WKU's Rose still revered 50 years later

When Nick Rose arrived in Bowling Green in 1972 to attend Western Kentucky University, there was no forewarning that he would become one of the most accomplished athletes in school history, but this is precisely what transpired over the next four years.

It could be argued, in fact, that Rose is the greatest of them all at WKU — the G.O.A.T. in today’s parlance — and it would be difficult to argue against it.

More difficult still is to believe that this is the 50th anniversary year of Rose’s signature accomplishment on the Hill — winning the 1974 NCAA Individual Cross Country Championship in Bloomington, Indiana.

Time marches on.

Rose arrived at WKU as part of a “British Invasion” of distance runners which included Tony Staynings, Chris Ridler and Swag Hartel, among others. They were drawn to the Hill by Englishman Alan Launder, who was selected as WKU assistant coach in track and field, and cross country, in the late ‘60s.

They were all exceptional runners, All-American caliber, but Rose proved to be the best of them all.

A little background.

A lithe 5-foot-9 long-haired blonde who hailed from Bristol, England, Rose burst onto the national scene famously in 1973, when he finished runner-up to legendary Oregon icon Steve Prefontaine in the NCAA Cross Country Championships near Spokane, Washington.

Rose built a significant lead over Prefontaine in the 6-mile race, but over the final mile the magnificent Oregon harrier reeled Rose in and finally overtook him down the stretch to win his third NCAA championship in four years in a clocking of 28:14.

The following year, at IU, Rose didn’t let the title get away. This time, he ran away from the field of 250 to win handily in a time of 29:22 — in the process, helping WKU finish fourth overall as a team.

As a senior, Rose finished runner-up to Craig Virgin of Illinois in the 1975 NCAA Cross Country Championships at Penn State University, with the Hilltoppers finishing sixth in the team standings.

So, in three NCAA Cross Country Championships between 1973-75, Rose finished first once and second twice — the very definition of elite.

Rose, however, wasn’t confined as a distance runner. He was also a superb middle-distance runner for the WKU track and field team, helping the Hilltoppers win four consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championships, part of 12 in a row executed by Western between 1964-75 — the longest sustained stretch of excellence of any athletic team in the history of the OVC.

His most memorable moment on the track occurred in Bowling Green at L.T. Smith Stadium on May 10, 1975, when he became the first athlete to break the four-minute mile barrier in Kentucky — running a 3:59.0 to hold off Indiana University All-American Steve Heidenreich (3:59.6) down the stretch.

In all, Rose was a 10-time All-American in cross country and track and field — cementing his legendary status as a Hilltopper.

But Rose continued to carry the WKU banner far and wide over the next several decades, as an elite international distance runner, including many years as a top-shelf masters competitor.

Now 72, Rose set some impressive records in his heyday that still stand. He is the current European record-holder in the 10K run (road), and British record-holder in the 4x1 mile relay event. He set the world record in the half-marathon (13.1 miles) in 1979, and his personal best in the event (1:01.03) is the second-fastest British time after Steve Jones. He also set the British record in the indoor 2 miles event (8:18.4), which stood for 24 years.

Rose also ran the fastest 3,000 meters indoor time of any athlete in 1978, and was national champion in the 10,000 meters in 1980 and 1984. Rose competed in the 1980 Summer Olympics in the 5,000 meters, but failed to qualify for the finals. He also competed in the 1984 Summer Olympics in the 10,000 meters event, finishing 12th in the final.

In addition, he helped ignite the wildly popular Wendy’s 10K road race (now the Bowling Green 10K), winning the 1980 inaugural event in 28:15 (the second-fastest 10K ever run U.S. soil at the time), and gaining a measure of revenge against runner-up Virgin in the process.

Rose was inducted into the inaugural class of the Western Kentucky University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1991, along with E.A. Diddle, Jimmy Feix, Dee Gibson, Adele Gleaves, Clem Haskins, Jim McDaniels, John Oldham, Bobby Rascoe, and Max Reed.

Beyond all this, Rose was an incredibly engaging, gregarious fellow with a positive outlook on his craft and life in general — at the forefront of an increasingly progressive culture at WKU and in Bowling Green in the 1970s.

There will never be another quite like Nick Rose, arguably the greatest Hilltopper of them all. Certainly, in terms of long-term international impact, no one else comes close.