drawn to "a mixture of people who had goals and talent and were willing to work. Wanting to improve was contagious."
Another attraction was Winckler, who Payne says "was serious, dedicated, and knew what he was doing. It's one thing to have a fine machine, but someone has to know how to run the machine. He knew."
Randy Givens was Payne's classmate. A native of Amityville, N.Y., she specialized in the 100 and 200 meters, while Payne was more gifted in the 400.
Brenda Cliette was a couple of classes behind Payne and Givens. She came to Florida State from nearby Macon, Ga., as a basketball recruit but quickly made her mark on the track at 100 and 200 meters. After averaging 13 points per game as a freshman, Cliette gave up basketball.
Winckler says, "Brenda was the most physically gifted runner we had. It was never my intention to have her become a track specialist. We were perfectly content to share her with the basketball program for four years. But she realized that she had more of a future in track and made her decision."
The lines blurred, especially in relays, where Givens and Cliette would move up to run legs of the 4x400 and Payne would move down to run a leg of the 4x100.
Payne says, "I wanted the challenge of trying something different. Trying to match Randy and Brenda at the 100 just made me faster. On the other hand, I think I helped them improve their endurance. We worked together so well."
That teamwork was apparent in the relays. Payne remembers, "We spent as much time on relays as we did anything. It wasn't something we did as an afterthought. We perfected our baton-passing technique but more importantly we got to know each other, everyone's dispositions, where we fit in." The result was two dominant relay teams.
The 1984 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships were held in Eugene, Ore., on the campus of the University of Oregon. Winckler says, "We felt pretty good going in. If you have a solid group of sprinters, you can mix and match them in races and relays and that will take you a long way."
Payne gives a lot of credit to Winckler's precision. "We were so focused. We had goals and we worked towards those goals. Winning the NCAA was one of the goals. It was all laid out on paper. We knew exactly what we had to do and how we were going to do it."
What they had to do was dominate the sprints. Givens captured the 100 meters in 11.06, with Cliette coming in second. Freshman Michelle Finn finished fourth. Givens, Cliette, and Payne gave FSU a crucial 1-2-3 in the 200 meters, with Givens posting a winning time of 22.87. Janet Davis added a sixth in the 200, while Orvil Dwyer-Brown finished sixth in the 400-meter hurdles.
While Payne picked up valuable points in the 200, her forte was the 400 meters. She captured that race in 51.05, a time that would have won the NCAAs as recently as 2006.
Tennessee was providing most of FSU's competition, led by Joetta Clark's win in the 800 meters and Myrtle Chester's runner-up in the heptathlon.
It came down to the relays. FSU swept them. Cliette, Finn, Payne, and Givens captured the 4x100 in a time of 43.72. Tennessee was runner-up in 44.16. Davis replaced Finn in the 4x400, which FSU won in 3:28.93, well ahead of the runner-up Vols in 3:32.85.
Florida State ended the meet with 145 points, holding a 21-point margin over Tennessee. Stanford (71) and Oregon (64) were well behind in third and fourth, respectively.
Since 1984 was an Olympic year, several of FSU's top athletes also had Los Angeles on their minds. Payne recalls, "Coach Winckler had devised a schedule that allowed us to peak three times, for the NCAAs, the Olympic trials, and the Olympics."
It certainly worked for Payne. She made the Canadian team and won a pair of silver medals, not surprisingly in the two relays. The United States won both races. Payne finished fourth in the 400 meters, her time of 49.91 less than a half-second shy of the bronze. Givens finished sixth in the 200 meters at 22.36, while Cliette was an alternate at 200 meters.
Payne and Givens ended their college careers in 1984. Despite losing these mainstays, FSU won the 1985 NCAA Indoor Championships and finished second behind Oregon in the 1985 Outdoor Championships. Finn had emerged as an outdoors star in 1985, winning the 100 meters and finishing second in the 200 meters, while Esmeralda Garcia won the triple jump.
Winckler left Florida State following the 1985 season to take the head coach position at the University of Illinois. An 11-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, Winckler is retiring after this season.
Florida State has maintained a nationally competitive program, with a 14th-place finish last season and 20 total appearances in the NCAAs. Although not yet a member of the ACC in 1984, Florida State is the only current ACC school to win an NCAA women's track & field team title, either indoors or out. The FSU men's team, of course, has won the last two NCAA outdoor crowns.
Payne, Givens, Friette, and Finn are all members of the Florida State Sports Hall of Fame and their best times are still at the top of the FSU charts.
Payne, who won 21 All-America designations at FSU, also represented Canada in the 1988 Olympics, although she did not medal. She is married to former Florida State basketball star Mitchell Wiggins. Marita Payne-Wiggins is back in Ontario and works in the insurance business. She characterizes the 1984 title this way. "It's all about goal-setting. Set goals, do the work, accomplish the goals. That's what great athletes and great teams do."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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