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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Evening Decathlete

I'm going in a different direction with this week's column, using the entire space to examine a single issue. It's one I've examined before, but now it's getting wider play and needs a thorough investigation.

At the pre-NCAA Championships coaches' press conference, Arkansas' Chris Bucknam floated an idea that long-time readers of this space have heard before. Take a look.

More after the jump.
What he's suggesting is a separate national team championship, in which 12 or so teams compete in a conference-style meet. It would be radically different than what we have now, and have had since the first college championship in 1876.

This is not my idea. The idea originated with Pat Henry last June, after which I took the idea and played with it. Henry took the idea up again in an interview in the December issue of Track and Field News, this time a little better developed.

What I don't think Bucknam or Henry or anyone else is talking about is totally changing our current system to eliminate individual event competition. Rather, it would be to have an individual-event championship and a team championship, likely held in successive days.

I think this is an idea worth exploring. I think it could be very good for track, but I think it also could be executed poorly. As with everything, the devil is in the details. And I think the greatest potential benefits would be felt outside the national championships.

This individual-then-team format is the way several other college sports operate their national championships, most notably gymnastics and golf. These sports have a championship for individuals in the first few days, followed by the team championship to finish off the weekend.

Do we really want to follow the lead of these other sports? I mean, are they sports anyone cares about? They in fact do get quite a bit of attention, a lot more than track does.

If you've never seen some of the SEC gymnastics dual meets on ESPN, you have no idea how bad track is getting its butt kicked by other sports. The attendance and energy at those meets is tremendous, far superior to any regular season collegiate-only meet not held in Eugene. Even in the Big Ten, where the gymnastics spectator base is not as large, the sport is out-classing track. The BTN broadcasts one regular-season track meet a year but has eleven regular-season gymnastics meets in 2011, and gymnastics' Big Ten Championships get live coverage while track's are tape-delayed by several weeks.

And let's make one thing very clear: the status quo for college track is slow death. Yes, trying something different could fail, maybe spectacularly. But we are failing right now.

So how would we do this? The number of ways you could set this up is limited only by your imagination. Our current indoor national championships are a two-day meet and outdoors we have a four-day meet. I think we could have the same schedules for the individual championships, moved back two days, and then a two-day team championship on the weekend.

Is this doable? Is it possible for star athletes to double-up like that in a week? In the field events, it's no problem at all. In some of the running events, it might require athletes to make some hard choices between pursuing individual accolades and doing what's best for the team, a situation we see all the time at the NCAA cross country championships. In the decathlon/heptathlon/pentathlon and 10k, it really isn't doable at all.

So I'd make some accommodations. The team championships would not include the multis or, in the case of the outdoor meet, the 10k. I don't think this puts anyone at a disadvantage; athletes who are good at those events are more than capable of scoring points for their team in several other events.

Another idea could take some pressure off athletes in running events. Let's take Jeff Demps as an example. Under the individual-then-team championship plan, he'd run heats and finals of the 60 meters for an individual title, and then would need to run again for Florida in the weekend's team championship. I wouldn't make him run heats in the team competition. I'd make it so that anyone makes the final in the individual competition, and who is also entered in the team competition, would automatically advance to the finals of that event in the team meet. I think that's fair; if you've proven you're a top-eight guy competing against everyone in the nation, you certainly are a top-eight guy against a field of only eleven other teams.

How would we qualify individuals to the nationals? For the individuals, we could do it by regionals, or by descending-order lists, or by some version of the Wilson Plan, or whatever. I think much of the bitter arguing we've seen over the last decade about the nationals qualifying format would disappear, because working towards a national championship would no longer be dependent on qualifying individuals, but rather a whole team.

I say we should cut individual qualifiers down to only sixteen per event at the outdoor championship, and probably less indoors. That seems like a pretty small field at first glance and pretty difficult to get to the nationals. But I think there would be two issues at play to mitigate that.

One, there would not be as much doubling as there is now, as there are no points to pile up in the individual competition. For example, Oregon's Jordan Hasay certainly would not triple in the individual events, and she did this weekend. That would open up spots for other individuals to qualify.

Two, athletes on qualifying teams who aren't strong podium contenders would likely skip the individual competition and save themselves for the team battle. Arkansas' men's team had a boatload of guys this weekend who fit that description. They would be saved for the team competition, again opening up space for others.

And three, it keeps the competition short and sweet with two semifinals in the 800 and shorter, and straight finals in everything else. That's a big, big deal. "Fan-friendly" is a word thrown around a lot, but even more important is "TV-friendly".

Team qualifying is where Bucknam mentioned the BCS and that certain conference champions would get an automatic qualifier. (Auto-qualifiers aren't the big problem with the BCS, but that's another issue.) There are five obvious conferences in this regard: ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC. Pat Henry suggested some kind of number-crunching with stats for qualifiers, so I'd use that to get three or four more teams. The remainder of the field I'd fill using the same technique we use for cross country: win-loss record against the teams already in.

This is where the team qualifying plan really pays off. There would be incentive to score regular-season meets, and who won would really matter. A lot. That's not how it is right now, and that's a big problem. That's where college track suffers the most.

The vast majority of our regular-season college meets are boring, boring, boring. They are little more than a series of time trials and dressed-up practice competitions. There is no team scoring, the narrative thread that ties all our individual competitions together. There is nothing on the line, no reward for winning and no price to pay for losing.

I am the Superfan, an obsessive. I live a 40-minute drive away from Ann Arbor. Yet the only meet I've ever seen at Michigan is the annual dual meet with Ohio State. All the other meets at UM aren't competitions so much as just a bunch of stuff that happens. And if I don't care, nobody cares.

Why do we do things this way? Because our system of incentives, qualifying to and competing well at nationals, rewards doing things this way. Take a look at how Florida does things. They have no scored meets on their schedule until the SEC Championships. They often split their squad to two or even three meets in order to get the best conditions for nationals qualifying marks. What few home meets they have are all-day affairs between a massive number of teams.

You can't fault UF head coach "Mouse" Holliday for doing all this. He's doing what is best for his team. He's trying to assure the maximum number of qualifiers to the NCAA championships, because that gives them the best chance of winning the national title. But it's boring and has no central story for the media to tell. It's bad for all of us that this is the situation at the top program in one of the nation's most-populated states.

If instead the system rewarded true team competition, then Florida and all the other top programs would schedule some scored meets. They'd stop splitting their squads. They'd have to create wins over quality opponents in order to guarantee a spot in the team championship meet. In essence, they'd have to do what cross country teams already do.

One pushback against Bucknam's plan that I've already seen is that "mid-major" programs would be further marginalized than they already are. It's a reasonable complaint, and probably true. I competed at a mid-major program, and understand the issue.

But the main issues facing college track are not ones of competitive balance. The main problem is that virtually all programs, big or small, good or bad, have no media presence and no fan base. There is no awareness of what we do among college sports fans. If the entirety of college track disappeared tomorrow, it would go unnnoticed.

College track does not have a fan following or media presence at either Ohio State or Michigan. None whatsoever. UM once resorted to giving away free pizza in order to get students to come watch the Wolverines beat Ohio State. Think about that: one of the most-followed sports programs in the entire country was going to beat its most-hated rival, and had to bribe spectators to come.

It is imperative that we do something to change that state of affairs. This idea from Bucknam and Henry idea would definitely be a change, and I think it would be for the better. Considering the possibility that it might be worse makes me think of a scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian, when the executioner tells a condemned man that he's only making it worse for himself. "I'm being stoned to death!" he replies. "How much worse can it be?"


pjm said...

"But it ... has no central story for the media to tell"

That's the nut right there. If there's no story, nobody's listening. (I just filed a column on that theme, but it's a monthly magazine and likely won't be out until June.)

If you can tell a compelling story about the big schools and the national championship, then you at least have a theme the mid-majors can use to tell their own story. If you don't have that theme, all they have is one or two maybe-nationals qualifiers to hang their hats on. Don't worry about cutting out the mid-majors; a rising tide floats all boats.

Mike said...

I really like this idea. It would be a humongous change to do this, but a change that I really think is needed. I also consider myself a fanatic fan, and I don't care about regular season college meets at all.

I agree that the details will be very important. Right now, I think I would prefer to have the individual championship completely separate and two or three weeks after the team championship. That would give us the best of both. Clearly this could not be done for both indoor and outdoor, but I would gladly trade sacrificing part of indoor for this to happen.

mjroth said...

Once this happens, maybe you can take over USATF & the IAAF to do the same thing there too!