100 in 100: Polk County’s Tony Waldrop, ACC’s best in 1974

The former UNC track star retired at his peak and is now president at the University of South Alabama

Polk County's Tony Waldrop beat out NC State's David Thompson as the ACC's top athlete in 1974 after he dominated in track at UNC.

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Polk County

Tony Waldrop

David Thompson is generally acknowledged as the greatest basketball player in ACC history. He won the McKelvin Award as the league’s Athlete of the Year in both 1973 and ’75. But in 1974, a year in which Thompson led NC State to the national championship, he was beaten out for the honor by Tony Waldrop. That, more than any statistic, illustrates just how dominant a force the middle-distance runner from North Carolina was on the track.


He began his record-setting ways at Polk Central High School, where he won 1A/2A state championships in each of his final three seasons, shattering an NCHSAA mark in the 880-yard run that had stood for 14 years by a whopping 2.3 seconds.

He continued his success at UNC after arriving in Chapel Hill as a Morehead Scholar in 1970, earning All-America recognition six times while setting an indoor world record in the mile with a time of 3:55.0 that stayed on the books until 2012.

Waldrop won the NCAA indoor championship at 1,000 yards in 1973 and the mile in 1974 — a year in which he ran a record nine straight sub-four-minute miles and ran a 3:53.2 to win outdoors at the Penn Relays while gracing the cover of Track & Field News magazine.

Tony Waldrop has been president at the University of South Alabama since 2014. (Photo courtesy South Alabama)

After graduating and becoming an assistant coach at UNC, he won gold in the 1,500 meters at the Pan American Games in Mexico City to establish himself as a favorite for the Montreal Olympics the following summer. But seemingly at the top of his ability and poised to earn the most meaningful victory of his career, Waldrop abruptly retired from competition to pursue his academic career.

He earned both a master’s degree and doctorate from UNC before going on to a distinguished career in teaching and administration. Since 2014, he’s served as president of the University of South Alabama. To this day, he says he has no regrets about walking away instead of running for a shot at Olympic gold.

“It was a really easy decision to decide to hang up the shoes and get on with the rest of my life,” Waldrop, whose trademark after races was donning a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Run for Fun,” said in a 2005 interview. “I never regretted the decision. I accomplished a lot more in track than I ever imagined I would. There were a lot more things I wanted to do with my life.”