BROOKINGS – Like eight-track tapes, rotary phones and Gregg shorthand books, track meets at Sexauer Field on the South Dakota State University campus belong to another era.
But long-time area track observers still had a little nostalgic sadness when on May 22, Austreim Excavating crews began tearing out six-inch thick chunks of asphalt that formed the base for the track. Heavy rains late that afternoon halted the work for a couple days. But workers were back out two days later to resume the work.
The field, which had been little used for years, is going to be used for intramurals. The intramural field north of the Wellness Center is becoming the site of the Wellness Center expansion, which left the university in need of more intramural space.
Plans call for the throwing cage to be relocated north of the baseball field in time for fall track practices.
The modern throwing standards used for discus and hammer throwers were a gift to the track and field program about a decade ago. The field, which also was used by javelin throwers, was a nice location for the long-distance throws. Athletes in most other events have practiced in the Sanford-Jackrabbit Athletic Center since it opened in fall 2014.
It was used for throwing competitions as recently as a couple years ago when SDSU hosted small outdoor meets that were otherwise held at Brookings High School.
More than 100 years of history
Sexauer Field’s history dates to 1910, when it was known as State Field, home to both the track and football programs. Most of the 12-row wooden bleachers on the north and south side were removed after the opening of Coughlin Alumni Stadium in 1962. A section with the press box remained.
When it served as a football field, the area was lighted, but the poles came down when the gridiron moved further east on campus.
In those early years, the 220-yard dash was run on a straightaway. That was common at most tracks then and metric measurements weren’t used until 1976.
Russ Strande remembers participating in high school meets on the State campus while he was attending Volga High School (1949-52).
“That 220 seemed like a never-ending race. That was a long haul on the straightaway,” the retired Brookings coach said. Runners didn’t get set in their blocks. “We dug a hole in the cinders with our spikes,” which three-quarters of an inch long and permanent.
The 440-yard dash started and finished in the middle of the track. Starting on the curve didn’t evolve until the advent meter measurements, he said.
For students from small schools like Volga, which didn’t have a track, running on the cinder surface at State was a big deal. For college athletes, the track was the “playground” of Coach Jim Emmerich, who headed the track program from 1946 to 1960 before working at the national level with AAU and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
That was the same era as equipment manager Johnny Johnson (1944-68), who was housed in the Barn, just south of Sexauer. Emmerich and Johnson were two guys who knew how to produce winners and made sure freshmen wouldn’t get any privileges.
Cinders: An all-work surface
Jay Dirksen was a freshman at State in 1964, coming from General Beadle High School in Madison. He became a track and cross country stalwart at State, earned degrees in 1968 and 1969, and became coach of the program in 1969.
“The cinders had deteriorated over the years and was more dirt in spots than cinders. They got the cinders from the power plant on campus as far as I know. Keeping the track up was a job. After practice we drug a section of fence behind a tractor or pulled it by hand to smooth the surface.
“We also rolled it with a roller and then put down chalk lines with a liner made to pull around and drop lime as we went. Then you had to put in the cross lines for the starting and finishing lines and also the relay zones. Along the inside and outside concrete curbing were markings giving the information you needed to know where to put the lines,” Dirksen said.
All-weather surface comes in 1970
A major renovation in 1971 created an all-weather surface. The work was financed by donations and is how it became known as Sexauer Field, bearing the name of Elmer H. Sexauer, a 1910 SDSU graduate and longtime president of Sexauer elevators.
“When it was put in it was one of the first all-weather tracks in South Dakota. I think Rapid City (South Dakota School of Mines) had one first and the state meet was there. I think the surface was Grass-tex (a rubberized asphalt compound),” Dirksen said
Scott Underwood arrived at South Dakota State in fall 1969 after graduating from Minneapolis Southwest High School.
The yearbook could no longer call the track team “cindermen” after a new surface was installed in the summer and fall of 1971. “It was a big deal when we switched to all-weather track because there weren’t that many of them and you could put away your long spikes. They were wicked spikes. You didn’t want to step on anybody because they’d have stitches,” Underwood said.
“All the high schools started hosting districts and regions at Sexauer because we were about the only all-weather track around,” he said.
Lugging water to Sexauer Field
Sexauer’s status remained lofty for a number of years. But the site was missing one vital element – water. Underwood remembers stringing a firehose from a hydrant to fill the steeplechase pit. For smaller needs, five-gallon buckets were used.
“We were hosting an ESD (Eastern South Dakota Conference) meet. Patty Finn of Brookings was a premiere long jumper. The sand (in the long jump pit) was dry as a bone. When the sand is really dry, you can lose a couple inches because your heels slip back. I remembering hauling water from the Barn in five-gallon buckets. She ended up just barely setting the conference record.”
Her leap of 17-10.5 in the 1980 remained the conference standard until 2014, when Brookings phenom Alexis Gannon jumped 18-8.5.
Of course, SDSU hosted meets there, too, including conference meets. “When I was a graduate assistant in 1975, we won the conference meet in Brookings.”
Underwood became head coach in 1978.
“When I first started coaching, Jim Emmerich was helping us with the decathlon. It was cold and windy and Jim was out there with a T-shirt on. He was a tough, tough guy. He had to be in his 70s. That was a pretty big deal” because at that point Emmerich was a living legend in the track world, Underwood said.
Protected by the pines
The pine trees that graced the north and west perimeter of the field date back to the resurfacing in 1970. A 1972 team picture shows them to be not much taller than the athletes, but they grew quickly and created a welcome windbreak.
“Teams liked to come to our track because they could get out of the wind and those trees were close to the track. When you run all the time, you really appreciate a meet where you’re a little more protected from the wind. It was a good deal for both the workers and the athletes,” Underwood said. Fields at Howard Wood, Aberdeen and Mitchell were all unprotected, he said.
“Rod DeHaven used to call it a wind-aided track because the trees blocked the headwind and you still got the benefit of the tailwind on the other side,” Underwood said.
Recipe for deterioration
While SDSU offered the bonus of wind protection, its distinctiveness of an all-weather surface soon faded. Other schools switched from cinders to a rubberized surface, including places that held timed-honored, major meets like the Corn Palace Relays, the Sioux City Relays, the Drake Relays and the Howard Wood Dakota Relays.
“Little by little we had more trouble getting schools to come to our meets on a Saturday. We scheduled some Tuesday meets,” Underwood said.
As late as the mid-1990s, Sexauer Field was still the site for college meets. Small high schools used it for regional track meets for several years after that.
Through its lifetime, the track was surfaced. But the cost of upkeep escalated.
“Little by little, it got less use. We used to host a meet in the first week of April and I bet it got cancelled three-quarters of the time because of weather. To put a bunch of money into a track you use for five weeks, it’s hard to justify. It was still fine for working out. We just didn’t have many meets there,” Underwood said.
One of Sexauer’s nemesis’ was the campus heat tunnel went underneath it toward the east end. Because the soil there didn’t freeze like the rest of ground in the winter, the heat tunnel caused the earth to heave, and the result was crackling and buckling along the track.
After Brookings High School put in a top-notch all-weather track a few years ago, maintenance work at Sexauer virtually ended. SDSU practiced at Brookings High.
In recent years, the combination of weather, weeds and shifting soil accelerated the demise of the rubberized top layer, making it unfit for track workouts. It’s use, other than by throwers, has been limited to periodic events, such as the Hobo Week Bum-Over, the Relay for Life cancer walk and physical training for the ROTC cadets, who are headquartered just south of Sexauer.
A confident runner
In its prime, Sexauer also served as the finishing line for Longest Day Marathon. That ended when the marathon changed its course in 2004.
Sexauer also served as the venue for the one-hour run that Prairie Striders Running Club conducted as well as its predictor mile, which moved to the Brookings High School track.
SDSU’s 2025 master plan calls for Sexauer Field to be the site of a future academic building, where new memories will be made. But nothing to top this one from Tom Woodall, SDSU track coach in 1963-65.
“Don Bong was kind of a cocky guy. We had a home meet at Sexauer Field. I think it was my first spring track season and really didn’t know the runners very well. It was just a dual meet and after they passed the first lap of the half-mile, I noticed something affixed to his back.
“I knew we were not wearing numbers…couldn’t figure it out. When the race was finished, he held off a fast-closing competitor. When I thought to look at his back, he had pinned a sign on that said ‘I may be slow, but I’m ahead of you.’
“I went nuts – ‘Don’t you realize all the motivation you provided for all the guys who followed you and saw that sign?’ I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he didn’t do that again.”
Editor’s note: The author is president of Prairie Striders Running Club and remembers competing at all-comers meets at Sexauer in the mid-1990s when he first caught the running bug.