It wasn’t quite as bold as Namath’s guarantee in 1969 — nor as highly publicized — but Michigan track and field coach Ron Warhurst’s statement on Friday was loud enough to create some noise.
In Friday’s edition of The Ann Arbor News, Warhurst was quoted as saying, “Willis will break four minutes; I guarantee it.”
Junior Nick Willis walked Warhurst’s talk at the Harold Silverston Invitational in Ann Arbor on Saturday with a time of 3:58.07 — guaranteeing himself an automatic flight to the NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Ark. The time was also fast enough to break the 21-year-old facility record held by former Wolverine and three-time Olympian Brian Diemer.
It was Willis’s second race of the season and his second NCAA automatic mark — the first coming two weeks ago in the 3000-meter run at the Meyo Invitational. His time converts to 3:57.27 on a banked track, giving him the fourth-fastest mile time in the nation this year.
“To be honest, I really didn’t have that many expectations,” Willis said. “I thought I could have run anywhere from 3:54 to 4:04.”
Warhurst was a bit more cavalier.
“I got what I expected, I got what he expected, and I got what the crowd expected,” Warhurst said. “Don’t worry, I checked with (Willis) before I made (the guarantee).”
Willis ran a steady race with consistent splits of just over 59 seconds. After freshman Mike Woods paced him for the first 800 meters, Willis had to push himself the rest of the way.
“I thought I would be able to kick home a little faster than I did,” Willis said. “But considering the situation — I had no one to race against — it’s certainly understandable.”
The New Zealand native was glad to net the NCAA qualifying mark but even more excited to do it before a home crowd.
“There are so many people who ask me when I’m going to run in a home meet, and, normally, I would say never,” Willis said. “But nobody has run a sub-4 mile in over twenty years, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to do something for the local community and give them something to get excited about. The crowd was really supportive, and I enjoyed hearing them.”
Senior Nate Brannen made his second attempt of the season to qualify in the 800-meters but finished a couple seconds too slow at 1:50.08. Brannen looked on pace to reach the automatic qualifying standard after consistent splits of 26 seconds, but a 31-second final lap prevented him from eclipsing the required mark of 1:48.60.
A two-time national champion in the 800-meter, Brannen must qualify to get a shot at the three-peat — a feat that has never been accomplished.
“Coming into this meet, I was hoping to get the (automatic) standard,” Brannen said. “I wasn’t sure how I’d feel after coming back from Tyson, being sick and really fighting that all week. After the race, I was kind of seeing black and really dizzy. So I take that as a sign that this sickness not being totally out of my body.”
Brannen will have the Big Ten Championships and the Alex Wilson Invitational — the last-chance meet in South Bend — to book his flight to Fayetteville, Ark.
Freshman Victor Gras made his season debut, running unattached in the 3,000-meter run. His time of 8:20.33 was .02 ticks behind first-place finisher Steven Crane — an Eastern Michigan alumnus. Gras is redshirting the indoor season due to injury.
Junior Andrew Bauer joined Gras in the 3,000 and knocked nine seconds off his personal best with a time of 8:31.67.
The Wolverines will travel to West Lafayette next weekend for the Big Ten Championships.