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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Issues Facing College Track, Part 1

Last week it was announced that the NCAA's basketball tournament would be expanding from 65 teams to 68. The NCAA had toyed with the idea of going to 96 teams, and the public hadn't warmed to the idea. The general criticism was that college basketball's regular season, already without much importance, would be de-emphasized even more. Preserving the importance of the regular season is also one of the reasons often cited in opposition to a college football playoff.

In contrast, college track's regular season is not largely meaningless. It is totally meaningless. The six weeks stretching from late March to the first week of May accomplish only two things: getting qualifiers to the championship meets, and prepping for them. The entire thing is little more than a bunch of high-quality practice sessions, because nothing is really on the line. No one stands to win anything but a fast time, and no one stands to lose anything at all. In light of this, the attendance numbers at the Penn, Drake, Texas, and Kansas Relays are remarkable.

The regionals system for qualifying to the NCAA championships, instituted in 2003, has only had a marginal effect on the boredom of the regular season. Dual meets are scheduled slightly more often than they used to be, partly because of the reduced pressure to get big marks. However, regionals still don't address the problem: the regular season still has no inherent meaning. This year's switch to a two-regional system has been called a "secret plan" to kill the whole qualify-through-competition setup by the (powerful) minority of coaches who don't like it, but I don't think there's any secret about it.

So would the death of the regional system have any appreciable effect on the spectator appeal of college track? No. When regional championships were put into place, they were considered perfect for TV. But in eight years, not a single one of them has ever appeared on the tube. And they still backload the importance of what happens to the end of the season. No, the presence or absence of regionals does not, in the big picture, make any difference.

It's been said that the NCAA likes the idea of qualifying via conference championships, but that's problematic. Currently we take 24 athletes in each event to the national championships, but there are 30 or so conferences. And as with most sports, the champions of most conferences are, by any reasonable assessment, inferior to the top half-dozen in a few conferences.

I'm amazed that the committees which come up with college track policy haven't done what committees do best, namely take a "split the baby" approach. I've got such a plan, and I think it would satisfy everyone and make for a more meaningful regular season.

The 24 nationals qualifiers in each event would be come from three groups.
*The top eight conference champions from the national descending-order list qualify.
*The next eight athletes on the national descending-order list also qualify.
* Eight at-large berths would be chosen by a committee based on the athletes' competitive record against each other and the sixteen athletes above.

The first grouping enhances the importance conference championships, and also guarantees access to nationals for second-tier conferences. For example, last year's men's 100m conference meet auto-qualifiers would have been the champions of the traditional power conferences of the SEC, ACC, Pac-10, Big 12 and Big Ten, but also the not-so-powerful Ohio Valley, MEAC and Sun Belt. For the men's 1500, champions of the Big East, Big Sky and Big West would have joined the five power-conference champions.

The second group satisfies the statheads and the top coaches, who generally prefer qualifying via marks. It would be virtually impossible for anyone in the top twelve to fourteen athletes on the descending-order list to fail to qualify to the NCAA meet.

The third grouping is where I think something new comes into play, qualifying via competitive record rather than by time. Actually, it's nto that new. It's how we choose the thirteen at-large berths for the NCAA Cross Country Championships. In that sport, the regular season does mean something, albeit not as much as the end of the season. And that's how things should be. As it is right now, a middle-distance guy would much rather run 3:40 and lose than run 3:44 and win. That's our problem--if it's not fast, it's not meaningful. Every competition between quality athletes should have meaning, and under my system it would. Because in the middle of April, we don't yet know who the sixteen auto-qualifiers will be, so everyone has to run like they're going to need an at-large berth. That makes winning at least as important as running fast, and that's interesting.

So far, I've addressed the individual aspect of the sport. But to gain the attention of the public, and to get fans to show up to meets, it is essential that we spend even more effort reforming the team aspect of college track & field. More on that later.


png said...

The public has no idea what they are supposed to get out of going to an "ordinary" college track meet. The same is true for the corresponding high school meets. Further, the vast majority of fans that go to the big meets like the Penn Relays are not really going to watch track and field. They are going to support something: their school, their child, their country.
In other words, Eugene is not like the rest of the country. So, the support aspect must be nurtured if you want more people to attend track meets. I have some ideas on how to do this, but those with vested interests in the track and field community do not want outsiders telling them their business. Later....

Martin said...

I like your idea, but don't you think it might hurt the dual meets which you want to see making a comeback? If head-to-head competition is required to get one of those at large bids, schools will be headed to bigger meets like they do in the XC season rather than going to dual meets dual meets where they will likely face little competition.

The Track & Field Superfan said...

Actually, during XC most teams go to one or two really big meets and generally don't run a whole lot besides those. They tend to run every second week and sometimes less. For example, Stanford's regular season this year was just three meets, on Sep 4, Sep 26 and Oct 17. Track teams, being dependent on skills at least as much as conditioning, can't afford to compete that little.