May 2007
TRACK ISN’T BASKETBALL, but every time I watch the three-week thrillfest that is the NCAA’s March hoops climax, I wonder if track’s Regionals shouldn’t take a much heavier toll on potential qualifiers for the Nationals.

I much prefer the qualify-from-Regionals concept instituted in ’03 to the old method of chasing qualifying times/distances—which did so much to remove real competition from the sport—but I’m left with the feeling that the Regionals aren’t painful enough. To continue with the basketball analogy, I’m saying enough top seeds don’t get knocked out.

And that’s because too many people advance from the Regionals. So let’s kill two birds with the one proverbial stone. Not only make the Regionals more exciting, but also streamline the Championships themselves.

As discussed in this space last month, remember, to make for a better TV show the NCAA is already radically condensing the final day of Nationals competition.

But why not condense all the days of competition and at the same time make the Regionals much more significant than they are now? How?

Turn the NCAA title meet into a finals-only affair. Smaller, more elite, cheaper to run, takes a day less to run.

Currently, each of the four Regions gets 5 automatic qualifiers, and then the fields are filled further so that 25-plus make it to Nationals. I’m suggesting that that auto-qual figure be cut to 3 per region (4 in the lane races) and there be no added field-fillers.

So that would be 12 per event (16 in the lanes) at the Nationals. The lane events (100, 200, 400, 800, both hurdles, both relays) would require a single prelim round to get down to an 8-runner final; all other events would go directly to finals.

All of a sudden you’re back to a Nationals in which each and every race has top-of-the-line importance. Isn’t that the kind of track meet you’d like to be watching?
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ALL EVENTS SHOULD BE REGIONALIZED. Currently, if you’re a 10K runner or a decathlete/heptathlete, you’re immune from the Regionals concept. Instead of having to compete at the Regionals—which admittedly isn’t practical so close to the Nationals—you advance the old-fashioned way; by putting up a big mark.

But why can’t those events simply have earlier “Regionals?” The NCAA need only designate two or three competitions as an official qualifier and then let the athletes actually compete for places.

The Stanford Invitational 10K, for example, has already become a de facto Regional. Looking at the official NCAA list of potential qualifiers from ’06, we find that 25/48 men and 25/40 (and 13 of the first 15) women put up their marks at Stanford in March. Why not give that race (and selected races elsewhere) official status? Nothing but NCAA-eligible athletes in the race, no rabbits. Just run for a place in the Nationals, regardless of time.

Although I’m calling these “Regionals,” athletes could come from anywhere in the country to compete. And the competitions could be staggered, so that if you didn’t make the first 6 at Stanford, say, a month later you could try again at Penn. The multi-eventers might go at it at Texas and Mt. SAC.

Give me real competition, not time-trialing!