NCAA Still Fiddling With Regional Format

FAYETTEVILLE -- The NCAA continues to tweak the formula for its regional track format, but Arkansas coach John McDonnell thinks it is still far from perfect.

McDonnell has good reason to dislike the regional format instituted three years ago and for more reasons than the extra strain it puts on finely tuned and occasionally fragile track athletes or the dilution it has caused to the NCAA Championships.

The NCAA's track and field committee disqualified former Razorback Alistair Cragg from the national championships last year after one of the organization's own referees granted Cragg and three others, including former Lady'Back Veronica Campbell, medical waivers excusing them from competition at the Mideast Regional in Baton Rouge.

Cragg, who went on to make the Olympic finals in the 5,000 meters, was not allowed to defend his NCAA 5K title while Campbell, who went on to win two golds and a bronze in Athens, was shut out of the 100 and 200.

At issue for McDonnell and Lady'Backs coach Lance Harter was the format at regionals that would have allowed Cragg and Campbell to advance to the NCAA Championships if they had false-started or jogged to the finish rather than withdrawn because of injury.

A proud winner of 40 NCAA titles, McDonnell equated intentional false starts or jogging with lying and cheating and said he'd be "damned" if he'd try to win a national championship that way.

The Mideast Regional -- one of four around the nation -- returns for its third year starting Friday in Bloomington at Indiana University and concluding Saturday.

The track and field committee has instituted a couple of rules changes the NCAA feels will turn the meet into a more legitimate competition rather than a contest to see which coaches and athletes can best manipulate the system.

The two major rules changes are as follows:

• The false-start "loophole" has been closed. If an athlete false starts at the regional, they are out of the NCAA Championships regardless of their season-best time. Last year, Arkansas coaches knew for two weeks that LSU 400-meter hurdle favorite Bennie Brazell would false-start at the regionals and he did, earning an at-large bid to the championships.

• Athletes must finish in the top eight to make it to the NCAA Championships. The top five remain automatic bids and the next three spots (12 total at the four regions) will go into a descending order pool to receive seven to eight at-large bids. Athletes' best performance of the season will be used to award at-large bids.

Just as the false-start rule change could be called the "LSU rule", the change in at-large bids could be called the "Wisconsin rule."

Wisconsin's Matt Tegenkamp was ranked third in the nation entering the 5K at the Mideast Regional and ran a pedestrian 14:59 to take 14th while still advancing to the NCAAs.

Teammate Josh Spiker was ranked second in the 1,500 but only ran a 3:52.22 and didn't make the finals, also earning a spot at the championships.

That is no longer possible under the new rules, but McDonnell and Harter aren't exactly satisfied with the system.

The major sticking point that remains is the unbalanced regions.

For example, only 11 females will run in the 100 at the West Regional.

At the Mideast Regional, there will be 34.

Eight men, one less than a complete final field, are entered in the 200 in the West.

There are 21 entered in the Mideast 200, which includes eight of the 12 teams in the sprint-heavy Southeastern Conference.

The ninth-ranked sprinter in the Mideast 200 -- theoretically the first man out of the NCAAs -- would be the sixth-rated entrant in the West, just out of an automatic bid.

Six of the top 13 teams in the latest men's Trackwire Top 25 poll are in the Mideast Regional -- No. 1 Arkansas, No. 4 LSU, No. 9 Indiana, No. 11 Tennessee and co-No. 13s Auburn and Wisconsin.

The West Region has just three -- No. 3 Oregon, No. 8 Stanford and No. 12 Southern Cal -- in the top 13 while the East Region has just two, No. 2 Florida and No. 5 Florida State.

McDonnell said he'd rather see the regions seeded by team rankings, to keep the top teams from butting heads in the early rounds of competition just like the NCAA basketball and baseball tournaments are set to do.

He also sees the at-large bids as contrary to the NCAAs desire to get away from the expenses they cited for teams traveling around the country "chasing times" to get into the Championship meet.

That still happens because athletes need an insurance policy if they don't make the top five at regionals and a good time or mark is their backup.

"We're still chasing times and we're still running the region and we're still running a national meet that used to have two rounds and now it has three rounds," McDonnell said. "That's progress?"

In the end, McDonnell simply sees the regionals as a waste of time.

If the NCAA simply wants to increase the numbers of participants at the Championship meet, which the regional format is designed to do, McDonnell says they should just raise the total invitations they hand out based on the descending order list and eliminate the regional.

"If they want to take the top 20, then take 20," McDonnell said. "If they want to take 25, then take 25."

McDonnell doesn't see the regional format going away any time soon because the smaller schools who like the lower standards and a chance at postseason competition will always have more votes than elite programs like Arkansas and LSU who despise the system.

But McDonnell says the constant shifting of rules and priorities with an unbalanced regional format still makes the system more convoluted than competitive.

"Either do it right or don't do it at all," McDonnell said. "They're either running with the hares or hunting with the hounds. They can't tell if they want to be a hare or a hound."

If the NCAA is the hare, it sounds like McDonnell would like to be the hound.

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