HOUSTON -- Standing prominently inside the University of Houston athletic department's Hall of Honor is a life-size bronze statue of Carl Lewis, the figure dressed in a USA track uniform with four Olympic medals draped around the neck. Given Lewis' glorious achievements -- "One of the greatest athletes of the 20th century and of all time," reads a nearby description -- perhaps the bronze should be gold-plated.
Standing inside the track named in his honor and wearing red UH shorts, polo shirt and baseball cap on a spring day, the real-life gold-medal man is carefully watching athletes and handing out instructions. Among them, he tells the sprinters to take longer, more powerful strides, the way you would if you were pushing a car that had run out of gas -- that sprinting isn't about getting out of the blocks faster than everyone else but about starting off with power and then accelerating down the track so you pass everyone.
"He's taught me a lot. He made me see different things in track I didn't see before," senior sprinter LeShon Collins says. " ... He's a great coach. He's like a mentor. Shoot, I even call him a second father to me."
Lewis is coaching these young athletes how to follow his remarkable footsteps -- though those powerful footsteps are a challenge to follow.
"If someone questions him or comes at him wrong, he'll just say, 'Hey, it worked for me and you know who I am, so it will work for you,' " freshman John Lewis III (no relation) says with a laugh, adding, "He's like, 'Hey, I'm one of the biggest, one of the greatest and if you don't want to listen to me, then that's on you.' "
It has been 32 years since Lewis matched Jesse Owens by winning gold in the 100, 200, long jump and 4x100-meter relay at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and 20 years since he won his ninth and final gold medal (and 10th medal overall) at the 1996 Atlanta Games. He might have won even more had the U.S. not boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. He was also named the Sportsman of the Century by the IOC and Olympian of the Century by Sports Illustrated. Known as "King Carl," he was one of the biggest names in sports back then -- so globally known that there was a Japanese TV series during the mid-80s in which a large mannequin in Lewis' image raced against others. The mannequin would come out of the blocks behind, then powerfully accelerate and pass everyone to win.
Times have changed in track and field since Lewis' days, however, with the sport getting caught, passed and left far behind.
"I think Carl brought a lot of people along, he brought the sport along," Houston head coach and former 100-meter world-record holder Leroy Burrell says. "And I think it's really telling where the sport is now and when that decline started. It pretty much coincided with Carl retiring. And ever since then, track and field has been in a slow, downward spiral."
Or, as Lewis says, "The sport is dying."
Which is why Lewis is back at Houston now, as an assistant coach, to revive track so it can be powerful enough to accelerate and get back in the lead.
"I'm not looking for the next Carl Lewis," Lewis says. "Is there a nine-time gold medalist that I'm going to coach? Ninety-nine times out of 100, no. Is there an Olympian of the Century? I won't know because I'll be dead. Do I need these kids to get fame and fortune? Absolutely not.
"I tell these kids, 'I come out here all the time, so I need you to give the effort. There is not really much you can give me except for the satisfaction of winning.' ... What I want to see one day is what my parents went through. I want to be sitting there, like [my coach] was for me, while their child is running in the Olympics and winning, and they're sitting there, crying. That's what I want to do. That's what I can get out of this. That's why I get up and go every day."
'Don't get mad, get even'
Lewis' parents, Bill and Evelyn, were excellent athletes; his mother ran hurdles for the United States at the 1951 Pan Am Games, and both later coached track and field in New Jersey. Lewis also had the fortune of being coached at Houston by Tom Tellez, one of the greats in U.S. track history. Tellez convinced him to attend Houston by showing a film of long-jumping techniques during a recruiting visit, and their coach-athlete relationship continued for 18 years until Lewis retired in 1997.
"If it wasn't for him, you wouldn't know me," Lewis says.
Despite that background, before joining Burrell's staff first as a volunteer, and then an assistant two years ago, coaching was something Lewis had never considered. Not until the 2012 Olympics.
"The reason why I'm coaching here ultimately is because, when I was at London 2012, I was just appalled at how bad we were," Lewis says. "The Americans' men's team did not win a gold medal in the 100, the 200, the 400, the 4x100, the 4x400 and the long jump. And no one said a word. It was, 'Oh, OK, we got third in the long jump,' and 'Oh, OK, we got a second in ...' And I was like, 'Wait a minute, people. The American men did not win a gold medal in any of those events.' That had never happened in Olympic history."
Lewis matched Owens, won four consecutive long jump gold medals and a then-record tying nine golds, but he never accomplished his first goal: breaking Bob Beamon's long jump record of 29 feet, 2½ inches. He came close -- his best remains the third-longest jump on record at 29-1¼ at the 1991 World Championships. That same day, Mike Powell broke Beamon's record with a leap of 29-4¼, while Lewis leaped 29 feet three times. Before that, Lewis went undefeated in the long jump for a decade, winning 65 consecutive events.
Since then, the long jump has become the shorter jump. Britain's Greg Rutherford won gold at the 2012 Olympics with a leap of 27-3, more than a foot short of Lewis' winning mark in 1988. "Rutherford is winning, but he's not really winning," Lewis says. "It's just that everyone else is losing. I told him to his face, 'Congratulations. You're jumping well for you, but you'll never get respect until you jump farther.' "
Team USA's Will Claye, meanwhile, took bronze in London with a leap of 26-7¾, or about an inch short of Owens' world-record mark in 1935.
"There is no sport where some person from 80 years ago could consistently be competitive now. That makes us the worst event in the world," Lewis says. "The reason I say it's the worst event in the world is take the 1936 NFL champion, the best basketball team in the world then, the best baseball team, the best tennis player from 1936 -- none of them would even be remotely competitive now."
Lewis isn't alone in criticizing the long-jump field.
"There were a lot of competitors that saw Carl Lewis jump 28 feet every week and they would say, 'I have to figure out what to do to jump that far.' And now there is just no Carl Lewis left in the long jump," says Leroy Burrell's son, Cameron, a sophomore sprinter and jumper at Houston. "You would think more people would be paying more attention to the long jump, but, in actuality, they're not because when people aren't breaking world records or setting world records or jumping far, it gets boring after a while. So not many people are paying attention anymore.
"Fans have lost interest and we're trying to get it back."
Not everyone agrees with Lewis, though. Claye says Lewis might have been the greatest athlete to ever walk the earth, but "if I was on the phone with Carl now, I would tell him, 'If you're saying these things about track and field and not trying to help, you should keep your mouth shut.' "
While Lewis is helping athletes at Houston, Claye says he sat next to him at the Mt. SAC Relays last year, said hello and received just a "half-hello" back. Other than that, he hasn't heard from Lewis but says Olympians and medalists in the triple jump do reach out to him.
"I get calls from Willie Banks, Kenny Harrison, Jonathan Edwards," says Claye, who was the first athlete in 76 years to medal in both the long jump and the triple jump at the 2012 Olympics. "They praise us and they want us to do better. I get the feeling Carl Lewis doesn't want us to be better than he was."
Dwight Phillips, the last American to win gold in the long jump at Athens in 2004 with a leap of 28-2¼, says he always wanted to emulate Lewis but that the track legend also is unique.
"He was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, so by his measure [current long jump], performances probably aren't very good," says Phillips, who is coaching long-jump star and Buffalo Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. "But I think that we have to share the right information if they aren't good. I think I do a great job of helping athletes whether they're my athlete or not. I just want them to defy the human limitations. I think Carl doesn't help as much. He's a very caring person if he knows you. But if he doesn't know you, he's not going to say very much to you."
Lewis insists the criticisms of the long jump and track aren't personal. "I tell people all the time that my dad used to always say, 'Don't get mad, get even.' I never got mad. I got even."
Thus, he is coaching the Houston jumpers, instructing them on how to position their arms, kick their legs and whether to have their hands open or closed so they jump farther.
"With me, it's just little things, like my arms or how I'm standing at the back of the runway. He focuses on every single little thing so you have a perfect jump," freshman Felicienne Axel says. "I know that I'm getting taught the right things. At times it can be frustrating because he's on a higher level and you need to reach that higher level. But it's an honor."
Lewis 'had something to say'
Whether track and field is truly dying, it is less popular than it was in Lewis' day. What then, would the sport be like for Lewis today if he were in his 20s and winning all the time? Or as Lewis ponders: "Can you imagine what my career would have been like with Twitter?"
Imagine perhaps millions of worldwide followers, plus a wide range of nasty comments from non-fans, haters and trolls. Lewis' success did not mean he was popular with everyone. He was so known for his ego that there was an Eddie Murphy-Joe Piscopo 1984 TV skit in which Murphy portrays Lewis and says, "I'm Carl Lewis!" 14 times and brags he can out-race an airplane. The great hurdler Edwin Moses once said Lewis lacked humility.
Even when he was trying to match Owens' four gold medals during the 1984 Olympics, Lewis was booed at the Los Angeles Coliseum because fans thought he didn't try hard enough to break Beamon's record by passing on his final four jumps. He passed because his first jump of 28 feet assured him of gold and Tellez had told him that trying more jumps would harm his upcoming heats and finals in the 200 and 4x100 relay.
"It wasn't what the press wanted to hear," Tellez says. "They never asked me why he didn't jump twice. It was me, not Carl, that made that decision.
"There was a lot of criticism. People wanted to see him break the world record. But you don't go into that competition with that much pressure to win that many events and try to break the world record. You just don't break word records when you want to."
Sports Illustrated didn't name him its 1984 Sportsman of the Year, instead bestowing the title on Mary Lou Retton and Moses, who each took home a single gold medal.
Lewis had hoped for massive sponsorship deals after matching Owens, but he did not receive many in the States, though he did get lucrative deals abroad. He says he received just $300 when he was first paid to compete at a meet but that figure later soared to $100,000. He was constantly marketing himself. That benefited Lewis, and others as well. And he wants to see athletes at Houston follow that same path by spreading their brand globally just as he did.
"I think a person of his stature, he provided a lot of opportunities for athletes of today," Phillips says. "Because of him, athletes are being paid appearance fees. Before him, that was unheard of. I can understand how he feels the sport has declined because he was making more money, more appearance fees than the athletes today."
Says Burrell: "I think Carl never shied away from saying what was on his mind. And I think the narrative at the time and in the media was, 'That's arrogant.' Now it would be, 'That's expressive.' He had something to say. He had the ability to utilize his talent for a platform, and he used it. ... He had to say what he had to say and he backed it up with good performances. Now, we would call that 'swag.'"
Saying that some regarded him as "an ass" during his competitive career, Lewis counters that he was young and also working hard to build his own brand -- and track's brand, as well.
"Someone has to be that ass---- to build that brand, because they have to take it for the team," he says. "It wasn't a matter of, 'I'll put the sport on my shoulder,' it was, 'I want to get paid. I want this and I'll do what I have to do.' And then fortunately I was able to build a brand to bring the sport along that other players understood it -- Edwin Moses, Michael Johnson, they understood and we all went along together. But I took the brunt of it so no one else did."
Burrell and Tellez say that Lewis was always a good, very generous teammate who helped and encouraged fellow athletes.
"Carl is extremely, extremely loyal to his friends. Almost to a fault," Burrell says. "If you're in his corner, he'll ride with you or die with you. A lot of people don't know that. But if you're an enemy, you're truly an enemy. You certainly don't want that."
'We need to get to the root of the issues'
Of all his many victories, Lewis' arguably most famous race was the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics. Canada's Ben Johnson beat Lewis with a record time of 9.79, but Johnson later tested positive for steroids with the record erased and the gold medal handed to Lewis.
In the years since, doping has become track's dominating issue. Justin Gatlin won the gold medal in the 100 at the 2004 Olympics, two years after receiving a one-year ban for doping. He subsequently received a four-year ban in 2006 after testing positive again, yet he still won bronze in the 100 at the 2012 Games. He also ran a personal best 9.74 last year at age 33. Despite being 34 now and with his two doping bans, Gatlin is still the favorite to win at the U.S. Olympic trials, which begin Friday in Eugene, Oregon, and possibly beat Usain Bolt in Rio.
Gatlin is by no means alone when it comes to doping controversy. Russia will not be allowed to compete in track and field at Rio following an investigation of widespread PED usage by athletes there. Several Kenyans might also be banned.
But doping in track gets more headlines and attention than the actual events or winners.
"We in the sport have done damage to ourselves," Burrell says. "The cheaters have done some damage to the sport, probably irreparable damage. But, you know, there are dopers in football, dopers in baseball, there are dopers in all sports. But it hasn't killed those sports or caused them to suffer as much as it has in track. Because I don't think America cares if a football player is using drugs or a baseball player is using drugs.
"But it seems to be that track athletes are so much that they keep talking about it, they keep accusing everyone who does well, and that causes damage to the sport."
Lewis has long been an outspoken critic of doping and cheating. Although he tested for stimulants at the U.S. trials in 1988, he was cleared for inadvertent use and those 1988 levels would be considered acceptable under current International Olympic Committee rules. He estimates 10-15 percent of athletes dope but that the percentage could be much higher among those who win.
"How many people run the 100 meters? Thousands each year. And there may be 25 or 30 on drugs," he says. "But that 25-30 maybe 50 percent of the finalists. ...
"I believe every athlete that tests positive should be immediately suspended indefinitely. Then there should be an investigation. Because right now they say, 'You get one year or you're gone.' There are issues, whether it's Maria Sharapova or any athlete, 'Where did you get it? What did you do? What's the reason?' Investigate. We need to get to the root of the issues."
And one of the roots, once again, is how track and field handles the issue.
"Doping is an issue because track doesn't own its narrative," Lewis says. "The NFL controls its narrative. The NBA controls their narrative. They have their own network, they have their own radio and they're willing to protect their brand. Track? They have this little USATF TV. They don't have their own magazine, their own XM radio station. They're not thinking about marketing."
'We're in a culture of mediocrity'
Frederick Carlton Lewis says he is really two people. There is Carl, his athletic, public side; then, there is Frederick, the business side, the driving force behind his business, the one who "runs the show." Lewis says that he, as Carl, would look in the mirror and get instructions from Frederick, who would tell him, "Get it together, shave and get your ass out there."
Another man in Lewis' current mirror is Burrell. Lewis helped recruit Burrell to Houston -- they watched the 1985 Georgetown-Villanova Final Four title game on TV during the recruiting visit -- while Burrell helped Lewis come back to Houston as a coach.
Lewis says he and Burrell, along with assistant coach Will Blackburn, decided they would run Houston track and field as an "Olympic-based program." When Lewis recruits athletes, he says he isn't thinking short term but how they will compete five years and into the future. "We wanted athletes who wanted to look me in the eye right in front of their parents and say, 'I want to be in the Olympics someday, and I want to be the best I can be.'"
Not trying to be the best, Lewis says, is one factor in the decline of track and field: "We're in a culture of mediocrity in America. You don't have to win to get anything now." He and Phillips also believe coaching is not as good as it was when Tellez was guiding them in biomechanics.
Tellez says another factor is that kids are specializing in single sports these days.
"We used to get our high jumpers off the basketball court, which is where the highest jumpers were, but we don't get them anymore," Tellez says. "Same with fast players in football. They're playing football all year. That, I think, is critical. They don't let kids go and try other sports."
Part of that reason, Phillips says, is that kids see how basketball and football have become commercialized.
"They know that LeBron James signs a $100 million contract," he says. "They know that Steph Curry signs a $200 million-plus contract. It becomes a dream. 'I want to make a lot of money. I want to be famous. I want to be on TV all the time.' And we need to create that same type of culture [in track]."
Many see Lewis as a person who can help.
"Maybe he will get some people to the Olympic Games," Tellez says. "He's motivated enough to get kids to the Olympics and make them good. He's on the right track. He'll find out how to do it. He'll figure out ways to get kids and make them better. It takes time to do that, but he's doing good."
In addition to coaching, Lewis paid to have Houston's track resurfaced. But he still has a long way to go. Houston did not have a long jumper qualify for this year's NCAA championships though it did finish second in the men's 4x100. It was a very young team, though, and Lewis is looking well down the track where he so often passed opponents. He says he is developing athletes for the 2020 and 2024 Games.
"The kids look at me differently because of my past success," Lewis says. "I can talk to them in a way that maybe someone else my age cannot talk to them. I can be more honest with them. Another thing is I was actually there. I did it. There are so many little things that I can bring to the table that many other coaches can't."