Keeping Score

This weekend saw a great college meet, the Trojan Invitational. Usually a somewhat lackluster affair, a rejiggering of the early college schedule in the western half of the country opened things up. Hosts Southern Cal brought in Oregon, Texas A&M, Washington, Washington State, BYU and Michigan. That’s an awfully tough group of teams.

The level of competition in nearly every event was top-notch. Great, close races. And at the end, who won?

Nobody.

They didn’t keep score at this meet. It’s actually not surprising that they didn’t. In general, we don’t keep score in college track. Coming from the perspective of both a fan and someone trying to promote the sport, I think it’s a very bad idea that we don’t. It makes a meet hard to explain and to summarize. It makes it hard to write a headline. It makes it hard for someone who is a fan of a particular college, rather than track in general, to have a rooting interest.

All of these keep college track an insular endeavor, steadfastly refusing to bring in outsiders. When it comes to college track, we are talking to no one but ourselves (engaging in a oval jerk, if you will).

Why don’t we keep score? I’ve thought about it and asked around and tried to come up with reasons. I’ll take them one at a time.

It doesn’t make sense to keep score.
Certainly there are meets where this makes sense. The Penn Relays are a prime example. Any other massive competition with as many as a hundred teams similarly isn’t conducive to scoring. The same goes for any “open” meet, featuring a significant number of competitors not affiliated with college teams.

But the Trojan Invitational was not either of these. There were only seven teams, and while there were some “unattached” athletes competing, there weren’t many. While I’ve never heard of an unscored dual meet, I’ve seen meets with as few as four teams where team scores weren’t kept.

Coaches are paid to win conference and national titles.
This one came to me from RunnerSpace.com’s Chris Nickinson. I’ll quibble with the premise just a bit–I think coaches in track or any other sport are paid to get positive exposure for their institution and its athletic department (and some fund-raising too if they can get it). But I’ll agree that in track, that comes primarily through winning championship meets.

Still, I don’t see how adding up team scores at a March invitational detracts from that goal. If winning or losing meets in May and June is the way to evaluate a coaches’ performance, then winning or losing the Trojan Invitational should be immaterial.

It’s difficult to have a broad-based program in an era of limited scholarships.
I’ve heard so many coaches say this, and I call bullshit on this excuse. One, it’s not difficult to have a broad-based program solely because of limited scholarships. Two, for a meet of eight or ten or twelve teams, it doesn’t matter.

At most dual meets, teams are allowed no more than thirty-two athletes. Virtually all track programs in the major conferences have at least that many on their roster. Southern Cal, the host and ultimate decision-makers at the Trojan Invitational, has sixty men on the team. Women’s teams have significantly more scholarships to offer than men’s teams do, but there are fewer scored meets among women’s teams than among men’s teams, so that’s an example of more scholarships not changing things. While experience of any one coach is “if I just had more scholarship money, I could get more athletes”, and it’s true for them, it wouldn’t work that way if everyone had more scholarship money. It wouldn’t bring more athletes into college track as a whole, it would just drive up the amount of scholarship money offered to the best athletes. There is an issue that makes broad-based programs difficult, and that’s a cap on the number of coaches. But don’t tell me it’s scholarships.

In a meet with ten or so teams, it doesn’t matter if a team is bare in a few spots. You’re not going to win by nickel-and-diming points in events, you’re going to have to take a bunch of first places. Sweeping first and second (or first, second and third) in a few events would go even further. If 120 points is what it takes to win, you can get that out of as little as ten events if you’re really good at them. And if you’re not, why are you concentrating on just those events?

Case in point: at the 13-team Mid-American Conference indoor championships this year, the University of Toledo barely scored at all outside of the jumps and distances. And the Rockets were runners-up. Not a broad-based program, but in a mid-sized scored meet they are quite competitive with their mid-major peers.

It puts pressure on coaches to win when they shouldn’t be concentrating on that.
My response is that in a meet of ten teams, nine of them are not going to win it. Take comfort in that. Your athletes will try their darndest to win, but the coaches are the adults and should be able to prioritize. It’s what good high school coaches do every single week, because virtually all of their meets are scored.

In other words, just because it’s scored doesn’t mean you have to try to win it. Even if you’re a favorite to win a conference or national title, it doesn’t hurt to lose a meet early in the season and make your championship run a bit more dramatic. If you’re a coach, it might make you look like a crafty leader of young men and women if you win that title while looking like an underdog. As my Ohio hall-of-fame high school coach used to say, if you think you can win a championship, it pays to keep that a secret for as long as possible.

It makes it hard to split squads.
OK, fine. None of the teams at the Trojan Invitational split their squads this weekend. Why no scoring?

(As an aside, I should mention that Texas A&M never almost never splits its squads. Coach Pat Henry seeks out scored meets whenever possible. He emphasizes relays. In short, he takes great efforts to instill a team ethic, an esprit de corps. And his teams always seems to come up big at the championship meets.)

The college regular season has been reduced to ‘marks-chasing’.
Not anymore, now that we have regional-based qualifying to the NCAA Championships. Putting up fast times as a pursuit in itself is pointless. USC ran 3:02 in the 4×400 on Saturday, and all it does for them is reserve a lane at regionals. They could probably have gotten there with a 3:12.

Coaches and athletes do not want to be racing every weekend.
Who says you have to have a meet every weekend? And it’s quite possible to put together a schedule where some meets are little more than glorified practices, provided you bring in patsies for opponents.

Track coaches have found how to escape being judged on a win-loss record.
You know, that thing which gets coaches fired in any other sport. This is a direct quote from Garry Hill, managing editor of Track and Field News. I’m reluctant to call the coaches a bunch of wimps, but that’s what it appears. And who am I to argue with a guy who has been covering track for more than forty years? (If you’re reading this and you’r a college coach, the above insult does not apply to you if you have multiple scored meets on your regular-season schedule. If you refuse to compete in scored meets, sack up, buddy.)

Oh, and by the way…if we scored the Trojan Invitational, here’s how it comes out.

Men
Texas A&M 142
USC 127
Oregon 118.5
Washington 92
BYU 88.5
Michigan 65
Washington State 59

Women
USC 171
Oregon 127.5
Michigan 127.5
Texas A&M 116
BYU 95
Washington 73
Washington State 35

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7 Responses to Keeping Score

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  3. tracknerd says:

    I agree with you the lack of scored meets are really hurting collegiate track and field. When there is a meet of 2-6 teams in a small invitational why can’t it be scored. Having limited scholarships to me is no excuse. The limit affects everybody.

  4. Jerome Kopf says:

    Scoring meets gives track coaches a need to overuse their stars (e.g., Jordan Hasay) who later burn out. This is especially true among high school girls who run middle/long distance. As an “independent” observer who loves to see track events, I don not give a flying f*** what team wins or loses a meet. At the Penn Relays the “Team America” idea was a confection of promoters trying to get more eyeballs at TV coverage to please sponsors. As a result, TV commentators are instructed to aim their talk to the lowest common denominator. In a meet that is scored, does one ever see sprinters come over to hug a team member who has just won the pole vault and adds to the team total score, or middle distance runners congratulate winning sprinters or hurdlers? The only true team events are relays.

    • ScoringFan says:

      I disagree. I’m sorry that your track and field experience was that way, but I have experienced as both an athlete and observer many scored meets where a full track team has come together in order to win. Whether in dual or in a championship meet, if there’s a chance to win everyone will be cheering for the other event groups. Watch any Big Meet or the epic UCLA-UO dual last year. Both ended with the entire team lined up cheering each other on for the 4×400. It’s a great and exciting environment that every athlete and fan should have a chance to experience.

  5. Andrew D. says:

    I totally agree — and in response to the burning out of stars – I think once you get to that high level of a program like Oregon, Michigan, etc. and you have meets like the Trojan Invite – teams realize that aspect and won’t run stars to win. They’ll use it to develop their depth. One of the most exciting track meets in the winter is the Michigan/Ohio State dual meet. It’s a great atmosphere and both squads – from the 6th best 400m runner to the top miler want to win their events – not for themselves, but for the pride of their school.

  6. Actually for this meet Coach Henry did not bring his throwers…they competed at UTA. Javelin thrower Humphries certainly would have scored well.