How to Fix the NCAA Preliminary System

How to Fix the NCAA Preliminary System

“A better choice would be no Regions. Two is closer to zero than four, so it’s an improvement.”—Vin LanannaThe best things that could be said about the NCAA

May 30, 2016 by Dennis Young
How to Fix the NCAA Preliminary System
“A better choice would be no Regions. Two is closer to zero than four, so it’s an improvement.”—Vin Lananna

The best things that could be said about the NCAA track and field qualifying system are it is meritocratic, fair, and creates a high-quality final round. Athletes from smaller and less financially robust programs don’t need to travel to Mt. SAC or Stanford to chase fast times—you have to compete to qualify rather than make it on time.

Best of all, it nearly guarantees that the 24 athletes who qualify to Eugene are in their best form at the end of the season, rather than limping into Hayward Field on the basis of a stellar mark at the Little Sisters of the Poor Memorial Invite in March.

I can’t get over the month, though.

Where the system falls short

The conference championships in the middle of May are awesome. And the NCAA finals in June are awesome. But there’s a month in between without compelling collegiate track and field.

There are other, less intractable problems with the preliminary rounds held in the East and West this past weekend, too. Worst of all, the best athletes coast to qualification (Edward Cheserek has won two out of six NCAA Prelims races in his career, but he’s three for four at the outdoor finals.). Finishing first is exactly the same as finishing 12th. And in the perfect metaphor for the current system, there are no winners in the vertical jumps. Once the field is winnowed to 12 qualifiers, jumping simply stops.

Track and field doesn’t have the popularity or cultural cache to blatantly sacrifice entertainment on the altar of fairness. In an essay pegged to the NCAA basketball tournament, ESPN’s Pablo Torre railed against the evil of "Big Playoff," and asserted single-elimination tournaments are addictively entertaining, but not the fairest way to crown a champion.

How do you give fans a more watchable conclusion to the season without ruining the integrity of the championship?

Proposed solutions

Let’s start with two non-negotiables: every Division I should have the opportunity to compete to qualify, and there can’t be three straight weekends without entertaining track and field in the heart of championship season.

There are 31 conferences in Division I—give every conference champion in every event an automatic berth to the NCAA finals, and fill out a 48-athlete field with 17 additional qualifiers based on time. Then, hold a week-long NCAA championship starting the Monday before Memorial Day weekend in Eugene. Monday and Tuesday would pare the fields down from 48 to 24 (except for the 10K, where a 48-person final is not insane) and then get to the current NCAA championship format by Wednesday.

This would make conference championships even more thrilling, and imbue minor conferences with major stakes. Every race at every conference meet would have a bid to Eugene on the line, and with the 17 time-qualifiers, no deserving athletes would get left home. In addition, it would bring track and field in line with the rest of the NCAA system, including cross country, where non-fairness objectives are involved in creating a championship field.

Looking ahead

One major point in the current system’s favor: it creates the absolute very best championship fields possible, which maximizes the entertainment value of the final round. My proposed system would certainly dilute the quality of the final fields, potentially creating a worse championship.

So, what if the current preliminaries were tweaked? One change that seems likely (well, I'm just guessing) is cutting the prelim fields from 48 athletes to 32. That would allow the schedule to get tightened and restructured like the NCAA finals schedule for a much more entertaining track meet.

Steps are already being taken in this direction. Last year, the throws and horizontal jumps at the prelims were cut from six attempts to three, which created a more compact and digestible meet than before.

Some might prefer sweeping, radical overhauls. Some might prefer patient, incremental changes. But both are vastly preferable to the alternative.