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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

LSU Coach Dennis Shaver on subdividing D-I track

Recently I listened to a portion of the audiobook version of Tina Fey's memoir Bossypants.  It's just as funny and insightful as you'd expect out of such a brilliant comedy mind.

One of the more interesting bits is about the "Rules of Improvisation" that she learned at Chicago's famed Second City. "The rules of improvisation appealed to me not only as a way of creating comedy, but as a world view. It set me on a career path toward Saturday Night Live. It changed the way I look at the world."  She explains how those rules are a good way to interact with others in the workplace or in personal relations.
The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you're improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we're improvising and I say, "Freeze, I have a gun," and you say, "That's not a gun. It's your finger. You're pointing you finger at me," our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, "Freeze, I have a gun!" and you say, "The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!" then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you're not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to "respect what your partner has created" and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. "No, we can't do that." "No, that's not in the budget." "No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar." What kind of way is that to live?

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then
add something of your own. If I start a scene with "I can't believe it's so hot in here," and you just say, "Yeah..." we're kind of at a standstill. But if I say, "I can't believe it's so hot in here,"...and you say "I told you we shouldn't have crawled into this dog's mouth," now we're getting somewhere.

There's a lot more to this.  There are several more rules, and all of it really makes sense.  I won't put them here because this is about track, not Tina Fey, and also I might end up breaking copyright laws.

Anyway, it is with this mindset that I respond to an item in a Track and Field News interview with LSU head coach Dennis Shaver.

[W]e need to develop a model like what they have for the NCAA football championships. The Bowl Championship teams need to have their own… we need to have our own track meet. The Division I-A teams need to have their own track meet. You understand where I’m coming from? 

T&FN: You mean dividing up Division I track like the way football does it? 
Shaver: Exactly. Because right now, what’s in LSU’s, what’s in Oregon’s, what’s in Texas A&M’s, Florida’s, and Texas’s best interests—and Tennessee’s; I don’t want to leave anybody out, but I can’t read them all out—is not the same thing that’s in, and I have to be careful here, but let’s just say the “mid-majors.”

It just seems to me most of those universities would find it next to impossible to win the national championship in football. But, they’re trying to create a level playing field with us.

I see it in our coaches association, when there’s voting that takes place, and my one vote counts the same as their one vote. I just think that if we created a manageable national championship with teams that are, let’s say bowl-championship teams, there’s about 100 of us, and those are the only ones that are going to be able to win the championship for the largest division of track and field.

And then the Division I-AA, or whatever you’d call it, would have their national championship, because they can set it up for what’s best for them. But currently the way it is set up, the prelim and the quarterfinal round of the championship is in one location, separate from the others, and you finish that meet up and nobody really wins anything, they just advance. Am I making any kind of sense here?

T&FN: Yes, please continue.

Shaver: I think if we developed a system, and I hate to use the term “tiered,” but if you develop the different levels like what exists in other sports that have been successful, then we could go and eliminate this play-in kind of thing like we have now. The national championship meet for Division I could go back to the old system of descending-order lists, or truly do a team championship.
Normally I would have said that Shaver is off his rocker, that the NCAA would never in a million years agree to subdivide Division I in track and field.  This is only done for football because football is fundamentally different from every other sport.

But that would be saying no, and grinding the discussion to a halt.  It would violate Tina Fey's rules of improv, which are also a way of looking at the world.  So instead I'll say yes.  YES, let's subdivide Division I track and field into two divisions.

YES, AND let's look at how football subdivides itself.  Is it that the most competitive teams are placed into the Bowl Subdivision?  That's where they end up, but it's not how they get placed there.  You'd be confusing correlation with causation.  The teams in the Bowl Subdivision are not necessarily the best football teams, but the ones that take football the most seriously.

The requirements for FBS status that are related directly to an institution's football program are awarding at least 90% of the 85 allowable scholarships; playing at least 5 home games a year; and averaging at least 15,000 home attendance.  There once was a requirement for minimum stadium seating capacity, but that has been dropped.

So if we take Shaver's idea seriously (and it's an idea also floated by Arkansas coach Chris Bucknam), then membership in this new track subdivision would be dependent on having lots of home meets and managing to get people to come to them.  That would be the most important thing for a college track program.  I could get behind that.  Considering how things are now, Drake would be in the top division and Baylor in the bottom one, which is not what anyone expects.

Of course, I don't think what I'm talking about is what Shaver is talking about.  I think he's talking about being frustrated about democracy, which gives the have-nots equal say with the have-mores, and that qualifying to the NCAA Championships looks to him like an expensive hassle for no good reason.

Here's the thing: qualifying to nationals via marks alone is very bad for track.  If a school is not located in the south or the west, they have to travel there with regularity in order for their athletes to get good marks, which does not engage any home fans.  (My golf league got SNOWED OUT on Monday, and more than half of the Big Ten is located to my north.)  Concentrating on marks to the exclusion of everything else make competition meaningless.  It results in college track being little more than a giant circle jerk about times and heights and distances, where literally no one who is not an athlete or coach or administrator gives a damn what any of those people do.

Qualifying to nationals via regionals isn't good for track either.  The old four-region system wasn't bad, but it wasn't good.  It was too easy to qualify to nationals and did not create any tension.  It was made for TV but never on it.  Championships were awarded but I bet you can't even name one regional champion team.  The new two-region system is worse--no team scoring, no finals, takes all damn day for three days in a row.  And it ends up making a month between meaningful competitions (conferences and nationals), which sure as hell doesn't create any end-of-the-year drama.  And yes, if you have a boatload of qualifiers it does add significant travel expenses (which Shaver addresses).

What we need is some other way to get to nationals which doesn't depend entirely on marks or regionals.  Something where we have some automatic qualifiers, and then we add some more at-large qualifiers based on who beat who during the regular season.  If only there were a sport where we could do this...

Oh yeah, there is one.  It's called CROSS COUNTRY.  We've been doing it this way for decades.  We can do it for track, too.  Somebody out there, some creative type, has to be able to improvise a way to make this happen.  Don't say no.  Say yes.  Say yes, and...

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