Who Is John Jacobs?

Debbie Copp
By Debbie Copp
Director of Publications

NORMAN – Who exactly was John Jacobs, the man for whom the University of Oklahoma’s track and field facility is named and whose name has been on this weekend’s track and field meet for 47 years now?

Once you read through his accomplishments, it would be most appropriate to call him the “father of track and field” at the University of Oklahoma. Before his death in 1978, if you had called him that, you had better have been a world class sprinter. The all-around OU athlete and longest tenured Sooner coach at the time of his retirement would not have been shy about his displeasure at your words.

Jacobs arrived at the University of Oklahoma as a collegiate track and field athlete in 1911, starting what would ultimately be a nearly 57-year relationship between Jacobs and the University of Oklahoma. Born in Garland, Texas, in 1892, Jacobs came to OU from the small town of Mangum, deep in the short grass part of the state of Oklahoma. His last year of high school came in 1910 but he never graduated before he  came to OU. To avoid the boredom of the required gymnasium classes for non athletes, he took up track even though he had never seen a track shoe.

He quickly became a track and field sensation. He ran the hurdles and was the leadoff man on the mile relay team. He also competed in the high jump and the broad jump, now known as the long jump. Before his graduation, he had tied a world record in the 120-yard high hurdles, running on a sandy track in Weatherford. He owned a number of dirt track records at the time of his graduation from OU.

After his graduation with a bachelor’s degree in history, Jacobs coached high school sports in Sherman, Texas, Corsicana, Texas, and Ponca City. In 1922, then OU Director of Athletics Bennie Owen named Jacobs the head track and field coach and the rest is Sooner history.

The success of his athletes and, in reality his success as a coach, earned the Texas-born coach multiple honors. In 1957, he was inducted into the Helms Foundation Track and Field Hall of Fame. Jacobs, as usual, had a response that started with humor, then wrapped around to what he really felt. “They must give those things on longevity. Seriously, how can I convince myself that I deserve this fine honor? Please convey my thanks and appreciation.”

In 1955, he was named Track Coach of the Year by the Knute Rockne Club of Kansas City. In 1977, he was inducted into the old Oklahoma Athletic Hall of Fame and, in 2003, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Drake Relays Hall of Fame two years after his death in 1978.

He developed six Olympians as the Sooner coach – Tom Churchill, decathlon, 1928; Glenn Dawson, 3000-meter steeplechase, 1932 and 1936; J.W. Mashburn, who ran on the mile relay, 1956; Neville Price, broad jumper for South Africa, 1956; Anthony Watson, broad jumper, 1960; and Mike Lindsay, shot put/discus for Great Britain, 1960. He was the honorary referee of the 1943 Texas Relays, the 1950 Kansas Relays and the 1951 Drake Relays and ultimately served as the honorary referee for every major relay carnival. He also served as the referee of the National Collegiate meet.

To John Jacobs. A fierce, but friendly and always honorable opponent.
On a plaque presented by Big Eight coaches upon his retirement

His indoor teams swept three conference indoor championships without a heated indoor track in which to practice and added a fourth later in his career. Nine others placed second. His outdoor team won 19 consecutive dual meets in 1924-29 and won the conference crown in 1935, 1961 and 1962.

He coached six Sooners who won outdoor NCAA titles – Frank Potts, pole vault, 1925; Parker Shelby, high jump, 1929; Floyd Lochner, two mile, 1935; Bill Lyda, 880, 1942; J.D. Martin, pole vault, 1960; and Anthony Watson, broad jump, 1962. He coached a double national indoor champion, Bill Calhoun, who won the 60-yard dash in 1966 and the 440-yard dash in 1967.

When he offered to step down as head coach but to remain on the staff as the associate coach, Jacobs assured people that “I’m not quitting, I’m just slipping. Lately, I’ve caught myself telling the same fish story three or four times to the same person.”

When OU built a new outdoor track and field facility in 1957, Jacobs was the one to design it. Competition on the new track was fast as nine conference records were broken in 10 running events during the Big Eight Conference meet in 1959. OU’s longtime sports information director Harold Keith suggested the new facility be named for Jacobs, who had served as OU’s head coach for 35 years at that point. While the standing policy at the time was to not name facilities for people who were still alive, in 1962, the regents reversed that policy and John Jacobs Field was named.

In July 1968, Jacobs stepped away from coaching completely. He told people that “he had tried to retire in 1957 but the administration got busy hiring all those football coaches and forgot to take me off the payroll.

“If I can’t fish, I can’t coach. My health has been bad – have everything in the almanac -- and if I go fishing in the morning, it’s hard for me to coach track that afternoon. Track practice lasts all day anymore. Not like it used to be.”

He went on to explain further. “The big difference is what I call alternate running. Today a guy will run 20 quarters in practice and walk 220 yards in between each of them. We never did this in the old days. A miler would run a mile in practice. Now they run all around it. And they run a lot more.”

Jacobs had a unique way of coaching, using humor and home-spun advice, something those who competed for him remembered long after their OU careers were over. He achieved results almost as much with his humor as by his actual coaching. It also made entertainment out of what is so often drudgery in track and field training. Much of his instruction was not only funny but also bore the stamp of truth.

One of those who lived with what he learned from Jacobs was Bill Weaver, who would later change his first name to Dennis and play Chester in Gunsmoke. In 1946, as Bill Weaver, he competed in the decathlon for Jacobs and OU. Making a presentation to Jacobs in later years, Weaver praised his coach for his wisdom. “There is a philosophy about his coaching that you can carry all through your life.”

Jacobs, called the Will Rogers of the red dirt track by one writer, often had football players join the track and field team in the spring and he cautioned them before their first competition by sharing that “In a track meet, you are on your own. You just can’t put on a helmet and hide behind 10 other guys.” That sense of being alone is part of the reason that Jacobs would often disappear high into the stands or under the scoreboard once the meet started. He also did that because he believed the meets were about the athletes and not the coaches.

He had an extremely talented hurdler who had a habit of swinging his left arm above his head while clearing the hurdle. Jacobs told the young man that “you hurdle like the ancient Greeks. They used to hurdle for beauty. The idea was to go over the hurdle looking beautiful (at this point, Jacobs would go into an exaggerated pose of gracefulness). The one that got the most cheers won. Hurdling for beauty.”

That hurdler would later praise his coach’s words that gave him an image of what he was doing wrong. “If he had showed me how to do it right, he would have had to tell me a dozen times. I saw instantly what he meant when he gave me the business about an ancient Greek hurdler. Then, I was ready to listen to his actual instructions about how to get that hand down out of my face.”

One of his half milers, who was a voice major, was late to practice one afternoon right before the Big Seven Conference meet. He apologized to his coach, explaining that he had to make up a voice lab he missed when the team made its annual trip to the Drake Relays. His coach responded in typical form. “You sang all the way up there in the back seat of the car. I’ll give you an affidavit on that.”

Jacobs, who let his “boys” call him Jake after their freshman years, had a coaching career that spanned 46 years, going from the days of running on a dirt track and relay runners touching fingers to expanded events, alternate training methods and desegregation.

There were no scholarships for track and field when he was brought to Oklahoma to build the program. He would bring athletes to Norman, then find unique jobs for them so they could pay bills. The national champion and three-time Drake Relay champion, Shelby, was an attendant at the state mental hospital on the east side of Norman. Another man worked the overnight shift at the railroad express office and had to be awakened in the afternoon to throw the javelin. Another national champion, Lochner, brought a Jersey cow to town with him and would wake before dawn to milk her and peddle the milk to a customer route.

His Sooners trained for years in an area that few would believe today. An open air indoor dirt track was located under the stands on the east side of the stadium. Jacobs coined the term “Pneumonia Downs” and it was an area used by many Sooner sports to train in the often fierce Oklahoma winters. When snow would melt and drip through the stands onto the “track,” umbrellas were an important piece of training and competition equipment. Jacobs knew that it took a special kind of athlete to be able to train and to succeed at Pneumonia Downs. “Only kids who were raised on bean soup and corn bread can stand up under here.”

Jacobs always downplayed his impact as the head coach. One year, the favored Sooners had just about everything go wrong during the indoor conference meet. Athletes pulled muscles, ran into each other and knocked each other out of the race. Finally, the Sooners’ vaunted mile relay got knocked out of the championship with yet another injury. When Jacobs returned to the hotel, someone had stolen his beloved hat.

A few weeks later, the Sooners ruled at the Texas Relays. When someone praised Jacobs for his team’s performance, he pushed it aside. “This is sure some hat I bought. If anything, this is a faster hat than the old one.

Still, some of his advice rings true today.

On a trip to Nebraska during the war, Jacobs, who left notes hand written in pencil tacked to the locker room door for his team as a way of communicating with them, shared that “At this time, it is almost impossible to get hotel rooms for a track team. Please leave the rooms at Lincoln intact. We have several trips and need to be in good standing with all hotels. They know who is in the rooms and so do I. Thank you.” He signed the note Rev. Jake.

Ultimately, Jacobs understood what was important to success in track and field. “Pleasure and fun should be the chief aim in track. Most track athletes are over coached. I’d lots rather have my men in good mental condition than worrying about form. Some of the best men I ever had forgot everything I’d told them the minute the gun fired.”

He also had a commitment to integrity that stood the test of time. During a wartime dual at Pneumonia Downs with Kansas, the meet came down to the final event, the mile relay. OU won the relay, and the meet, when the Sooners’ anchor leg dove under the string to pass the KU runner. When the KU coached protested that his runner’s feet had crossed the finish line first, Jacobs assembled the judges and explained the rule. The result – Kansas won the relay and the dual.

The respect Jacobs earned through his career was represented quite appropriately on a 14-inch walnut plaque presented to him in 1958 by his fellow Big Eight coaches. The inscription read “To John Jacobs. A fierce, but friendly and always honorable opponent.”

Jacobs and his wife, Daphne, had two sons, Bill and John. A fourth generation of the Jacobs family, Hannah Jacobs, is working as a manager for the Sooner track team.

It appears that Jake’s influence continues through today – his name on the facility, his name on the meet and his great-granddaughter who continues to serve OU.


On growing older:

“The older we get, the faster we were when we were boys.”

On human nature:

“There was never a man who couldn’t be took.”

To a sprinter who got off his blocks to slowly:

“You back up like a freight train before you start.”

After being named the honorary referee for the Texas Relays in 1943:

“An honorary referee is just like an honorary pall bearer. Too old to carry the casket.”

About an athlete who had recorded great grades:

“You have to be eligible … you just don’t have to be that eligible.”

To a distance runner who didn’t sprint to the finish line:

“If you could have broke into a pert walk that last 100 yards, you’d have won. Don’t drown within a foot of the bank.”

About a shot putter who was struggling in competition:

“He stands too close to his instrument after he follows through.”

After a talented high school discus thrower had thrown a collegiate discus 132 feet, Jacobs, pointing to two Sooner discus throwers:

“I’m getting up a relay team to throw it back to him.”

On his induction into the Helms Foundation Track and Field Hall of Fame:

“I backed in but they can’t back out.”

In filing the first protest in his 30-year career in 1952 over the disqualification of a Sooner relay at the Texas Relays:

“Going 46 miles an hour in a 45-mile zone is against the law. I just wanted to be sure our man was making 46. In my opinion, he was not but nobody’s going to believe a coach.”

To a young sprinter who was very slender:

“You warmed up good? I’m not worried about you pulling a muscle but you might pull a bone.”

To a distance runner who always looked behind him while running:

“Don’t bother about looking back. There won’t be anybody behind you.”


Editor's Note: This story was originally published in 2015 prior to the John Jacbos Invitational. We have reissued it in 2016 in advance of the 47th annual John Jacobs Invitational April 22-23.