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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Regionals: Hows and Whys

Today’s Austin American-Statesman takes a look at the new regional format that NCAA Division I is stuck with this year and where it came from. As with most news, however, it’s important to read between the lines.

When introducing the history of regionals, sportswriter Randy Riggs picks an interesting word.
In 2003, the regional concept was introduced. The regionals, with eased qualifying standards, were designed to promote head-to-head competition for spots at nationals, provide a "championship experience" to more, and eliminate athletes from "chasing marks" at meets around the country.

But many coaches howled.
Many coaches howled? I think a better word is “some”. Every time the format came up for a vote at the coaches’ convention, it was overwhelmingly approved. And, of course, this is due to the classic “who benefits, who doesn’t” analysis. Coaches of the top programs, the ones trying to win a national championship, are trying to get as many athletes to the national meet as possible. To them, only bad things can happen at a regional meet—namely, not qualifying. To everyone else, only good things can happen—namely, spots that would have gone to those same top programs opening up to them.

Opposition to qualifying-by-competing has come from a small and vocal minority. Notably, Riggs only quotes coaches from Texas and Texas A&M, the type of powerful institutions supposedly being courted by the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10. Coaches at mid-majors like TCU or Rice or UTEP didn’t enter into the equation, never mind schools from the Southland or SWAC. To his great credit, The Oregonian’s Ken Goe notes that while Oregon’s Vin Lananna hates regionals, schools like Portland State has much to gain from them. Yet he fails to note that there are ten Portland States for every Oregon.

It’s worth noting how the athletes see it:
While many coaches don't like the current setup, athletes don't seem to mind.

"I'm excited for how they're doing it," Texas intermediate hurdler Angele Cooper said. "I feel it's a fair shot. You do well, you go to nationals."

Longhorns long jumper Marquise Goodwin compared it to qualifying for the high school state meet through a regional competition.

"I think it's pretty fair to come to regionals and everyone getting to compete against each other," Goodwin said.

Athletes compete. It’s what they do. They like it.

So if regionals were so well liked, and the few who didn’t preferred the old qualify-by-marks system, why did we get saddled with the current setup that satisfies no one? Some have said it’s a secret plan to kill regionals. If it is, it’s no secret. But it didn't comme from the coaches.
The new, dual-site "preliminary rounds" are the result of several years of back-and-forth negotiations essentially among three entities — the national coaches association, the NCAA Division I track and field executive committee and the NCAA Division I championships/sports management cabinet.

The cabinet, comprised primarily of university athletic directors, faculty reps and conference officials, has the ultimate authority. It rejected several proposals by the coaches association and track and field executive committee before finally settling on the new format.

The current system cam from the NCAA Cabinet, which oversees all sports and has no particular attachment to track & field. When your realize this, everything makes a little more sense. One of their goals has been to increase the number of athletes competing at the NCAA championships so that it’s reasonably similar to participation rates in championships for other sports. That meant changing the semantics, so that “regionals” became “first round”. Unfortunately, the format changed as well.

Another thing the Cabinet wanted was to make track more like other sports. Football has Bowl Week. Basketball has March Madness. Baseball and softball have the College World Series. About a year ago a two-weekend proposal for the NCAA track championships was floated, in which 64 athletes would qualify in each event and the first weekend would pare down to a “sweet 16” for the final weekend. No one liked it and it was taken of the table.

The proposal likely to be used next year is OK, I guess.
Dubbed the "Wilson Plan" because it was recommended by Minnesota assistant coach Gary Wilson, the proposal also goes by the "24-8 Plan."

Under the proposal, the top 24 entries on the descending-order list of best performances in each event automatically qualify for nationals. Joining them would be eight conference champions in each event, excluding those already in the top 24, based on their season-best marks.
But none of this gets to the real issue. The function of the NCAA’s Division I is to provide spectator sports. Track has essentially no spectators. It’s not on TV much either, not when compared to lesser sports like lacrosse, softball and gymnastics.

Track coaches and observers are fond of throwing up their hands and saying “There’s just not a lot of interest in track”. But that’s not true at all. The professional end of the sport has very good attendance, and the TV ratings are amazing considering the shabby production. High school track gets attendance numbers and interest levels superior to even the pros. It’s only college track that goes ignored.

As long as the only thing that matters about track’s regular season is getting good marks and resting up for the championships, it will remain uninteresting. Regionals helped the situation, as it freed up time for duals that previously would have been spent on chasing marks. But it still didn’t address the problem that if you watch a regular-season meet, there’s nothing on the line. The outcome doesn’t matter.

When deciding how we choose who competes at the NCAA championships, we need to think creatively. We need to think less about our own interests and more about what makes track interesting. The status quo is unacceptable.

EDIT: Let's Run is examining the alternate qualifying plan expected to be in place next year.

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