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Monday, April 04, 2011

Monday Morning Decathlete

The weekly column, my version of "Monday morning quarterbacking", is making a permanent move to Mondays.

What did we learn this week?

Alan Webb has left the Oregon Project. It was first announced as a tweet by David Monti, then quickly followed up on by Flotrack and Let’s Run.

Officially, Webb moved on to find a more middle-distance oriented group and there was no bad blood. I don’t for a minute think that Salazar told him to take a hike, because athletes fire coaches, not the other way around, and coaches especially don’t fire guys with Webb’s talent. It may have been Webb’s decision.

I say “may” because it may have been someone else’s decision. Let’s Run and others are citing an off-the-record tip that Webb’s contract with Nike has not been renewed. Salazar told Ken Goe of The Oregonian that Webb drifted towards this decision over “a period of five to six weeks”, so it doesn’t appear that he was forced out due to his non-contract status. But it probably added to his reasons to find another home.

In any case, Webb has always been a bit like track’s version of the character Nuke Laloosh from Bull Durham. (Laloosh was based on a real young and wild star, named Steve Dalkowski, who burned out early in the minors. He once had 24 strikeouts, 18 walks, 6 wild pitches and four hit batsmen in a single game.) Webb had his trip to the big leagues, most notably in 2007 when he broke records and made the US team for the Worlds.

Since 2007, though, he’s most definitely been in the minor leagues. He hasn’t been relevant on the national stage, let alone the world stage. He’s gotten more attention for his post-race tantrum in Boston in February, the track equivalent of beating the hell out of the water cooler, than for any actual race result.

I feel for the guy. He’d once been on Letterman and SportsCenter did a live cut-in to the USATF Championships to see him run. Now he doesn’t have a steady paycheck. His impatience and instability has contributed to all of this, no doubt. But it’s been a rough several years.

Oregon is going all-out to win the Pepsi Team Invitational. That's their home four-way scored meet next weekend against Nebraska, Washington and Stanford. Vin Lananna told The Oregonian that he'll bring out every big gun the Ducks have in order to try to win the meet.

Which begs the question: why would you hold back and not try to win a meet? The answer is that if your season is going long and there's nothing at stake in the short term, you always look at the long picture. This is what happened last year, when Andrew Wheating didn't start his outdoor season until after the Pepsi quad-meet.

So why the change in strategy? There could be multiple reasons. One is that Lananna doesn't see any of his top athletes stretching their track seasons past June. The three athletes specifically mentioned were A.J. Acosta, Matt Centrowitz, and Jordan Hasay. Unlike Wheating, none have even the slightest chance of making Team USA for the worlds, nor of having an impact on the European summer circuit.

Another possible reason is pretty obvious to anyone who saw the NCAA Indoor Championships: as a team: the Duck men will not make an impact on the outdoor nationals this year. They're going to have a fight on their hands for the Pac-10 title. And the dual with UCLA is in Westwood this year. So the Pepsi meet is the only scored meet at Hayward Field this year, and as such the only chance for the Ducks to get a W in front of the home crowd. And on the men's side, at least, that's going to take a full effort (especially considering frosh throws star Crouser is out with a back injury).

I hope another reason is in play here. Coaches of other prominent programs, like Texas A&M's Pat Henry and Arkansas' Chris Bucknam, have spoken publicly about how college track desperately needs a re-emphasis on scored meets. UCLA coach Mike Maynard has talked about how winning is a skill separate from chasing personal records, and that it must be practiced in order to be learned. If Lananna, one of the most influential people in the domestic track scene, is starting to sign on to these ideas, then it's not just talk. It's a movement.

The Tennessee men's program has fallen far. UCLA's men's team broke a four-meet dual losing streak by trashing the Volunteers 111-50. Ouch. The Vols have four national championships to their credit, but these days they are nothing like what they once were.

It's funny how you select college teams you cheer for when they're in a totally different part of the country from you. I'm a Vols fan, especially when it comes to track, but Knoxville is an 8-hour drive away from me.

I've always like Neyland Stadium and its checkerboard end zones. That, coupled with Rocky Top, makes football at Tennessee a unique experience. My brother spent several years in Knoxville and came away from the university with a Ph.D. and a wife. And the Great Smoky Mountains is one of my favorite places on the earth. None of these are why I like Volunteer track, though.

The spiritual leader of my high school track team the year we won the Ohio championship was Jeremy Lincoln, a two-sport star. He chose Tennessee over all the other schools pursuing him because the Vols would let him both run track and play football. He was good enough in both, as he ran on a 4x100 relay that scored at the NCAA Championships and played in the NFL for ten years.

At the time, Tennessee was known as the place of Willie Gault ant Sam Graddy, the speed city of college football. They hosted USA and NCAA Championships. They had the Dogwood Relays. Track was a big deal there. I found this out because my high school team started going all the way to Knoxville from Toledo for the Volunteer Track Classic. I thought Tom Black Track was the coolest place ever. I’ve been a Vol track fan ever since.

The men’s program has fallen on hard times. Ten years ago, the Vols won an NCAA championship. Last year they were ninth out of eleven at the SEC Outdoor Championships and dead last indoors. This year they were seventh at the SEC indoor, a small step up, but they’re still weak compared to the Tennessee tradition.

Other Tennessee traditions have dropped off as well. It’s been 16 years since Knoxville has hosted a major championship, the longest drought since Tom Black Track was opened. The Dogwood Relays, now known as the Sea Ray Relays, no longer draws much in the way of spectators or top teams. The Volunteer Classic, a high school meet, used to feature the Vols against other collegiate teams in a few relays, but that’s been canned too.

J.J. Clark is now the coach for both the men's and women's programs at Tennessee. He guided the women to an indoor NCAA Championship just two years ago, and is committed to bringing the men's program back to prominence. I’ll still wear my UT Orange and white regardless, but I hope it's for pride in the present rather than in the past.

Robbie Andrews is likely back for the college outdoor season. The Virginia 800 star had a couple of big victories during his 2010 freshman campaign, running down Andrew Wheating at the NCAA Indoors and the Penn Relays 4x800. Apparently due to injury, he redshirted the indoor season, and his only appearance on the track was as a pacemaker for Bernard Lagat's 2-mile record attempt (Virginia was competing in the concurrent collegiate meet).

On Friday he opened up his season at the Colonial Relays in Williamsburg VA, and won with 1:49.58 while running unattached. Coach Jason Vigilante probably took no chance of his star using a year of eligibility until he knew the kid was ready for the season.

1:49.58 doesn't sound all that great, but the conditions were reportedly something like 50 degrees and 20 mph winds. Here's how you really know the conditions were bad and Andrews ran well: of the 79 athletes in the men's 800 meters, he was the only one who beat his seed time.

Jeff Demps is progessing nicely. He won the Florida Relays 100 meters in 10.07. It was wind-aided (+2.2), but in terms of pure numbers it's still one of the best races of his life. Never has he run this well this early.

Demps’ career best races are below, both with raw time and adjusted for wind.
Raw TimeWind(adjusted)SiteDate
10.011.6(10.09) Eugene6/28/08
10.061.3(10.13) Greensboro5/28/10
10.061.3(10.14) Knoxville5/16/10
10.03w2.2(10.14) Clermont6/14/08
9.96w2.5(10.18) Eugene6/11/10
10.07w2.2(10.18) Gainesville4/1/11

Playing around with adjusting for wind can be a tricky business. Wind readings are always a single number representing an average of air movement parallel to the track at a single point in space. That doesn’t always reflect the reality of wind conditions, though, as it can be any direction, can change during the race, and be different at different parts of the straightaway. The wind readings at the Florida Relays changed from one race to the next, often switching from a tailwind to a headwind in consecutive heats, which means it wasn't consistent during races either. So it’s possible to read too much into the time in combination with the wind reading.

Instead, you can look at the fact that Demps beat second place by 0.28 seconds. Second wasn’t chopped liver, either; it was teammate Terrell Wilks, who sports a 10.15 PR and nearly made the NCAA 100 meter finals last year.

Better yet, you can just watch the race:

How good can Demps be? We’ll probably never find out. He plays football for the Gators and he does it well. As track fans, we have to look at each of his seasons as maybe his last. Rumors flew early this year that new Florida football coach Will Muschamp was not going to allow Demps to run, as his predecessor Urban Meyer did. Obviously they turned out to be false, but you never know what next year may bring. Besides what Muschamp might do, there’s simply the nature of football, where it’s always true that your next play may be your last.

Could we be so lucky that Demps picks track over football once college is over? Fat chance. Unless your name is Usain Bolt, a single subpar year in the NFL pays better than a lifetime of track. It probably feeds your ego better, even if your name is Bolt. The last prominent college footballers who were legitimate track stars were Eric Metcalfe and Rod Woodson, and there was no hesitation on their part. I can’t recall any track star who was even a middling college football player who didn’t choose the NFL over track.

The only possible reason why Demps might go against the grain is our ever-increasing knowledge of the deleterious long-term effects of football. Is he going to take that into consideration? Well, how far into the future did you look when you were 22 years old?

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