2017 LSU Athletic Hall of Fame Class: Russ Buller
The last place a pole vaulter might expect to find himself is spiked up, in the blocks and ready to lead off one of the nation’s best 4×100-meter relays in the NCAA final. But that’s exactly where Russ Buller was as an 18-year-old freshman at LSU competing at his first NCAA Outdoor Championships.
The University of Indiana played host to that national meet in 1997 as Buller took his mark with Mike Alridge, Jermaine Grant and Chris Cummings all awaiting the baton with an NCAA title in their sights.
“I got thrown into the fire,” Buller recalled of the first time he was asked to lead off the relay. “Coach (Pat) Henry basically came up to me and said, ‘Hey, are you ready to run?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said, ‘You’re going to lead off the relay next week (at nationals). We need to work on some block starts.’ I was just like, ‘Alright?’ I was a freshman and didn’t know any better.”
Buller knew what it meant to vault. After signing with the Tigers as one of the top pole vault recruits in the country, he earned All-America honors at his first NCAA Indoor Championships before being crowned the SEC Outdoor Champion in the event his freshman year.
Still, nothing could prepare him for the first time he took the stick in a championship meet and set up his blocks in his first career NCAA final at Indiana’s Billy Hayes Track.
“I was pretty dialed in with the pole vault, and I knew exactly what to expect and I was in total control of that,” Buller explained. “Running the relay, you’re not in total control. I’m sitting there nervous because I’ve got my teammates waiting for me to get the stick off. I definitely got more nervous running the relay, but it was good nerves. I think that’s why I competed well when I was put in that situation in my career.”
The Tigers captured the bronze medal that year at the NCAA Championships, a feat they would repeat in Buller’s senior year in 2000 when he teamed up with Derrick Brew, Deryell Patterson and Dwhyte Barrett for his second medal-winning performance at the national meet.
“I would be handing off a lot of times to Derrick (Brew), and I had to make sure I was on my game or he was going to leave me,” Buller said. “ I was fast and quick, but after like 80 meters I was gassed. They would make sure running the curve, because I had quick steps, that I was only running 80 or 90 meters and I would hand to Derrick and he would run 110 (meters) or so.”
Relay success aside, Buller’s career is unmatched by any other pole vaulter in the history of the LSU Track & Field program. A seven-time All-American and six-time SEC Champion, he was crowned the NCAA Indoor and NCAA Outdoor Champion in the pole vault during his senior season in 2000. He remains LSU’s only 19-foot vaulter with a collegiate best of 19 feet, 0 ¼ inches set during the summer of 1999.
He is also one of only three vaulters in the history of the SEC Championships dating back 85 years to win four outdoor titles in a career, joining Florida’s Earl Poucher (1953-56) and Mike Holloway (1988-90, 1992).
It was a career that also propelled Buller to the heights of international track and field as he followed by representing Team USA at the 2001 IAAF World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, and later won his first ever pole vault title at the USA Track & Field Championships in 2006 where he beat Olympic Silver Medalist Toby Stevenson with a clearance of 19-0 ¼.
Winning the U.S. title and pursuing his Olympic dream in 2008 when he was an alternate for Team USA as the fourth-place finisher at the U.S. Olympic Trials was Buller’s validation of a career inspired, in part, by the loss of his brother, Jordan, to a car accident in 2004.
“For those years, that was my main focus,” Buller said of making the U.S. Olympic Team. “Before (Jordan) died we had a discussion about me getting back to training. What I did then was I gave up everything. On those days I really wasn’t feeling it, I really thought back and motivated myself about why I was doing it. It was just the sport, but at the same time, it was part of my healing process.
“The validation of doing all of that after what I went through with my brother was the icing on the cake. I really wanted to make the (Olympic) team in 2008, but at the same time for me personally, dropping everything and getting back into it and winning in 2006 was an awesome experience and a big validation point in my career.”
After retiring from the sport of track and field after the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, Buller moved into the strength and conditioning side of athletics while first working with the San Diego Padres before serving eight years as an Assistant Athletic Director in charge of sport performance at Tulane University.
His wife, Dana Ellis, is a graduate of Tulane Medical School and recently accepted a fellowship at Yale University. Ellis is an Olympian in her own right while wearing the Maple Leaf of Canada at the 2004 Athens Olympics where she placed sixth in the pole vault with Buller as her coach.
As seasons come and go, Buller’s place in history remains. And now his name will forever be mentioned among the greats to wear the purple and gold with his induction Friday into the LSU Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I was overcome with emotions that I haven’t felt in a long time,” Buller said of learning of his induction. “Just to be inducted into a prestigious Hall of Fame like LSU, it was overwhelming. There has been so many great athletes come through LSU with all of the sports. For me to be chosen for track and field is hard to explain. It brings back a lot of these great memories I have from my time at LSU.”
Editor’s Note: LSU all-America pole vaulter Russ Buller is a member of the 2017 LSU Athletic Hall of Fame induction class and will be formally enshrined on Friday in the L’Auberge Baton Rouge Events Center. The other inductees are women’s basketball player Joyce Walker, men’s basketball player Collis Temple Jr., diver Alison Maisch, sprinter Debbie Parris-Thymes and softball pitcher Kristin Schmidt.
Tickets are on sale now for the event, which begins with a cocktail reception featuring heavy hors d’ouerves from 6 p.m. until 7:30 p.m., followed by the induction ceremony at 7:45 p.m. Tickets for the event are available for $50 each. Tickets may be purchased by contacting Courtney Albritton of the Tiger Athletic Foundation at (225) 578-0159 or [email protected].
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