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Division I Coaches Opine On The Eve Of The Championships

 

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 The eye on Oregon, photo by PhotoRun.net

 

Eugene, Oregon

On the eve of the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships, a pre-meet press conference was held in the Matthew Knight Arena on the campus of the University of Oregon which featured several of the leading collegiate head track & field coaches in the country - the true royalty of collegiate track & field coaching: Arkansas's Chris Bucknam and Lance Harter; Oregon's Robert Johnson; Florida's Mike Holloway; and Texas A&M's Pat Henry. In the calm before the anticipated storm of furious competition for individual and team titles, this group offered their views on a variety of topics relating to the sport we love.

 

The New Meet Format. Instead of the traditional mixing of genders in the this championship meet, this year is the first time the men and women athletes will essentially compete separately - a split schedule by gender - with men and women basically alternating days during this 4-day championship meet.

Bucknam: "Change is good. The sport has to evolve. I commend the people that have put this together. I look at the challenges that our athletes will face in a very short program. But I think when you look across all sports, it's all about using the time efficiently. We have to capture the casual fan - that's what we have to do. We have great athletes and a great sport. And I think it is great that we are changing it up. It's about growing the sport."

Harter: "Change is healthy as long as it is positive. It is kind of a grand experiment. The density of the schedule is definitely going to be a factor with some of these super star athletes that do two or three different events."

Johnson: "We are kind of in a wait and see type thing. Some experiments are good. Some experiments are bad. When this thing came about, there were a lot of things promised. If they deliver on those promises, it will be awesome. If the don't, it will be bad. We'll wait and see how it goes."

Holloway: I'm of the opinion that it's a track and field meet. And our kids have been doing this forever. When I was in high school, this is what we did: you ran your events and you went home. If we wanted to walk around and make it a negative, we could. But we didn't do that. And the great thing about it is we all have to do the same thing. What I think everybody should do is sit back and enjoy. I think this going to be one of the best championships you've ever seen."

Henry: "I don't look at it as a negative at all. If we are on television the amount of the hours they're saying we are going to be on, then I think it is educating the general public and helping them learn more about our sport. Right now, if you're not on TV, you don't exist. You're not a sport if you're not on TV. We've got to get ourselves on TV. We've got to do whatever it takes to get there. And if it means splitting [the men's and women's competition] right now, then that may be [how the sport gets there]."

The Concept Of An Entire Team Championship: In recent years, the idea of a truly team face-off - the best teams fully complemented versus the other teams of their ilk - has been championed. How do the top Division I coaches view this prospect?

Henry: "We talk about a lot of things for a long time in our sport. I think we should be advancing the concept of team competition. I like the individuality of our sport, no question about it. Our fans though follow teams - they don't follow individuals. A guy jumps 7' 7". The only people who that that is good are sitting in this room or are track coaches. Nobody else knows. Especially if it is 2.31 meters. I am believer that we've got to be team-oriented. And that's a big change. But I think we need to find a way to advance this sport as a team."

Holloway: "My belief is that track and field has been the way that it is for a long time. And you better find a way to take care of the individuals also. There are a lot of people out there - very good individuals that aren't on [great] teams. What do you do with those people?"

Henry: "If we are going to sell our sport to the general public, I think they follow teams. People understand head-to-head team competition. That forum is what sells tickets and sells TV."

Bucknam: "I am a firm believer that NCAA track is not Olympic track. That's the conundrum. Do we follow it as an Olympic sport? Or do we follow it as an NCAA team sport? I think it is unique in this country that we have these unbelievable conference meets that have this incredible energy. And then you get to the national championships - you still have that energy amongst [the most competitive collegiate teams]. But there are about 25 different agendas going on this weekend. It is not the agenda of winning as a team."

The Value Of The Regional Meets. Should the regional meets be scrapped and simply bring the top 24 athletes - by performance - directly to the championship?

Henry: "Let's just drop this first round. That's what needs to happen. It works indoors really well. Nobody has a problem. It's clear cut. You make the standard. And off you go. No one can figure out why we are doing this [holding the regional meets]."

Bucknam: "We've [Arkansas] been 6 weeks out of school.

Johnson: "I'll take 6 weeks out of school instead of taking final exams this week."

Henry: "We compete in the SEC championships and ten days later we are lining up against 8 of the 10 teams in our conference plus the athletes from the other 100 some schools. There is nothing good about this. It's a survival for the good ones - and that's all that meet is for us right now. And for that person who is sitting number 20 in the 800 meters and he is trying to make the top 12, it can end up being the greatest meet of his whole career. That is tremendous for that person. But for our elite people - which this meet is supposed be about in my opinion - it's just a survival: get through this round. That's not a positive thing."

Holloway: "We don't take basketball and make them play a B series before they come to the final 64. Let's just cut to the chase. It works well indoors and I don't know why it wouldn't work outdoors."

Equal Opportunity For Both Genders. Like other sports, track and field has come a long way to expand opportunities for women - as athletes and as coaches. Are there any more frontiers in the area of gender equity that need to be conquered?

Henry: "We're the only sport where they have combined both genders and made a track meet. All of a sudden, our time frame has become twice as long. And I think that has hurt us. If you had to go to a women's basketball and you couldn't leave and then you had to watch the men's game, I don't think you'd have the same people there all the time. People would get tired of that. It's way too long. This men's/women's situation [the new format] that we're going through right now, it could end up being a positive thing from that standpoint. But as far as gender equity is concerned, it's about as equal in our sport as it gets."

The Scheduled String Of NCAA Championship Meets At Hayward Field. Is it beneficial for collegiate track and field that Tracktown USA - which has consecutively hosted the NCAA meet since 2013 - will continue to host this championship meet through 2021?

Holloway: "Hayward Field is a great place to have a track meet. But it is not the place we have to have it every year. There are other places in the country that can hold a great track meet. Are my kids excited about travelling 12-13 hours across the country every year? Absolutely not."

Henry: I was a proponent for it [the NCAA Championship meet] being here. I was never a proponent for it being here for the remainder of my life. I was a proponent because when you open the door, people are here. And that's a tremendous thing. And there isn't another venue, I don't think, that can do that right now. That's the challenge [to other potential hosts.] The onus is on Texas A&M: Build a facility, do things right, get people to come in the door, do it like Oregon does it, and create an environment that kids would like to come to. Until that happens, in my opinion, this is where it should be. But I don't want to be here that many years."

Holloway: Texas has a very nice facility. Arkansas has a phenomenal facility. But if we don't give them a chance, how do we know if they can do it or not? I don't want to be here the rest of my life.

Bucknam: "Hayward Field is a great place to run. But it [the NCAA championship meet] needs to move around. Maybe with this format and the growing of what we're doing here with ESPN, we can do that. There is no question that Oregon has set the bar high. And now we need to go try to match that. That's what we are all about. It needs to move around for the kids' sake - for that student athlete experience."

The cordiality that was pervasive during this press conference featuring 5 of the leading collegiate track & field coaches was certainly as expected. But that civility will be set aside Wednesday when the ferocious pursuit of national championships - both individual and team - will get underway.

 

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.

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