>What did we learn this week?
The big winner at the NCAA championships was Hayward Field. The meet broke the two-year-old attendance record with a four-day total of 45,847, capped by a standing-room-only final day crowd of 12,812. The place was loud and rocking for a number of races, but most particularly for the men’s 1500 meters and the women’s 4×400 relay. During the latter, the announcers could barely be heard on the CBS telecast.
Texas A&M came up big when it counted. For the second straight year, the Aggies completed a sweep of the men’s and women’s titles. They didn’t make it easy on themselves, as the men dropped the baton in the 4×100 relay and the women were hurt by Gabby Mayo’s injury which took her out of three events. Despite these setbacks, they still managed to pull off the wins.
Florida head coach Mike Holloway made a questionable decision. With the 4×400 approaching, the Gators’ Christian Taylor was in fourth in the long jump. Taylor had been expected to battle for the win but was sitting on six points. He was a key member of the 4×400 relay, but Holloway decided to let him continue jumping and sub for him in the relay. His sub added about two seconds to the Gators’ relay, more than the distance between third (where they finished) and first (where Texas A&M finished). Taylor didn’t move up in the long jump and the Gators lost the championship by a lone point. Holloway will blame a likely mismeasure in the shot put–despite the fact that impartial observers said it wasn’t enough to change the order of finish in the event–but his calculated gamble is where the meet was won and lost.
Oregon shit the bed. The Ducks’ mens team was picked for third going into the meet, and faced an uphill battle for the title. Yet some stumbles by Florida and Texas A&M left it in reach. The Ducks were expected to score between 10 and 15 points between the javelin and long jump, but got zilch between the two. Jav favorite Cyrus Hostetler didn’t even get into the finals. Ten points from those would have been enough to hoist the big trophy for first. Add in the substandard performance from five second-tier runners in the 800, 5k and 10k, who scored a single point between them, and it’s obvious the Ducks threw away the meet.
On the women’s side it was even worse. Track & Field News rated the meet a tossup between Oregon and Texas A&M, while The Oregonian called the Ducks a strong favorite. TAMU had that major injury to Gabby Mayo while UO had none, but the Aggies won by fifteen points. “Choke” is a strong term, but I don’t know what else to call it. Which calls into question…
Is Vin Lananna that great of a coach? Make no mistake, the man is very good at what he does. His last two job titles in D-I have been “Director of Track & Field”. Under his tenure, Hayward Field has seen record attendances and excitement about track in Eugene has reached levels not seen for a quarter-century or more. When he was at Stanford he built a fan base from nothing, which after his departure has returned to nothing, and was this close to getting the IAAF World Championships in the USA, the closest thing to an impossible task there is in domestic track.
But this weekend’s performance leaves me thinking his coaching skills could be improved. Both he and TAMU’s Pat Henry bitched and moaned at every opportunity about the regional qualifying, but they took markedly different tones: Henry said it was bad for track, while Lananna questioned why his athletes had to tire themselves by going through it. His negativity clearly trickled down to his athletes and I’m certain it had a detrimental effect on their performance.
In the men’s 800 heats, Travis Thompson made a major tactical mistake by leading his heat to a fast pace. Teammate Elijah Greer was in the heat, and stood an outside chance at qualifying to the final, but the tactics didn’t play to his strength and he was the fastest non-qualifier of the day. Lananna was quite upset, saying “Why our guy rabbited the first heat is beyond me”. Vin was pissed after the fact, whereas someone like John Wooden would have been ahead of the curve by making Thompson reiterate the goal every day for a week, and Bill Bowerman would have given him daily threats of castration.
Then there was the long jump. Ashton Eaton was entered and was expected to score some points for the Ducks, but his calves were so sore that he couldn’t manage more than one attempt. Sore from what? The previous day’s decathlon, in which he took a shot at the Collegiate Record. While Ron Bellamy of the Eugene Register-Guard didn’t mention any specific cause, others have pointed to the 1500 in particular, in which Eaton ran the fastest time of the day and came up just short of the record. Was that necessary? No. He won by 656 points, and could have jogged it and still won comfortably. You can’t fault the kid for trying, but someone has to be the adult and tell him to dial it back, lest he leave his teammates out in the cold by bombing the next morning’s long jump…which he did.
As far as the javelin throwers, the other distance runners, and almost the entire women’s team, they just came out flat. Only in the 1500 did they exceed expectations, and even there Zoe Buckman inexplicably failed to make the final.
How many NCAA outdoor track championships have Lananna’s teams won? One. Pat Henry’s teams have nineteen. John Wooden had Sam Gilbert and Vin Lananna has Phil Knight, but Wooden delivered the titles.
Angela Bizzarri…bizarre. The Illinois senior was riding a three-championship winning streak, taking the 5k last year, the cross title last fall, and the 3k title at this year’s indoor meet. She followed co-favorite and collegiate 10k record holder Lisa Koll’s tough pace for the first nine laps…and then stepped off the track and slumped on the grass before getting up and walking off. She did not speak to reporters immediately afterward, but later said “I just felt myself get too nervous for the race and couldn’t really calm down and just didn’t get in the right mindset during the race”.
Do we have an Alan Webb-style head case here? Maybe. Others point to the effects of 90 miles a week (Koll) versus 60 (Bizzarri). And I was mulling various thoughts about how being raised on the cul-de-sacs of Mason, Ohio, does not teach you much about overcoming difficulty. But I think it really comes down to a lack of pre-race preparation. Bizzarri was not a favorite going into any of her three national titles, relying on running as comfortably as is possible in championship racing before going to the fore late in the race. This is exactly how she beat Koll at the indoor meet this year, and it would have been foolish to expect Koll to allow the same thing to happen again. The two were running 15:15 pace when Bizzarri dropped out, which would have been a 20-second PR. She had to know that if she went with Koll and tried for the win she’d be entering the twilight zone, but mentally she was not up to the task.
The internet has spoiled us. I didn’t post anything this week because I wasn’t at home. I went to Grand Tetons National Park, which to an Easterner is a surreal landscape of big skies, near-desert flora, 13,000 foot peaks rising almost straight from the valley floor, and large animals I’d never seen before. As I was driving the winding two-lane road up to Signal Mountain to get the 360-degree views from its peak, a storm came through and blanketed the area with fog (or a cloud, whichever you want to call it). Surprisingly, there were two things at the top of the mountain: a pit toilet and a cell phone tower. iPhones in hand, my wife and I waited out the storm…and I was momentarily annoyed that I couldn’t watch the NCAA championship webcast because the iPhone doesn’t use compatible software. In my car. On the top of a mountain. In the middle of a national park. Dozens and dozens of miles away from anything that could even remotely be called a town.
CBS only does this because they have to. The Saturday broadcast wasn’t what it could be, and featured the same cast of slobbering idiots–Larry Rawson and Carol Lewis. They totally skipped mentioning Ryan Whiting’s near-miss of the shot put record, and all the other field events as well. Highlights of the previous days were ignored save a bit of decathlon fluff. My cable provider doesn’t carry CBS College Sports (and I couldn’t have seen it if they did as I was in transit from Jackson Hole), but my brother said it was deplorable. Nor did they bring out the HD cameras. The webcasts that CBS Sports did were also less than they could be: no announcer, or bad ones, and poor camera angles. As was said at the T&FN discussion boards, “it would be no more effort (or expense) to do it right than to do it wrong.” But we all know CBS only does this because they have to. They get March Madness, the NCAA probably requires them to broadcast all the other championships too.
Conference realignment gets started for real. Colorado started with jumping to the Pac-10, which should make its cross-country championships renamed “NCAA championships, round one”. Nebraska is going to the Big Ten, which means they’ll beat the living crap out of the conference’s track teams until the rest of them up their game. Everything else is up in the air, except this: anyone who says Texas is going to the SEC doesn’t know how theses things work.
Can’t pass this one up, even though it doesn’t have a thing to do with track. The current issue of the Atlantic Monthly is “The Ideas Issue”. A sidebar listing off some modest tongue-in-cheek proposals for the year ahead suggests the formation of “The Ice-T Party, supporting gun rights and a return to other hip-hop values”.
The Diamond League showed us why it works. Saturday’s adidas Grand Prix in New York was one of the deepest non-championship meets ever held in the USA. The field event depth was like nothing we’d ever seen, as the very best in the world showed up for the men’s pole vault, triple jump and javelin throw and the women’s shot put. In the triple, France’s Teddy Tamgho put up the best distance the world has seen in the last twelve years. The other field events–the women’s pole vault and triple jump–were still pretty good, and the running events brought unusually good fields across the board, even without a highly anticipated Bolt-Gay matchup. There was a great “three event challenge”, a sort of a mini-heptathlon showdown between Jessica Ennis and Hyleas Fountain.
NBC is amateur hour. Of course, those tremendous field events were not even mentioned once on the NBC telecast. They still can’t get field event leaderboard graphics on screen, as if they were still in the 1960s. Downtime between running events was completely wasted. When the Omega commercial transmits the excitement of a fake track meet better than the real broadcast does of a live one, you’ve got serious problems.
And here’s the thing: the meet produced a vastly superior TV feed which was sent to the rest of the world. We didn’t get to see it. They think we actually like it this way! The level of ignorance of the public desire is stunning.
Pray to every God you can think of that ESPN wins the next round of Olympic rights bidding. Whereas NBC is made up of amateurs, and their last-place standing in the network ratings shows it, ESPN is professional. Ever since investing heavily in soccer in general and the World Cup in particular, they’ve worked hard to convince Americans they love the Boring Game. What? I got it wrong? Sorry, that’s the Beautiful Game. UEFA live and in HD two years ago. Club highlights all over SportsCenter. Major prime-time World Cup preview show this weekend, with the lion’s share of the time spent on non-American teams. Plucked the world’s best English-language soccer announcer away from the UK. If ESPN brings us the 2016 Olympics, rest assured they’ll give a similar royal treatment to the Diamond League, VISA series and the World Championships. And we will forever be rid of Carol Lewis.
I’m doing OK in the Pick ‘N Win Game. Yes, that’s me in second place. Eat my dust, muthafuckas!