NCAA Regionals Thoughts

The Oregonian’s Ken Goe, on whom we can always count for a mainstream sportswriter perspective on track and field, doesn’t have much nice to say about the NCAA regionals or preliminaries or whatever you want to call it.

People who like the Preliminary Round concept, defend it as an opportunity for underdogs to defy form charts and descending order lists, and compete their way into the field for the NCAA Championships.

I love underdogs and rags-to-riches stories. But there has to be a better way.

Should Texas A&M coach Pat Henry be forced to find money in his budget to transport his team to Eugene, house them, feed them, spend three days in the rain, all the while praying Jessica Beard doesn’t pull a muscle, so some unheralded distance runner can earn a trip to Des Moines with a PR and a 12th-place finish in the 5,000?

It’s it a backward system. It’s not cost effective, a problem only accentuated because it’s not compelling for spectators.

So far, this is the only well-thought out and well-written indictment of the current two-region setup I’ve seen. All the coaches who love it or hate it always seem to be angling for what’s most advantageous for their program (also, coaches are hired for their ability to recruit and instruct, not their ability to string coherent thoughts together or write well).

Speaking of which, I can’t imagine that some opposing coaches aren’t using Lananna’s high-profile status and vocal dislike of the regionals system as locker-room fodder for motivation. I can imagine it now: “Look at this guy. His team has got all that Nike money. He says this meet is an ‘unneccesary hurdle’. He thinks his kids should be advanced directly to the NCAA championships–maybe even the finals. He thinks his s**t doesn’t stink. Well, we’re so well prepared and solid in the basics that we’ll get through all these rounds and just wait for the other guys to screw up.” I don’t necessarily believe these things, but you better believe if I was coaching a team competing against his I’d be saying them to my athletes.

Anyway, regionals…
The big problem is that too many coaches aren’t thinking about the issues the right way. For one, they’re caught in a false dilemma. Either we have marks-based NCAA qualifying (and ignore competition) or we have regionals (and ignore marks). I think you can have a system for qualifying to the NCAA Championships that doesn’t have regionals, respects both marks and head-to-head competition, and that makes the regular season meaningful. There are about a bazillion ways of doing it.

The coaches did come up with one last year, and sent it off to the NCAA committee that could approve it…and it was tabled. That’s because the coaches don’t see things from a broader perspective, like the NCAA does.

Pretty much every college sport–every major one, at least–has some form of “playoffs” leading to its championship. The NCAA wants playoffs, or something like it, and probably won’t approve a plan that doesn’t have it. The idea is to build some interest and tension and storylines and excitement. Regionals are our playoffs, but they don’t accomplish those things.

I’ve heard, and like very much, various ideas for a split team-individual championship, where on separate weekends there is a championship meet for individuals (with no team scores) and a championships meet for teams (where individual titles aren’t important aside from the points). One such proposal was noted in Goe’s article:

Jack Pfeifer, director of collegiate track & field for the Armory and a part-time Portland resident, is floating a proposal to reshape college track’s postseason.

He would replace the regional qualifers with a pair of NCAA team championship meets, open to schools that field full teams. One would be for programs from the BCS conferences, and the other for the remaining Division I conferences. Non-BCS schools could petition to be in the BCS meet on a year-to-year basis.

The meets would include the conference champions, and six other teams selected at large by a seeding committee. Events would be scored on a 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis.

There would be another NCAA Championships, this for individuals, two weeks later. It would be run like a USA Championships meet, with no team scores.

I don’t know if this is the answer. But it’s outside the box, and worth considering. Because the current system is giving us meets that are virtually unwatchable.

Safely sequestered in Oregon, I’m not sure if Goe realizes that nearly all college meets are virtually unwatchable. Oregon’s meets are the exception to the rule. But’s that’s another issue.

I like Pfeifer’s idea, although I might fiddle with the specific timing of its various parts, putting the individual meet first and the team meet second and eliminating the off-week in between. It gives 24 teams an opportunity to compete as teams in the post-season. It splits it up so that the have-nots can do their own thing, yet gives significant at-large berths for a team that manages to scramble up to the higher level, as Central Florida’s women might be able to this year.

It also allows different programs to be different. Your program can have a team-heavy approach to track and try to get to the team championship meet. Your program can just work on a few high-level individuals and gear things totally towards them and the individual championship.

The 2- or 3-championship system could could even start institutionalizing a re-emphasis on team-scored meets, requiring any at-large qualifier to compete in some minimum number of them during the regular season. And it would probably address one of the things that makes the coaches of the top programs freak out the most: you don’t have to worry about qualifying as many athletes as possible to the nationals in order to maximize points because you can bring your whole darn team.

Who would be those qualifying teams this year? Here’s what I think.

Auto qualifiers: Texas A&M, Florida State, Arkansas, Iowa, UConn
At-large: Florida, Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Nebraska, LSU

Mid-Major – MEN
Auto qualifiers (six conference champions): BYU, Princeton, Norfolk State, Akron, Houston, Long Beach State
At-large: New Mexico, Air Force, Cornell, Stephen F. Austin, Sacramento State, George Mason

Auto qualifiers: Texas A&M, Oregon, LSU, Clemson, Ohio State, Louisville
At-large: Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Arkansas

Mid-Major – WOMEN
Auto qualifiers: BYU, Central Florida, Wichita State, Sacramento State, Cal St. Northridge, Stephen F. Austin
At-large: Kent State, New Mexico, Louisiana Tech, Princeton, SMU, Columbia

Under a system like this, who won scored meets during the regular season would have real consequences. I like it.

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