Two-sport athletes are common in collegiate sports.
In high school, young men and women often compete in multiple events. Some who are committed and exceptional in two sports will attempt to participate in both at the Division I level.
Julius Peppers played football and basketball for North Carolina. Andrew Luck played baseball and football at Stanford. Football great Jim Brown was an All-American in lacrosse at Syracuse.
Today’s athletic schedules, however, make life difficult for two-sport athletes. College sports are year-round with practices, training and games. There’s really no offseason anymore. So coaches can be, understandably, leery of allowing their athletes to play another sport.
Richard Pitino wasn’t thrilled, it seems, when Minnesota wing Wally Ellenson -- an elite high jumper -- told him that he’d planned to compete in track and field this spring following his freshman season with the team. But Ellenson joined former coach Tubby Smith’s last recruiting class with the understanding that he’d be allowed to compete in both.
New staff, new conversation.
Pitino's meeting with freshman Wally Ellenson included this information: Ellenson was competing as a high jumper on the track and field team.
“He didn’t understand at first,” Ellenson said. “He’s OK now. We’re going to talk after the season.”
Ellenson was a high-level basketball recruit out of Rice Lake, Wis. He said one reason for choosing Minnesota was an agreement that he could participate in two sports. The basketball coach signing off on that, Orlando “Tubby” Smith, is now working in Lubbock, Texas.
The two-sport schedule did put Ellenson through three hectic weeks at the end of April and into May. The daily schedule included classes in the morning, track practice, weight training and team workouts with basketball, and tutoring/study sessions.
“You’re tempted to sleep in in the morning, but you can’t do it,’’ he said.
Ellenson said “basketball is definitely my first love,” but he’s also motivated by the individual challenge of track and field.
“It’s just you,” he said. “In high jumping, you either get over the bar or you don’t. There’s nobody else to take the credit or the blame.”
Ellenson’s first event of the season was the Hamline Invitational on April 6. He cleared 7 feet, 1 ½ inches, a half-inch better than his top mark as a Rice Lake senior.
“They didn’t have a jersey for me, so they didn’t count it officially,’’ Ellenson said. “But it was a meet, and I competed, and I cleared the height, so 7 feet, 1½ is my career best.”
Just so we’re clear.
Ellenson isn’t some Average Joe on the track and field team.
He’s an elite high jumper who officially cleared 6 feet, 11 ½ inches to take third in the Big Ten track and field championships. The winning jump at the London Olympics was 7 feet, 8 inches.
Based on his career high, Ellenson could leap over Patrick Ewing or Shaq.
On Thursday, he’ll participate in the NCAA Division I track and field championship preliminary rounds. As much as loves both sports, however, most athletes are forced to choose at some point in their careers. The strain he describes will only increase over time.
Ellenson didn’t play much last year. But Pitino wants to run the floor and press next season. To accomplish that task, he’ll need talented athletes. So Ellenson could log more minutes in that system, especially with Joe Coleman transferring.
At the very least, Pitino should design a few alley-oop plays for Ellenson.
He can probably kiss the rim.