Marshall: The NCAA's Uneven Playing Fields

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about baseball, football, basketball, Auburn's track and field championship and an NCAA policy that benefits many colleges that Abuurn must compete against in a variety of sports.

Friday morning ramblings...

Some Southeastern Conference coaches have said it privately. The NCAA super regionals said it publicly and loudly.

This was not the best of seasons for SEC baseball. For the moment, at least, the Atlantic Coast Conference has ripped away the SEC's claim to national superiority.

Four ACC teams will play in the College World Series. Georgia will be the SEC's lone representative, and the Bulldogs got there by beating fellow SEC member South Carolina.

To add to the ACC's dominance, two of its teams--Miami and North Carolina--got to Omaha by beating SEC teams on the road. The Hurricanes beat Ole Miss two games to one and the Tar Heels swept Alabama.

Not to diminish the accomplishment, but Kentucky's trip from last to first probably speaks to the relative weakness of the SEC. The Wildcats didn't have the kind of firepower from top to bottom and certainly not the kind of pitching displayed by most SEC champions.

What does it mean? Other than the obvious, that the ACC was better this season, it doesn't mean much of anything. The SEC might well be stronger next season...

Auburn's three NCAA championships this spring--men's and women's swimming and women's track--are made all the more remarkable because they came in so-called "equivalency" sports. Those are sports in which partial scholarships can be offered.

Auburn and Alabama are at distinct disadvantage in those sports compared to schools in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and numerous other states that have lottery-based scholarships.

Let track coach Ralph Spry explain:

"The biggest thing we are fighting is the lottery scholarships," Spry says. "They get in-state tuition, fees and books. If that kid qualifies for any Pell Grant, it's a free education. If not, they're paying 20-25 percent. At a school like Georgia, that creates a tremendous amount of depth at the conference level that we can't have.

"Say there's a 6-6 high jumper. I can't give a 6-6 high jumper much money. It's going to take some years for him to develop. Georgia gets that kid for free and has a chance to develop him."

It's a bigger problem, Spry says, in the SEC Championships than in the NCAA Championships. At the SEC level, more athletes are qualified and depth is more important. The Auburn women missed the SEC championship by a single point.

"It's definitely an uneven playing field," Spry says. "We got it done at the national level because it takes more quality and less quantity."

Spry compensates by going after that quality, giving mostly full scholarships.

"That's mainly the way we go," Spry says. "In the conference, we lost to Georgia by one point. They had almost triple the number of entries we had in the meet. It's kind of like Stanford. They have academic money. The second year they go on academic money because that's the way Stanford operates. All of a sudden, they get that money back in the kitty."

The impact of that uneven playing field is probably felt most in baseball. That's a large part of the reason there are large fluctuations from one year to the next. Alabama, an SEC co-champion this season, won just 10 SEC games two years ago...

Speaking of Spry, he would like to get more football players involved in his track program.

"I'm still trying to bridge a gap with Coach Tuberville to get the football guys," Spry says. "LSU broke the world record in the mile relay with two football guys. A lot of your best sprinters are football players. I think we are going to work it out eventually. I think it helps everybody."...

Don't look for any kind of announcement at the June 30 Board of Trustees meeting about plans for a new basketball arena. But don't take that as a sign the project is in trouble.

All signs continue to point to a decision to build a new arena rather than renovate Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. It's a huge project, involving numerous decisions, and getting it going takes time...

Until next time...

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