Tony Waldrop and his wife, Dr. Julee Waldrop (photo via University of South Alabama)

Polk County native Tony Waldrop, legendary runner and educator, dies at 70

Dr. Tony Waldrop, who established himself as a track star at Polk Central High School and the University of North Carolina before a distinguished career in education, died Saturday at the age of 70.

Dr. Waldrop passed away after a lengthy illness, according to a statement released by the University of South Alabama, where Dr. Waldrop served as president from 2014-2021. He retired in 2021 and moved to Chapel Hill with his wife, Dr. Julee Waldrop, who serves as assistant dean of the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Program at UNC.

Born Dec. 29, 1951 in Columbus, Dr. Waldrop first gained fame in 1968 while a sophomore at Polk Central, winning the state 1A/2A championship in the mile with a time of 4:22. State rules at the time prohibited a runner from competing in both the 880-yard run and mile in the same state meet, so Waldrop returned in 1969 and won the 880-yard run in a time of 1:53.9, a record that remains today.

He completed his career in 1970 with a state championship in the mile.

Dr. Waldrop earned a Morehead Scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina, and there he gained national and international recognition. He won six Atlantic Coast Conference championships, was a six-time All-American, broke four minutes in the mile on 11 occasions, won NCAA titles in the indoor 1000-yard run and mile and set the indoor world record for the mile in 1974. He held the NCAA record for the indoor mile for more than 30 years.

He received selection as the ACC Athlete of the Year in 1974, beating out North Carolina State basketball star David Thompson.

Dr. Waldrop set a record in the mile at the prestigious Penn Relays and became the first man to break the four-minute mark in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games. His Wanamaker time of 3:55.0 stood as the record in the event until 2013. He won a gold medal at the 1975 Pan American Games in the 1500-meter run. He decided to retire early in 1976.

“It was a really easy decision to decide to hang up the shoes and get on with the rest of my life,” Waldrop told LetsRun.com in a 2005 interview.

“I never regretted the decision (to retire during the Olympic year), maybe there were one or two seconds (of momentarily regret) when I watched the 1500m at the Olympics… 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 and I think it would be the same today.”

Dr. Waldrop has been named to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and was inducted earlier this year into the North Carolina High School Track & Field and Cross Country Hall of Fame.

After earning bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at UNC, Dr. Waldrop began his educational career as a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and was later promoted to vice chancellor for research at Illinois. He returned to UNC in 2001 as vice chancellor for research and graduate studies.

In 2010, Dr. Waldrop was named provost and executive vice president at the University of Central Florida. He served there until 2014, when he became just the third president in University of South Alabama history.

“He was a pivotal leader who worked tirelessly to improve our graduation rates, elevate our research profile and raise our academic standards,” said current South Alabama President Jo Bonner in announcing Dr. Waldrop’s passing. “He insisted on sharing credit for the many accomplishments made during his administration with our incredible faculty and staff.

“Even so, some of the many highlights of his presidency include expansion of USA Health, construction of Hancock Whitney Stadium on our campus, the development of the School of Marine and Environmental Sciences and the launching of an Honors College and the Pathway USA program for transfer students.

“Under Dr. Waldrop’s leadership, the University completed its Upward & Onward comprehensive fundraising campaign that raised more than $160 million. He also helped guide our University through the challenging and uncertain times of a global pandemic.”

Funeral arrangements will be announced by the family at a later date, according to Bonner.

Dr. Waldrop is survived by his wife and two sons, Cabe and Dallas.