The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

How and why track stars leave college early.  On Thursday, it was announced that Curtis Mitchell would forego his senior year at Texas A&M and join Lance Braumann's training group in Florida.  He was the most important athlete in the Aggies' attempt to defend their NCAA title, and head coach Pat Henry was none too happy about the situation.  "It's often assumed that athletes make this professional move due to academic ineligibility", said Henry. "Curtis was in good standing academically, with no problems what so ever, and was ready to go athletically as well."

Some of the more high-profile early exits have been related to other issues. Kerron Clement was at the height of his signing potential when he left, as he'd just broken the world indoor record at 400 meters. Alan Webb essentially folded on college running after his freshman year was a bust.

In other sports, football especially, athletes turn pro because they fear injury which could jeopardize their livelihood. Injuries like this can happen in track as well; Walter Dix lost most of his senior year to a hamstring injury, which has recurred in each of his two full professional seasons and seriously impacted his earnings. But there shouldn't be much to fear for Mitchell, as Henry's athletes tend to stay healthy and progress to the pro ranks very well. You don't get "used up" at TAMU.

This particular instance appears to be a bit different. Henry explains. "We have agents and management groups who prey on young people's financial dreams and aspirations with no regard to the person's education or even athletic growth. This particular situation borders on legal issues with respect to agents and state laws." More or less, agent John Regis appears to have sweet-talked the kind into signing early. That Regis is British and that the likely goal is to medal at the London Olympics may or may not be coincidental. But it sure looks like Henry was kept out of the loop.

Oregon football is peculiar to its environment. Tomorrow night the Ducks play for the national championship, and in a way that would be unlikely to happen anywhere else. Their offense is based around speed and endurance, which is only appropriate for Track Town USA. It's not that they turn football games into track meets, but rather that their all-game no-huddle offense makes them into hourlong fartlek runs. They have outscored their opponents 115-24 in the fourth quarter.

More unusual yet is that such an approach has led to a title chance. The insurgent strategy, recently explained by Malcolm Gladwell (in an article that everyone incorrectly assumes is just about basketball), is only adopted when you realize that you are David rather than Goliath. Oregon head coach Chip Kelly has somehow convinced his players that they are incapable of being the top team in the land by playing conventional football, and thus inspired them to be the best by playing unconventional football. His players have bought into the system, which asks them to work much harder than anyone else.

Earlier this week, SI's Ian Thomsen related the observations of other coaches on Oregon's approach. One pro coach said "The pace and tempo they practice with really stood out to me...Their conditioning is unbelievable for them to play at that tempo and speed in the fourth quarter."

Yet another coach, one already on Oregon's campus, said "To really play the speed game, the problem is that it's very hard to do and therefore you need a special group of people who are willing to play that way. For's not easy for them. So that may be the ultimate compliment to Chip Kelly -- that he's gotten his players to do something game after game that's very hard. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. This is a special kind of hard [assignment] to be ready to go play after play after play. And in Chip's case, as the possessions mount, they play faster and they play better."

That last quote is from Oregon's women's basketball coach, one Paul Westhead. That's right, the Guro of Go. The guy who more or less created the Laker's "Showtime" fast-break style, and then took it up another notch at Loyola Marymount. Chip Kelly consulted Westhead on how to make it work.

The problem with insurgent strategies is that they depend on a massive amount of work to make up for a deficiency in resources (in this case, raw football talent). Once the underdogs become the overdogs, they abandon insurgent strategies. Oregon has not been one of the nation's premier programs in any sport (except track). What happens if they win tomorrow night? Eventually they will be able to recruit better players, some of whom will resent the Kelly system, and the whole thing may disappear. Nor has Kelly's uptempo system always worked--in fact, it's only really worked this year. Westhead himself says to appreciate it while it's there, because it almost certainly will not last.

Goliath got pipped. Oregon's track program, unlike its football program, is Goliath. It has a sugar daddy like no other. It has the only track-specific stadium in the world that uses the phrase "season tickets". It stockpiles high school All-Americans. As Duke is to men's basketball, Oregon is to track.

Oregon is so dominant that they hired a high-profile throws coach, Bob Weir, just to try to land a single recruit. They succeeded in getting Sam Crouser, last year's high school athlete of the year, to back out from his commitment to UCLA and come to Eugene. But that wasn't the big fish they were going after.

The big fish is cousin Ryan Crouser, about to enter his senior season of track, who is considered the best American throws prospect in a generation. Oregon pulled out all the stops for him. Usually competing at Hayward Field is enough to put stars in any kid's eyes. But the Ducks brought this kid out to Autzen Stadium for a home football game and put him in the end zone with some track honorees while 60,000 fans chanted "Come to Oregon, come to Oregon..." No 18-year-old thrower will get that kind of attention anywhere in the entire world.

And Crouser decided to go to...Texas.  Why?  Because the academics are a better fit for him. At first this is a stunning thing, but upon reflection it shouldn't be. I've often said that track people are usually a breed apart, more concerned with selves than team. A 6'7" monstrously strong and quick athlete like Ryan Crouser does not choose throwing over football or basketball unless he doesn't particularly care for the approval of thousands of screaming fans. At most meets for the next four years, there will be at most a few hundred people watching him compete, and he's OK with that. Most 18-year-olds can't keep their eyes on the prize like that, but maybe that's another reason why Crouser is the best throwing prospect in a generation.

For more on the Crouser decision, check out

Rivalries are sport-specific. For example, Ohio State and Michigan are such bitter football rivals that I know people who wouldn't let me into their house wearing maize and blue. But in basketball, the matchup is just another game. Indiana-Purdue matters in football, but not anywhere near as much as in basketball. And on and on.

One of the things that really hurts track is that there are so few true rivalries. There's USC-UCLA, but that's one of the few rivalries that is consistently strong and important across all sports. Yesterday I discovered there IS a track-specific rivalry. In a men-only dual meet, Princeton beat Navy to even their all-time series at 20-20. They've been going at this for 40 out of the last 53 years. So it's a bit like Lafayette-Lehigh, in that the teams involved aren't important on a national scale but the history means a lot to the athletes and their fans.

The Big Ten has a few big-time athletes. Three of them showed it yesterday. Derek Drouin, Indiana's defending NCAA high jump champ, opened his season with 2.27 (7' 5 1/4") and took a few good shots at 2.30 (7' 6 1/2"), the Big Ten record. (2.31 would put him in the top ten in collegiate history.)  I hope he and Kansas State's Erik Kynard develop a rivalry; they are currently tied atop the NCAA performance list, and both are the same age and represent neighboring nations (Canada and the USA respectively). Kynard has always had trouble maintaining form over a whole season, though, and so far Drouin has dominated when the two have met.

At the same meet, Indiana's Faith Sherrill added 1.20 meters (3' 11") to her school record in the women's shot put with a massive 18.00 (59' 3/4") heave. It broke the Big Ten record by more than two and a half feet, and would have put her 3rd on last year's US indoor list and 20th in the world.  It puts her just outside the top ten Americans in collegiate history, and her season has just begun.  If she progresses, she has a decent chance at making the US team for the World Championships.

Over at Penn State, the Nittany Lions' Cas Loxsom ran 1:01.28 for 500 meters. It's a bit difficult to put that mark in perspective, as the 500 is a rarely-run distance. But it suggests he's capable of running mid-1:47 for 800 meters right now. Loxsom won silver at last summer's World Junior Championships, and his outdoor PR is only 1:46.57. Indoors, his best is 1:47.98. Obviously, then, he has stepped things up to another level over last year. With distance running you always have to worry about peaking at the right time, and running great in the first meet in January could mean being too sharp too soon. On the other hand, the kid ran at his best in July last year after both an indoor and outdoor college season, so maybe there needn't be any concern.

USATF listens to the Superfan. Last fall USATF's online store rolled out a scarf emblazoned with red, white and blue and the organization's name. A month or so ago they began to sell track-themed crazy bands. An offhand comment by Paul Merca alerted me to the just-introduced USATF blanket.

Until just now, I'd forgotten something that may have contributed to all of this. About a year ago I filled out a survey from USA Track and Field, which among other things asked what I wanted to see in the USATF online store. I replied that while it was well-stocked with items for the athlete, coach and official, what it really needed was fan items. Fans of teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB have almost limitless items to show their support, but fans of arguably the best single team in the entire world, Team USA track and field, have little chance to do so. I suggested they expand their offerings of more casual items. Apparently, I'm like E.F. Hutton: when I talk, people listen.

Mo Farah is running very well. At the Great Edinburgh Cross Country, he ran the team 8k race against the USA and European all-stars. His main competition was Galen Rupp. As a 27:10 runner a year ago, he's hardly a pushover. But on Saturday in Edinburgh, Farah left Rupp nine seconds behind, most of which was gained in the last 2 km. The top African runners were in a separated individual race, and it's hard to say how Farah would have fared. Based on his New Year's Eve race, where he lost to Imane Merga by inches, he just might be the world's fourth-best runner right now behind Merga, Joseph Ebuya, and Haile Gebrselassie.  Which is to say he's the fourth-best out of runners currently competing; where he stands when the World Championships 10,000 meter race comes around, and every serious runner is ready to go, is a different kettle of fish.  But things look very, very good for him right now.

Ebuya, the defending world cross country champ, has lost just once this fall/winter, to Merga, and has since avenged that loss.  He won again today in Spain, smashing a good field by 40 seconds.  At this moment in time, he is doubtless the best runner around.

A wild card right now is Geoffrey Mutai. He toyed with and then destroyed the field at a cross country race in Iten yesterday. He is pointing to a spring marathon, but he also ran the track 10k at the African Championships last summer, so both how he stacks up to the other track runners (and whether or not it matters) is an unknown quantity.

Linet Masai is getting closer to her World Cross Country goal. The world 10k champion has never won a (senior) world cross country championship, taking two silvers and a bronze. She has now won both of her cross country races this season, taking yesterday's Edinburgh race in convincing fashion. She left world 5k champ Vivian Cheruyiot some 12 seconds in arrears in a 5.7k race.

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