April 26, 2011
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Roger Kingdom is one of the greatest athletes ever to compete at the University of Pittsburgh. A two-sport athlete for the Panthers, Kingdom was recruited for football and excelled at that and in track and field. He won a pair of NCAA titles and captured the first of two Olympic gold medals in the 110 meter high hurdles in 1984. In 1988 at the Seoul Olympic Games, Kingdom became the first man to run below the 13-second barrier in an Olympic final (12.98). He remains one of only two runners to ever win consecutive Olympic titles in the event.
In 2005, Kingdom was inducted in to the USA Track & Field (USATF) Hall of Fame. For the past eight years, he has served as Director of Track & Field and Cross Country, as well as the men's and women's head track and field coach at California University of Pennsylvania.
Q: What do you remember most when you think back on your time at the University of Pittsburgh?
A: I think I recall more about my football days as my track days were very short and most do not realize that (I played football). Most of my time (at Pitt) was playing football. I had originally signed a conference letter of intent to go to the University of Tennessee. Back then, it was a little different - you had the conference letter and the national letter of intent. Pitt was the first school to come down and start recruiting me, but because of a bowl game I hadn't heard from them. So I signed the conference letter of intent with Tennessee, but when Jackie Sherrill found out about that, he sent a coach to come and talk to me, they brought me up on a visit and I liked it. Originally, the person that recruited me was Ron Dickerson and he went on to coach at Penn State and Temple. That is how I ended up at Pitt.
I played football for two years and we went to the Sugar Bowl first and then the Cotton Bowl and then I redshirted to train for the Olympic Games. I lettered in both of those years. After redshirting, I was blessed and fortunate to make the 1984 Olympic team. Prior to making to making the team, I won the NCAA Championships in 1983 in Houston. I came back and won the indoor national championships in 55 meter hurdles at Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, setting the NCAA indoor meet record - a ton of amazing memories.
Q: What was your proudest accomplishment at Pitt?
A: My proudest accomplishment at Pitt was not athletic related, it was to graduate. I am very happy I got my degree. From an athletic standpoint, It was lettering for football. Why do I say that? Because if you go back and look at that roster with people like Chris Doleman, Danny Marino, Jimbo Covert; I can sit here and name people in the NFL right now that I had the opportunity to play with and to travel, letter and be a part of that organization at that time is my proudest accomplishment.
You may ask why not track and field - that came naturally to me. I grew up as a youngster running, winning awards and even competing against my parents. I felt it was something natural that you could do on your own, but when it comes to making a team and one as the one that was at the University of Pittsburgh and to earn a scholarship. I believe at the time that was my proudest moment.
Q: You are a two-time Olympic champion, something very few individuals can claim - what is it like to cross the finish line in that setting?
A: To be honest, I competed for 17 years on the elite circuit and out of those 17 years there were maybe four times I actually got overly excited and emotional expressing true elation at the finish of a race. I can say my very first Olympic games (1984) because crossing that line and knowing that you just set a goal for yourself and you trained for years for that goal and to finally achieve it. It was overwhelming and I could not contain myself. I came back for the 1988 Olympic Games and I had gone through a lot of injuries in between the games to the point that they (critics) said that my race in '84 was a fluke and I wasn't supposed to win. I came back with reckless abandonment to win. At the time it was the largest margin in that event in 45 years and that was in '88 and now that mark has been 20-plus years. And it's still the largest margin and that's also the race in which I broke the 13-second barrier. There is so much pressure on you at the Olympic Games and to be in top form and to finish the way I did, it's something I look at right now and wonder how did I do that - how did I capture a gold medal. The experiences are hard to describe in words.
Q: What are your thoughts on the centennial celebration in Pittsburgh on May 10?
A: I think it is incredible, and why did we have to wait 100 years to have this celebration. When you look at history at Pitt at the African-American participating and the athletes in general at Pitt, it is overwhelming. It will be a joy to see so many old friends and teammates will be amazing and to give kudos to those before me. When I had the opportunity to sit with Mr. (John) Woodruff (first African American to win a gold medal in the 1936 Olympic) many years ago before his death, I resembled a kid in a candy shop. Mr. Herb Douglas has been one of my mentors for over 30 years. To now have this celebration and even meet some of the greats I have read about, but now meet - this will be emotional for a lot of people.
Q: You mentioned those that came before you - Mr. Woodruff and Mr. Douglas, to former Pitt athletes who were Olympic champions - what did these men teach you?
A: When I heard the adversity they faced and how they overcame it, I look back and know I had a joyous career at Pitt. Nothing I went through can even compare to what they went through - that was my motivation: if they could do it, I could do it. The more I overcame those obstacles and the prouder all the ones before me were - not to just make my family proud, but to make those individuals proud as well.
Q: How important is it for you to have chosen to be a coach and to lead young people today?
A: It is very, very important for me. There are so many other things I could be doing, but to be able to share my stories - I can honestly say I love my job. I feel as if I am giving back and making a difference and change has to be made on the inside and that's why I am here. If you show you are really passionate about something then you will save someone and for me since I have been at California (Pa.) now eight years, I have kids graduating and working in high schools coaching, some going into college coaching and they call me up for advice.
Now, I am a grand pop (laughter) and it is emotional because I have become my parents and in taking on that role. I sit back and remember all the things they tried to teach me and it resembles a mirror. I take a different approach with my young athletes - to explain to them that if they trust and believe in me that one day you will understand every move. Some will listen, others will make their own mistakes - but eventually, they laugh and say `coach, you said this would happen.' However, I never turn my back on them and continue to help each and every one of them.
Q: You are a Georgia native who moved to Pennsylvania to attend Pitt. However, you are still in this area. How important is Western Pennsylvania to you?
A: It is a special place. I have had an opportunity to travel away and accept other jobs at other places but because of my love affair with Western Pennsylvania I have not. I still live in Monroeville and I drive an hour to work at Cal every day and have been doing it for the last eight years because I do love Pittsburgh. I have watched Pittsburgh grow. I grew here as young adult. When anyone would start talking about where is your hometown, I would say Pittsburgh. My mom said in the past, `you have been there longer than you have anywhere else in your whole life.' I have to recant and - when people ask me where I grow up, I say Georgia. But my home now is Pittsburgh.
This is the second of a series of interviews with former Pitt African-American student-athletes, leading up to the event "Athletics at Pitt: The Forefront of a Century of Change."