Track and Field Olympian Reflects on Time at Pitt, Plans for New Facilities

  • A new arena for gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling—three of Pitt’s nationally ranked programs—will seat 3,500 fans. (Courtesy of Pitt Athletics)
  • An eight-lane, 300-meter indoor track will provide a campus home for the men’s and women’s programs. (Courtesy of Pitt Athletics)
  • A cutting-edge athletic performance center will provide strength and conditioning resources for 16 of Pitt’s 19 intercollegiate athletics programs. (Courtesy of Pitt Athletics)
  • The new arena will provide dedicated practice space for the gymnastics team. (Courtesy of Pitt Athletics)
  • The new arena will provide dedicated practice space for the volleyball team. (Courtesy of Pitt Athletics)
  • The wrestling team will also have a new venue for practicing and conditioning within the new arena. (Courtesy of Pitt Athletics)
  • The infield of the new indoor track complex provides an immediate and modern practice and development area for the Pitt Band and spirit squads. (Courtesy of Pitt Athletics)

Douglas in a gray suit and purple tieBefore he won the bronze medal in the long jump at the 1948 London Summer Olympic Games, Herb Douglas remembers training for the games as a student-athlete at the University of Pittsburgh.

“In the mornings, I’d work on my steps to the takeoff board. In the late afternoons, I’d work on jumping for my height. I could stand still and jump five feet,” recalled Douglas (EDUC ’48, ’50G), who spent long days training in the former Pitt Stadium.

Douglas’ dream of making the Olympic team began when he was 14, after his mother took him to meet Jesse Owens, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, at the Watts Elementary School in Pittsburgh. “I prayed every day to stand on the podium and make the Olympic team,” said Douglas, a Pittsburgh native who grew up in the city’s Hazelwood neighborhood. “When he left, Jesse put his arms around me and told me to get an education.”

Just a few years before competing at the London Summer Olympic Games, Douglas made history in football at Pitt by being the second African American to score a touchdown against Notre Dame. Douglas also won four intercollegiate championships in the long jump and one in the 100-yard dash, plus three national AAU championships — earning him a spot in the Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame.

black and white photo of Douglas in a Pitt jersey leaping in the air“Wes Fesler called me into his office and told me that I had a wonderful chance of making the Olympic team because I was one of the best long jumpers in the United States,” recalled Douglas, who then continued as a one-sport student-athlete, focusing on track and field. After Douglas played one season on Pitt’s football team, Fesler, who then served as the Panthers’ head football coach, encouraged Douglas to follow his dreams and pursue a future as a track and field Olympian.

And at 26 years old, while finishing his degree from Pitt’s School of Education, Douglas qualified for the Olympics. In the Olympic trials held outside Chicago, Douglas placed second in the long jump: 25 feet, 3 inches, which at that time, Douglas said was a record for Pitt.

Pitt diving coach Ben Grady helped prepare Douglas for the trials. “He really helped me. For one month, he was there with me every day,” said Douglas. “We used the principles of diving to help me make the Olympic team.”

In 1948, just after graduation, he set off to the London Summer Olympic Games and became the third-best long jumper in the world. Today, at 97, he is the oldest living African American Olympic medalist.

Douglas went on to a successful corporate career in the beverage industry, and co-founded the Jesse Owens International Trophy Award and the Jesse Owens Global Award for Peace. Douglas said, “I owe my athletic accomplishments to Jesse Owens. He was my mentor and became my friend later in life.”

Douglas also said owes his attitude to his father, who went blind when Douglas was 5 years old.

“My dad taught me how to be positive. He taught me how to be independent and that’s the way I was,” said Douglas. “He also taught me the basics of relationships. When I went into the corporate world, he taught me how to analyze, organize, initiate and follow through.”

Victory Heights

Today, Douglas is returning to Pitt’s campus to witness more history: the start of a new future for the student-athletes he cares about. “It’s important you pass down the richness of your experience. That’s what keeps the world going,” said Douglas, who is the oldest living former Pitt athlete.

On Jan. 14, Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Director of Athletics Heather Lyke will unveil plans for Victory Heights: a project that will transform the trajectory of Pitt Athletics—and enhance the experience of the campus community and sports fans alike.

To new heights

Watch a livestream of the Victory Heights plan unveiling on Tuesday, Jan. 14, at 1 p.m. EST by following Pitt Athletics on Twitter, @Pitt_Athletics, or Facebook.

Visit Pitt Panthers’ website to see renderings of the new facilities.

The large-scale development project will create top-of-the-line facilities for Pitt’s world-class student-athletes and their coaches, and will equip them with resources to win in the ACC and beyond—including a new indoor track, training spaces and an athletic performance center.

Douglas said he’s been waiting 60 years for the announcement.

“Heather (Lyke) called me to assure me they’re going to build a new track this time, and I said, ‘Ok, I’m gonna be 98! I’ve waiting a long time for this to happen,’” he said with a laugh. “We will bring in higher level recruits by having Victory Heights.”

Victory Heights will rethink the spaces where Trees Hall, Fitzgerald Field House—a 1951 facility used by 16 of Pitt’s 19 teams—and the OC Lot are currently situated.

Here’s a breakdown of the components of the plan:

  • New Arena and Training Space: Gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling will have a new a 3,500-seat training and competition venue. Inside the arena, a state-of-the-art strength and conditioning space will be built to focus on the health, performance and wellness of more than 85% of Pitt’s student-athletes.
  • Indoor Track and Multipurpose Complex: Serving as the new home for men’s and women’s track and field and cross country, this venue will include an eight-lane, 300-meter indoor track, and will also provide resources for field events including jumps, pole vault and throwing. The infield will also be utilized by the Pitt Band and spirit squads.
  • Athletic Performance Center: A new facility that will serve the strength and conditioning, sports medicine, nutrition and mental well-being needs of athletes from 16 of Pitt’s 19 teams.

Ultimately, Victory Heights has the potential to attract the talent of future Olympians just like him, said Douglas.

“We’ll be able to better entice athletes and hopefully make the Olympic team,” he said. “It’ll give a lot of young people that want the best track team, an opportunity to get a good education and basically make a good livelihood.”

And looking to the next generation of student-athletes, Douglas shared some words of wisdom.

“In track and field, we always stressed to always try to be a winner in whatever you do. We have an allegiance to help one another, a relationship.”