Following 1919, the KIAA abandoned baseball, and track emerged as a major sport with football and basketball. Major and minor sports were differentiated by the amount of attention from they received from the athletic department and university, and in the type of letter that athletes were awarded. Athletes who lettered in minor sports were given an English style letter “B,” while major sport athletes earned large block letters. The impact of the promotion to a major sport can be seen clearly in the period between 1920 and 1943, one in which the Baker University Track and Field program achieved most of its success. Much of this success is due to the Coach George Bretnall, who in addition to being a professor of biology was the second longest tenured coach in the program’s history.
Bretnall began his work in 1923 fresh from service on the United States Olympic team, where he ran the 440yard dash in forty-nine-seconds, an impressive feat today. Under Bretnall the program flourished in popularity and achievement. In fact, the school records for the 200 and 400 meters were set by Donald Lidikay with Bretnall as his coach. Lidikay’s time of 48.3 seconds for the 440-yards was the second fastest in the nation in 1925. Record times were not an uncommon thing for Lidikay to have. In addition to the 220 and 440 yard school records, he held the 100 and 880 yard records, KU Relays records in 880 yard dash and the Distance Medley Relay.
Bretnall saw his teams win six consecutive conference titles and eight overall during his fifteen year at the program’s helm, Lidikay was only one of many student-athletes who excelled. The Baker University Distance Medley Relay Team won the 1925 KU Relays. In field events, Kermit Lange set Baker University and KIAA records in the shot put and discuss, while Trueman Briggs won the KIAA javelin title in 1930, and Kenneth Young won the High Jump in 1933,his senior. Baker University yearbooks reflect on Bretnall and his teams in glowing terms as they identify his ability to consistently provide competitive squads, “Coach Bretnall has a natural habit of producing winning track teams. It is very seldom that his teams lose a dual meet, although meeting the strongest oppositions.”
Much of the success of Coach Bretnall can be attributed to the facilities of Baker University. The Baker University yearbook from 1923, brags that Baker University was home to the “finest cinder track in the state.” Emil Liston the Baker University Director of Athletics and Head Football Coach is honored by the Baker University Athletic Hall of Fame as the father of the stadium and track facilities at Baker University. These facilities paved the way for Liston athletic, who would go on to found of the NAIA, to organize the first Baker University Relay Carnival in 1924 at Cavaness Field in Baldwin City. The meet, which would become an annual event, consisted of an “A” and a “B” division, separating schools with an enrollment above and below 200. The meet was focused on providing facilities and opportunities for high school athletes to be exposed to the sport of track and field, and as a recruitment tool. The first Baker University Relays consisted of a variety of events, including the fifty-yard dash 100-yards, and one-mile run as individual track events, shot put, pole vault, high jump, broad jump, discus, and javelin as individual field events, and the half-mile relay, mile relay, sprint medley relay and distance medley relay as team events. The Relay Carnival eventually grew to include junior colleges. Nine junior colleges, twenty Class “A” schools, and thirty-six Class “B” schools entered the meet in 1931.
Clearly under the leadership of Coach Bretnall the Baker University Track and Field program extended its strong legacy and emerged as a perennial conference power, which was reorganized and renamed Kansas College Athletic Conference (KCAC) in December of 1928. However, Bretnall’s time as track and field coach at Baker University came to an end following the 1937 campaign. Like Coach Karl Schlademan, Bretnall’s success earned him the offer to become the head coach at Iowa State University.
In Bretnall’s absence the program remained strong. The Sprint Medley Relay Teams of 1939, 1940, and 1941 won the KU Relays. Pole Vaulter Charles Bonebrake won two conference titles, and cleared twelve feet nine inches, when the current world record was only fourteen feet. Bronebrake’s accomplishment is even more impressive when you take into account that this was before the invention of fiberglass poles and landing mats. Under the guidance of the coaching duo of Baker University Athletic Director and Football Coach Emil Liston and his assistant coach in football Don Snyder the team won the KCAC title three years straight from 1940 to 1942. On these conference championship team was Gorby Martin who threw the shot put, discus, and javelin helping to contribute to the team score. A period of remarkable success and achievement was ushered out in 1943 for the Baker University Track and Field program as world war took many promising student-athletes to war.