Carl Lewis, the lowest paid assistant college track coach in America, was having a hard time sitting still.
"To tell you the truth, I'm kind of nervous," he said, shifting in his seat in the BYU Track Stadium. Competing is one thing. Watching your team compete is something else.Lewis' team, the University of Houston Cougars, was busy Friday night, trying to rack up points on Day 3 of the NCAA Track & Field Championships. As a law-abiding member of the Cougars' staff, Lewis was staying off the track. Jesse Owens' heir or not, when you're eligibility is up, it's up, and Lewis' was up, if you can believe it, seven years ago, in 1981. Time flies when you're Carl Lewis.
Actually, Lewis still had college eligibility remaining in 1981, when he was merely a sophomore, as far as the NCAA was concerned. But after winning the 100-meter dash and long jump for Houston at the '81 NCAA Meet, Lewis had the world to conquer.
Three short years later, there he was in Los Angeles, winning everything he could, becoming the first man since Owens to collect four gold medals in one Olympic Games.
For his encore, he went to Seoul last year, where he didn't do drugs and wound up with two gold medals and a silver.
The usual endorsement offers, movie deals, and appearance requests have followed - just a week ago he signed a deal with a major department store in Spain to develop a Carl Lewis line of clothing. Life is not all that shabby for an Olympic hero.
But the deal Lewis likes as much as any is the one that pays him the worst. Lower than minimum wage. As low as a true amateur.
He is an official employee of the University of Houston. He can park in the lot reserved for faculty and staff. He can use the school's facilities free of charge. He can get a discount at the campus bookstore. The only thing he can't do is cash is paycheck - because he doesn't get one.
He turned any idea of salary aside. How could he?, was his reasoning. Tom Tellez, the Cougars' longtime head coach, was like a father and a best friend to him when he was a Cougar, and, maybe even more significant, when he wasn't.
"I'm donating my time," he says. "I remember all the help I got."
Tellez came to Lewis with the coaching position idea - officially, he's the assistant sprint coach, under main sprint coach Mike Takaha.
"Seemed like a good idea to me," says Tellez. "He's the kind of person who loves track & field, and he loves to help out. Besides, he's a very good coach."
"Hey," added Tellez, "we still don't get all the sprinters, you know."
Then again, having Carl Lewis walk into a prospective student-athlete's front room and extend an invitation to UH can't be the toughest sell in the world.
"Well, true," agrees Lewis. In his brief NCAA career he has already had success. Just recently he was in the Denver home of Albert Ransom, very possibly the hottest high school sprinter in America, signing him up as a Cougar.
"I told him if he decided (to become a Cougar), I'd come sign him," says Lewis. "So . . . off to Denver."
It's all in a college coaches' life. Recruiting is the name of the game. That, and running a few repeat intervals with the guys when they come to school. Lewis works out regularly at the U. of H. track, and this season he worked in his workouts during the track team's practice time.
"I believe we have probably the most dynamic program in the country," he says, still sounding like a recruiter.
"Really, we have all these great athletes there. Stanley Floyd might be working out, or Joe DeLoach (former Houston and world-class sprinters). A lot of guys. It's a great situation."
Friday, the Cougars had a number of competitors in action - including LeRoy Burrell, a sprinter/long jumper from Philadelphia who may be The Next Carl Lewis. "I'm close to LeRoy," said Lewis. "But I'm close to all the team."
He says he plans to coach for a number of years. "Hopefully, for quite some time. I enjoy it very much." He lives 10 minutes from the Houston track, so the commute's not bad. And so far, the recruiting hasn't got him down.
"We're going to be great," he says. "We'll win the NCAAs next year. You heard it hear first."
When Tellez heard that prediction, he went noticeably pale.
But obviously, Lewis knows that when you're an assistant coach, you can say that and get away with it. Especially on his salary.