Aug. 24, 2016
Bob Crombie didn’t know much about what it meant to be Gamecock after making his way from his home in Australia to be a part of South Carolina’s track and field team in the mid-1960s, but 50 years later, there is no doubt that the hall of fame distance runner was a quick study in learning to “bleed” garnet and black. The 74 year old is also quick with a laugh and even quicker to delve into humorous tales.
“I loved representing Carolina,” Crombie said. “Even though I was a foreign athlete at Carolina, it doesn’t mean I don’t have the same passion as someone who is home-grown there. I loved representing Carolina, and I have a distaste for Clemson as bad as anyone could have it.
“I have had a lifetime love of America and Americans. You are the friendliest people on earth. My attitude to Americans certainly rubbed off on my two kids as they both live permanently in the USA.”
Crombie began running as a youngster in Melbourne, Australia, and he heard that scholarships were available to universities in the United States for student-athletes. Before the age of the internet and cell phones, Crombie found his way to Columbia for the spring semester of 1963 the old fashioned way.
“I got the addresses to four universities and wrote each of them a letter,” Crombie recalled. “Weems Baskin was the track coach at the time at South Carolina, and he was the one who responded. He asked if I could prove the times that I said I had run with newspaper cuttings, so I sent him those newspaper cuttings.”
Baskin wrote him back and asked Crombie to come to South Carolina to be a Gamecock.
“I didn’t even know where South Carolina was,” Crombie laughed. “I had to get an atlas and have a look at the map of the United States to find out where South Carolina was. This was 1963, so I travelled on the old propeller planes.”
After being met at the airport by Baskin, Crombie was given a campus tour by some of his teammates, and it wasn’t long before he was indoctrinated into the South Carolina/Clemson rivalry.
“On the first day I was there, I went to a training session at the track,” Crombie recalled. “One of the boys on the team said to me, `you hate Clemson.’ I had never heard the word `Clemson’ in my life. I thought, why am I supposed to hate Clemson when I’ve never heard of them?”
The qualification I obtained from Carolina enabled me to become a college lecturer and that was a position I followed for 45 years.Bob Crombie
Crombie soon found out how intense the rivalry could be. While running in a dual meet in the Upstate, a large contingent of Clemson’s student body showed up. Crombie was accustomed to fans cheering for their team, but he was not used to seeing fans booing or heckling the opposing competitors.
“I was running the 880 yards, and I was winning very easily,” Crombie said. “I came into the finishing straight, and they were jeering me. So I thought, I’ll fix you up. I started running backwards and was blowing kisses.”
When he walked off the track, Crombie said he was approached by a rival sprinter and some fans who took issue with what he had done.
“He told me I was a big show off, and we had a little pushing match,” Crombie said. “The next thing I knew, there were 20 Clemson students around me. I think they were hell bent on doing some physical damage. I thought, `gee, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew here.’ ”
A couple of Gamecocks came to his aid, including a teammate who threw the shotput and was also a member of the football team and prevented the situation for escalating further.
“I think the students thought that things were starting to even up, so they dissipated,” Crombie said, followed by his usual laugh. “I thought my life was at risk. Boy, did I ever fire them up.”
All jokes aside, Crombie was all business in the distance events. In his three years with the Gamecocks, Crombie went undefeated in races at home and was never beaten in the 880 and the mile run in both the state and ACC competitions, claiming four ACC titles in all.
“The only time I got beat was in the national championships,” Crombie proudly affirmed. “We were in the ACC back then. I never got beat in the 880 or the mile. I was the ACC cross country champion as well.”
Crombie was a NCAA semifinalist in the 880 yards in 1964 and a NCAA mile semifinalist in 1965. He was inducted into the University of South Carolina Association of Lettermen Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006, which Crombie called “the greatest accolade that could possibly be bestowed upon me.”
Off the track, Crombie has great memories of his days on campus as well.
“I lived on the Horseshoe for four years, and it was absolutely magnificent,” Crombie said. “I loved the campus. I loved college life. I just loved being in Columbia.”
Crombie still visits the campus every few years, and plans on being in town for a reunion in November.
Upon graduating in 1966, Crombie returned to Australia where he got married and started a family. He has no regrets about hanging up his running spikes and keeping himself busy in the education, spending many years teaching at Australia’s Box Hill Institute of Technical and Further Education and also coached several sports on the side.
“The qualification I obtained from Carolina enabled me to become a college lecturer and that was a position I followed for 45 years,” Crombie said. “I retired six years ago. I was rewarded incredibly by getting an education. I came home, and I got into the coaching profession at the high school level and at the university level after a few years.
“We have Australian rules football, which is just as popular in this country as the National Football League is in the United States. They needed fitness advisors with all the running, so I got into that. I was still a full-time teacher, and I could do that part time. I spent a number of years doing that, and I also coached marathon runners on the side.”
Still in Melbourne, a partial knee replacement a couple of years ago signaled the end of Crombie’s ability to run, but he still exercises every day on a bike and in the gym. Now that he is retired, Crombie is still enjoying himself.
“All I do now is socialize,” Crombie beamed. “I go to the gym, and I’ve got some mates (friends) there. We have coffee and things like that. It’s a pretty good life.
“I would sum up my retirement the same way as a retired football coach in the USA once said; `I don’t do a damn thing, and I don’t start `till noon.’ ”