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View from the 'ville
Saturday, July 12, 2008

By Al Myatt


Carson: Merritt's merits evident early

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

LaShawn Merritt has taken the money and run — all the way to the Beijing Olympics.

Merritt, who spent a portion of a school year smashing track records at East Carolina before signing a $2 million endorsement contract with Nike, has moved into the 400-meter spotlight that was shining exclusively on Jeremy Wariner.

Merritt held off Wariner in the finals of USA Olympic team qualifying in Eugene, Ore., last week to finish first in 44.00 seconds. Wariner was second in 44.20. It was the second straight race in which the 22-year old Merritt beat the two-time world champion.

Bill Carson, who coached ECU track for 40 years, watched his former protege via satellite dish from his cabin above Cullowhee in the North Carolina mountains.

Carson always had a unique ability for recognizing and developing talent. He first saw Merritt competing for Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth, Va., and got a head start in recruiting.

"I saw him run his junior year in the state meet in Virginia," Carson said. "I knew he was really special. He was big and strong and I could see all the stuff in him. I started on him relatively early his senior year. People didn't know much about him. They just hadn't seen him but the indoor junior national meet — he won it — and boy, people jumped all over him."

But a family tragedy in 1999 gave Carson and ECU the inside track in Merritt's recruiting.

"He had a brother who had gone to Shaw University and he was thrown really — pushed out of a dorm room window over there and killed," Carson said.

After that, Carson said Merritt's mother was determined that her younger son, whom the deceased older brother had named, would be going to college close to home.

"She was not going to let him go far away," Carson said. "Arkansas, Florida State — I mean some big schools recruited him. South Carolina, Curtis Frye — but she was bound and determined he was going to school close.

"She visited our place and she told me when she left that he was coming to East Carolina. He took his five visits but she persisted in keeping him locked in with us. That's how I got him. That's how I held him. I was far from being the only one who recognized how good he was. It was very, very evident that he was something very, very special."

Tennessee didn't want to give up on signing Merritt. Carson said the Volunteers resorted to discrediting East Carolina in attempting to persuade the youthful talent into coming to Knoxville.

"He had not committed as of the Penn Relays and Tennessee went into the (Merritt) house," Carson said. "He had belittled East Carolina. He had put us down as a place. The mother had him come in the house for one reason. She cleaned his clock and then sent him out. He (Tennessee coach) saw me at the Penn Relays and said, 'You've got that boy.'

"I said, 'I know that. You're the one who didn't know it.' He was just doing his job but you couldn't negative recruit with that mother — outstanding Christian lady. She really adheres to a moral philosophy from a Christian standpoint. There was no way anybody could speak ill of something he was leaning toward."

The circumstances that brought Merritt to ECU were unique.

"Would I have gotten the boy if that was not the case?," Carson said. "No, I wouldn't have. I did a good job on him. I did a good job recruiting him. I did all that could be done. That doesn't happen in track and field. The top kids go to the top programs. That's just the way it is.

"You can get a sleeper and develop him into something really special and I've done that many times, but that boy was no sleeper. He was just phenomenal."

Carson said Merritt's ECU indoor records, 20.40 in the 200 meter and 44.93 in the 400, will never be broken.

Merritt-Wariner rivalry

In the manner that competition between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus helped draw fans to golf and in the manner that the dramatic showdowns between Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers drew focus to the NBA, duels between Merritt and Wariner have the potential to enhance track and field.

The sport has been dealing with considerable bad publicity involving star athletes using performance-enhancing drugs.

Carson said Merritt has taken over six-tenths of a second off his best 400 time since Carson was involved in training him and he's done that in legitimate fashion.

"I had to be doing something right for him to run 44.66 at 18 years old," said the former Pirates coach. "His best time since then is 43.98. That's big progress now for a clean athlete — one that's not on any drugs, and he is definitely not. That's a pretty normal progression when you're in that range. That guy coaching him (Dwayne) Coach Miller, from up in Virginia, has done a wonderful job with LaShawn."

Coaching was the factor that led Carson to believe that Merritt could beat Wariner.

"He called me soon after I left East Carolina and we were just shooting the breeze," Carson said. "He told me that Jeremy Wariner had left Clyde Hart, that Clyde Hart was no longer coaching him. Clyde Hart is the finest quarter-mile coach in the world. He was (Michael) Johnson's coach and he's had all those great quarter-milers down at Baylor.

"He is the premier 400-meter coach in the world and that was the advantage that Jeremy Wariner had over LaShawn. He was being coached by the finest coach in the world. When he told me that Hart and Wariner were not together anymore, I told him right then he would win the Olympic trials and I said, 'You'll win the Olympics.'

"He's faster than Wariner. He's as strong now. He had to mature a little bit. Wariner is three years older than him so he had to gain maturity. He's done that. He's very, very strong right now. Very strong."

Carson said Merritt has implemented a strategy that deals with Wariner's approach to the 400.

"Clyde Hart's quarter-milers all take a little break," Carson said. "They all go out real hard the first 100, then they lay off just a little bit. Then they hit the 200 and they take off. I kept trying to tell LaShawn, 'You've got to run the whole 200. Be ahead of him.' The last 30 meters of the third 300, Wariner likes to build up and come flying down that home stretch.

"I said, 'LaShawn, the day will come when if you're far enough ahead, he won't be able to catch you. You're gonna be too strong and you're faster.' "

Carson's vision proved prophetic in the Olympic trials.

"(LaShawn) is truly the premier quarter-miler in the world today," Carson said. "That doesn't mean Wariner can't upset him. Wariner is still a great, great quarter-miler. He's also very clean."

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08/09/2008 02:37:37 AM


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