Rethinking College Track’s Postseason

A great sketch from the old Monty Python’s Flying Circus show was titled “Vocational Guidance Counsellor.” A chartered accountant, Mr. Anchovy, is looking for a new occupation, and describes his current job to the counsellor:

It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL.

That’s a pretty good description of last weekend’s NCAA Regional meets.

We used to do four regions from 2003 to 2009, and those were at least somewhat interesting. These new ones, not so much. How did we get here? Why are we stuck with this? Last year, the Austin American-Statesman explained.

The new, dual-site “preliminary rounds” are the result of several years of back-and-forth negotiations essentially among three entities — the national coaches association, the NCAA Division I track and field executive committee and the NCAA Division I championships/sports management cabinet.

The cabinet, comprised primarily of university athletic directors, faculty reps and conference officials, has the ultimate authority. It rejected several proposals by the coaches association and track and field executive committee before finally settling on the new format.

The dual sites are scheduled for a two-year run, but the coaches have submitted another proposal, supported by the track and field committee, for a new format next year.

We have no idea what will happen in the future. Literally anything is possible. This is the second of the two-year run for the dual site format; it could be continued, or not.

Here’s what was approved by the coaches’ association a year ago and supported by the NCAA executive committee:

Dubbed the “Wilson Plan” because it was recommended by Minnesota assistant coach Gary Wilson, the proposal also goes by the “24-8 Plan.”

Under the proposal, the top 24 entries on the descending-order list of best performances in each event automatically qualify for nationals. Joining them would be eight conference champions in each event, excluding those already in the top 24, based on their season-best marks.

I doubt that the Championships Cabinet will approve this, for one reason alone. It does not provide for any kind of competition leading up to the NCAA Championships. Pretty much every other sport has playoffs of some kind, or qualifying rounds, or something along those lines. That track would be allowed to be different just because the coaches want it that way defies the “logic” of bureaucracies.

My particular complaint about any system based purely on marks is that it devolves the regular season into nothing but chasing times and heights and distances. In my opinion, that’s what killed college track as a spectator sport in the 1980s and 1990s. Team competition became basically nonexistent and meets increasingly went to the format of an all-day festival of time trials. If you think last week’s regionals were dull—and they were—then you wouldn’t have liked pretty much any college meet held ten or fifteen years ago.

Since 2003 we’ve had an absence of any system like that. Going out and running a very fast time in April now has little to no value. Scored meets between a small number of teams have returned to the scene. While a lot of college track meets are still boring, it’s far from universal. Regionals have changed the regular season for the better, no doubt about it.

I’d also like to point out that the current system allows for much more flexibility in putting together an athlete’s season. People coming off injury don’t have to be at full steam until nearly June. Under the above Wilson Plan, neither Robby Andrews (the 2010 NCAA indoor champion at 800 meters) nor Luke Puskedra (3rd at last fall’s NCAA cross country championships) would have qualified to the NCAA Championships. But under the current system they did.

I may be way off base here, but I don’t think it’s an accident that U.S. distance running has seen a resurgence at the same time that regionals have been in place for outdoor track. In the past, runners had to be “on” in April to get a qualifying mark, after having had to be “on” for March’s NCAA Indoor Championships and then “on” again in May for the conference championships and “on” again in June for the NCAA Outdoor Championships. There’s not enough down time built into that to work on base training, but the current system does allow for such.

So let me summarize. Arguments against some kind of regional competition, either a two-site or four-site system:
*Not interesting to watch, as top athletes are on cruise control, they take all damn day, and there is little to no element of team competition
*Athletes who are all but assured of qualifying are required to compete, but risk nothing besides injury, exhaustion or mishap
*Larger programs expend massive amounts of money for travel, housing, etc.
*Extending season costs everyone money for housing athletes after college is no longer in session

Arguments for some kind of regional competition:
*Eliminates marks-chasing, which makes the whole season boring
*Competitive equity as traveling across the country to find good weather is not necessary
*Eliminates the possibility of false qualifying marks being made due to incompetency or dishonesty
*Reduces season-long stress on athletes (particularly distance runners)

So what systems of qualification to the NCAA Championships would best address these concerns? Watch this space tomorrow and I’ll have lots of ideas.

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