Rethinking College Track’s Regionals

Yesterday I asked a philosophical question about college track and how we select qualifiers to the national championships.

Do the best athletes just naturally record the best marks in the course of competing, or do they have to go out and make a special effort to get those marks?

The numbers appear to show that the answer to that question depends on the event. For distance events (excluding the steeple) and certain field events, the correlation between best mark (going into regionals) and competitive result (at regionals and nationals) was pretty weak. In the hurdles (including steeplechase), relays and certain other field events, it was pretty strong.

From a distance runner’s perspective, then, the issue of whether we should have regional competition to determine qualifiers to the national championships is very important. If qualifying is by marks alone, then distance runners need to run some kind of “time trial” race, and maybe more than one if the pacing or the weather didn’t turn out right. And that cuts into training in a big way.

Note that three NCAA distance-event champions ran fairly pedestrian regular-season times in their event; two of them (Sam Chelanga and Sheila Reid) ran tough doubles at the NCAA meet, and the third (Robby Andrews) came off an indoor season lost to injury. That they didn’t need to time-trial in April almost certainly had something to do with how well they ran in June.

Anyway, a year ago the coaches’ association approved a “24-8″ plan that would have eliminated regionals, taking the top 24 in each event off the yearly list plus the next best 8 conference champions. It was rejected by the NCAA Championships Cabinet, and we had a second year of our two-region setup.

The stated reasons the coaches’ plan was rejected by the NCAA Championships Cabinet were concerns about competitive equity and access, along with a desire to complete the planned two-year study of the new two-region qualifying setup.

“Competitive equity” means leveling the playing field between programs that a built-in advantage due to either location or money or both. The Championships Cabinet is a committee of administrators from colleges, conferences and the NCAA, only a minority of which come from those entities who rake in the big money. So they’re very aware of the kinds of institutional advantages that some colleges have, because most of them are on the short end of that stick.

What kind of competitive equity are we talking about? The ability to travel to sites that offer up good weather in order to get good marks. April is not the time to get one anywhere that could be called the midwest or northeast. Michigan’s team has the money to travel to California several times a year. Eastern Michigan, just down Washtenaw Avenue from UM, does not have that kind of money. Since there are more people on the panel whose experiences are like EMU’s than UM’s, it’s an issue they take seriously.

“Access” means the portion of a sport’s athletes who “experience the NCAA experience” by competing in a championship tournament. Dr. Rich Ceronie, Director of Track and Field at New Mexico, explains:

…regionals came into being for multiple reasons as previously stated, but one important one was “too provide a greater number the NCAA Experience”, which was a valid argument. When taking a look at numbers of NCAA [championships] participants [out of all college athletes], track & field (along with cross country) has always had a lower percentage of athletes than many others. Men’s basketball has about 25%, ice hockey 25%, etc.

…under the four regional system about 16% of all [Division I track & field] athletes got to “experience the NCAA experience”. One of my thoughts on doing away with regionals, and going to the proposed 24/8 system is that the number of athletes involved in the “NCAA Experience” will go back to the level of pre-regional competition, about 5%.

While I would accept that those anti-regional proponents would argue that the regionals didn’t really provide an “NCAA Experience”, and thus are meaningless, as a coach I know it was meaningful to my athletes.

For all these reasons, I think we’ll have regional competition for quite some time. My basic way of reading the tea leaves, the dates for next year’s NCAA Championships, leaves the door open for eliminating regionals, though; June 6-9 is just early enough that it could go either way.

While I like the idea of regional qualifying, I don’t like the system we’ve had for the last two years. Its predecessor was a four-region system, and I thought that was OK but not great. My main complaints were that too many athletes qualified to the national meet, something like five or six out of the eight finalists, to make those final races have much meaning.

The coaches of the top programs have always hated regionals. Some say they don’t think it’s good for track, to which I reply that nobody seems to care what’s good for track at any other time. Others thought the best athletes shouldn’t be denied a nationals qualifier if they have one bad day at regionals, so I guess they really hate the Olympic Trials too.

Whatever they say, I think it really boils down to “anything that levels the playing field isn’t good for my team” and “I, like head coaches in every other sport, am a control freak and regionals is something I can’t control”.

These days the main complaint about regionals is the cost of travel. Don’t be fooled by that. If we scrap regional qualifying for a system based on marks alone, little if any travel money will be saved. It will just be spent on flying athletes all over the country chasing marks in April and May, instead of flying them to a regional meet in June. There are alternative solutions to the issues of travel costs to regionals, because there are always alternatives. You simply need to think creatively.

How could we have regional competition that is meaningful for spectators, ensures the best athletes get to nationals, and that doesn’t cost a lot in terms of travel? We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s a way we already have used year in and year out and it works very well. Look at what we do in cross country.

In cross country, we have nine regions. The top two teams in each qualify to the national championships, and then we select thirteen at-large teams based on their place at regionals and win-loss records during the regular season. There is absolutely no reason we can’t have nine regional track meets, where the top two in each event qualify plus another fourteen at-large bids based on regionals place, win-loss records and marks.

What would the benefits be? Lots.

1. Reduced travel costs.
With the exception of the West and Mountain regions, there would be no need for expensive air travel to the meets. These smaller regions could easily be run in two days instead of three, which would also cut down on hotel costs.

2. Fan friendliness
The current regionals are bloated affairs that take all day and don’t pick winners. I figure a nine-region setup would have 16 qualifiers per event, and that gives you a meet could be completed in two to two and a half hours on each of two days. And every event would go to a single final, so winning would mean something.

3. More meaningful individual competition.
With only the top two in an event automatically qualifying, these races would be real races. As in cross country, the ones who are going to battle for a national title aren’t going to have to go all-out to qualify, but everyone else is. Even if you’re going to get in on an at-large bid, you can’t really dog it, you’ve got to run your best.

4. More meaningful team competition.
The old four-region setup kept team scores, but it wasn’t that big a deal who won because they were usually the same teams that would fight for the NCAA title two weeks later. In a nine-region setup, though, more teams have a shot at a regional title and some would recognize it as their biggest accomplishment of the year.

5. Broader distribution.
One advantage is that more regional meets would be in more corners of the country, but that’s not all. Currently there are only a handful of facilities with the infrastructure necessary for hosting either a regional meet or a national meet. The significantly smaller fields associated with a nine-region setup means many more facilities would be eligible for holding a regional meet.

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4 Responses to Rethinking College Track’s Regionals

  1. Pingback: Your Morning Headlines | The Track & Field Superfan Blog

  2. Jim Knight says:

    For some reason, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately too. What are the most exciting meets I’ve watched? College and HS conference meets! (With the possible exception of the OT.) And what makes them exciting? Obviously, the team competition. This element is sorely lacking in the current NCAA meet structure. You only have to look at March Madness, the College World Series, or any college team sports (except football) to see that. The idea of two meets, a team championship and individual championship is intriguing. But top individuals who are members of the top teams create a dilemma. I like the XC model better, where you still have individual competitors but they don’t count in the team scoring. Both teams and individuals could qualify via regional meets, whether it’s 9 or 5 or 4 or 3 (just not 2). We need to get back to making T&F about head-to-head competition between teams and individuals. I know it would be logistically complex, but smarter people than me could surely figure out a system. And none of it works without regional qualifying.

    The site is great. Keep up the good work.

  3. Matthew Barreau says:

    I’ve always been confused why there is such a concern over the % of athletes getting the NCAA experience, especially when so many athletes who are counted against this % are just “roster spot” kids who don’t ever have a chance of actually being at a conference — let alone national — level individually. If you did the math of the actual number of athletes in football, hockey, etc. who PLAYED in the games I’m sure the % would be FAR less than the inflated numbers.

    Also, why is this such a problem for outdoors when our indoor system is even more limited, taking <20/event to the national meet on a descending order list only. It shouldn't matter if it is a shorter season if the NCAA argument is that more kids need to have the "experience."

    Further, those who say that the regional system decreases travel costs because of less need for time-chasing are wrong; the regional system actually induces MORE time-chasing, because athletes who have no shot at the top 24 but can make it into the top 96 are now having to do the chasing. A coach with an athlete ranked #110 wouldn't fly a kid to Stanford to try to reach a top 24 mark, but they would if they can sneak up a couple and make the list after declarations.

    Our US National meet is based on the top athletes who qualify by times, and then those who advance by place. There should be no reason why the NCAA meet is any different if we are truly trying to prepare our athletes to learn how to compete at the WORLD stage, where advancing by place is the name of the game. For those who argue that a Regional system is coinciding with this motive, they are mistaken. At the US National and World stages, it is about advancing against the BEST athletes, not about having to worry about lesser athletes who might just get lucky that day… that is what the rest of the season is for: getting lucky and popping off a good time to get you into the National meet.

    (PS – I have spent most of my career coaching at small schools, and had the opportunity for a couple of my athletes to make the meet and one to become "All-Region"… yes, it was a valuable experience for them, but no I don't think it was necessarily for the betterment of our sport.)

  4. Matthew Barreau says:

    One more thought… if this is such a huge big deal and is TRULY about increasing participation, why is D-I the only level of NCAA T&F that is doing this? D-II and D-III still maintain the descending order list method.

    If we did need to keep a Regional system in place, I do like the idea of maintaining the same regions that are in place for cross country. Rivalries can be created/maintained a lot better that way. Yes, it may make some regions “unfairly balanced” in some events over another (which is how they’ve drawn regional lines in track, to accommodate as best as possible equality throughout all events)… but we do not realign conference from football to basketball simply because one region may be stronger than another.