The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Rethinking Collegiate Regionals and Nationals

Recently Texas A&M head coach Pat Henry was interviewed by Flotrack about last weekend's NCAA preliminary rounds, and he did not have nice things to say about it. He said it was bad for track & field. This was discussed at Let's Run, and I responded by saying "by which he means 'bad for Pat Henry'."

I said this because I've heard the same coaches bitching about whatever regionals system we've had ever since they were put into place in 2003. And most people with important jobs in D-I athletic programs are nakedly self-serving, as it's an unwritten portion of the job description. (Personally, I think the constant airing of complaints is also bad for college track, as sportswriters and potential spectators are told that there's no reason to pay attention to the regional meets. We need to encourage attention, not discourage it.)

But, unusual for Let's Run, the ensuing discussion was illuminating and productive. As I read and thought and looked at the evidence, I came to the conclusion that Pat Henry really is in favor of emphasizing team competition. All of Texas A&M's home meets were scored in one way or another, and Henry brought his team to one of the few outdoor scored invitationals, the Pepsi Challenge in Eugene. Furthermore, it has been said that he suggested a team championship at the nationals eerily similar to one I recently proposed--one that would be much more difficult for his teams to win than our current national championship system.

The prevailing opinion, though, is that we won't be arguing about regionals any longer because a new proposal has gained near-universal acceptance among the coaches. Dubbed the "Wilson Plan", after the Minnesota coach who came up with it, it takes 32 athletes in each event directly to the nationals, some by virtue of marks and some by virtue of winning their conference championships. It's thought that this will be what we do next year.

I wouldn't presume that regionals are dead, though. No one would have predicted we'd have this year's system. I think I'm beginning to understand the thought processes of the NCAA Championshisp Cabinet, the group from whence it came. You see, in every other sport, there is some system of playoffs or regional competition leading into the NCAA championship. You can actually see some form of what the NCAA's administrators want when you look at these nifty brackets. The assumption that outdoor track & field, which is relatively important among the NCAA's 23 different sports, would be allowed to be different just because the coaches want it that way defies the "logic" of large bureaucracies.

I think we're going to have some form of regional competition for a long time. What we have now is very hard to follow, because there are "playoff brackets" for forty different events. Following those are complex and time-consuming. Neither do they address the issue that team competition is what drives interest in college track, and right now we have little more than a huge collection of individual competitions.

What kind of regional competition could heighten the importance of team competition, make regionals truly interesting, and yet not stifle the individual competition portion of track & field? I've got a few ideas.

We could use Henry's combination team/individual championship plan in the old four-region format. In each region, eight teams would qualify for the regionals based on either winning one of eight to twelve major conferences or by the results of scored meets during the season. Another sixteen athletes in each event would qualify as individuals based on whatever criteria we want, most likely a descending-order list.

Those eight teams would be allowed two athletes per event, and team scores would be tallied among those athletes only, much as we do in cross country. At the end of the meet, the top two teams qualify to the nationals, along with the top four athletes in each event not on qualifying teams. At the national championships we'd repeat the system.

In what way would this make things more interesting? The team scores at regionals would be hugely important. Finish third and you can't compete for the NCAA Championship. But more importantly, getting your team to the regionals would require competing in a few scored meets during the regular season.

Going into regionals, we'd then have an NCAA Championships selection show for track & field, as the NCAA does for about twenty other sports. National team rankings would be based not on a bunch of arithmetic as we do now, but on actual results of actual meets. Who won a meet would be the headline because it would really mean something (and because there would be a winner).

A minor technical point: I don't think I'd have the decathlon/heptathlon be part of the regionals or the team scoring. For one reason, it's not reasonable to ask a full multi-event competition out of a young athlete three times in five weeks (conference, regional, national). But also, provided that the multis are completed before the rest of the nationals begin, a decent multi-event athlete can have a big impact in an eight-team meet by scoring in several events. We want to promote this kind of team heroism, not reduce it.

So who would have qualified this year? Assuming that at least a few team-scoring meets would have been part of everyone's schedule, here's who I would have predicted for each of the old four regions. Auto qualifiers are noted.

Florida (SEC champ)
Florida State (ACC champ)
UConn (IC4A champ)
South Carolina
Virginia Tech
North Carolina
I don't think there's much doubt about which two teams would get to the nationals here, as Florida and Florida State are far better than the rest.

Notre Dame (Big East champ)
Mississippi State
Ohio State
LSU would get to the nationals easily, and I think Auburn would likely be second over Wisconsin.

Nebraska (Big 12 champ)
Minnesota (Big 10 champ)
Houston (C-USA champ)
Wichita State (MVC champ)
Texas A&M
Texas Tech
This would be a dogfight between Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas A&M.

Oregon (Pac-10 champ)
BYU (Mountain West champ)
Utah State (WAC champ)
Southern Cal
Arizona State
Cal State Northridge
Oregon and Southern Cal would have a pretty easy time of this, despite the fact that BYU is a very good team.

No comments: