Billy Mills and the Miracle 10,000-meter Race Part 4: The Coach vs the Mentor

Billy Mills training
Billy Mills at the University of Kansas, from the collection of Billy Mills

It was a very hot day, and I was running in the back of the pack. As I came by Easton he said, “Billy, get up where you belong; get up in front.” Another lap went by, and I heard him say, or I thought I heard him say, “Get up where you belong or get off the track.” And I thought, You know, there’s a third way to do this, and it’s my way. I’m a senior in college. I can do it my way, which is to run in the back and come up slowly.

When Easton said that again, I walked off the track. He sent for me and said, “Why did you quit?” I answered, “Coach, I didn’t quit. You said to get up in front or get off the track. I got off the track.” “You quit,” he said. All the pressures I was feeling I took out on this man who was really trying to help me. By walking off the track I may have appeared to be protesting against my coach, but in reality was protesting against society. I don’t think he ever understood that.

Billy Mills, who would later take the world by surprise at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was an angry young man, as you can tell from his own words, published in the book, Tales of Gold. A Native American of the Lakota tribe, he developed into such a strong distance runner that he earned a scholarship to the University of Kansas. As described in a previous post, Mills struggled with the transition to life outside the reservation.

Bill Easton
Coach Bill Easton

Bill Easton was the coach of the track team at the University of Kansas. During Coach Easton’s tenure at KU, from 1947 to 1965, his track teams won 39 conference championships, including eight years in a row from 1952-1959. By the time Billy Mills met the KU coach, Easton had the supreme confidence that comes from consistently winning. And yet, Mills and Easton were like oil and water. Mills felt that Easton was a symbol of all the barriers society threw in his face, and after the altercation described at the top of this post, Mills quit the track team.

I had a love-hate relationship with Easton. I wanted to please him, but I wanted to do things my way, the way I knew was best for me. And the hostility that grew out of all the blatant and subtle rejections that society was throwing at me I took out on him, and he really had no idea I was doing that. I was trying to find answers to questions I couldn’t even express, and my coach was not a sociologist or a psychologist. He couldn’t determine where I was coming from. So during my years at Kansas my track career languished.

After getting his degree in education, Mills joined the United States Marine Corps, and moved to the Marine Corp Base in Virginia, called Quantico, where he was immediately asked to join the track team. It was there he met former Annapolis track coach, Earl “Tommy” Thomson. Thomson was a gold medalist in the 110-meter hurdles, representing Canada at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. But more importantly, as Mills told me, Thomson was a mentor.

Coach Easton, he broke me. Tommy Thomson, he was my mentor. He was totally deaf. He would read lips. He was the first white man I ever trusted. He helped me. He came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want to coach you. I’d like to be your mentor. But you have to let me inside,’ he said, holding his hand near my chest. I learned that word, ‘mentor,’ from my dad. He’s saying this in a gentle way. I believe the creator sent him to me because he’s talking like my dad.

In the exchange below, Mills is explaining to me that Thomson had a way of dealing with Mills’ sensitivities, and asking the right questions to get to the truth.

Thomson asked me, ‘what you do you want to do?’ I said ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’ He said, ‘Why the Olympics?’ I said, ‘Don’t you think I can?’ I’m defensive. He asked, ‘What do you want to do at the Olympics?’ I said, ‘Win a medal.’ He asked, ‘Why a medal?’ I replied, ‘Don’t you think I can?’ He said, ‘Which medal?’ I said to him, ‘I want to win the gold medal.’ He said, ‘Now we know.’

In the summer of 1964, Mills is running well approaching the Olympic trials. But in a race prior to the trials, Coach Easton is in the stadium. And for Mills, all he has to do is see Mills and he turns into a confused cacophony of emotions. He said that he confronted Easton and made it clear he did not want to see or hear him. “I cannot run in your presence. I could do well in Tokyo, but if I hear your voice, I will drop out.”

Billy Mills Crossing the finish line_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency
Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency

Easton stayed away. Mills went to Tokyo, and seemingly out of the blue, went on to become the first and only American to win the 10,000 meter race at the Olympics.

A day after the winning the gold medal, a Japanese woman came up to Mills with a letter, and asks him to open it. The letter was from Coach Easton.

Dear Billy, I saw the greatest race of my life. You are the greatest Jayhawker of all. It was an honor to coach you.

The woman then pointed out Easton, who had made the trip to Tokyo. “When I saw him, we grabbed each other and cried.”