Cal Track & Field - The Big Picture (Part 2)

<style>.txt {font-family: Verdana; font-size: 13px; color: #000080; font-weight: regular; }</style> <p class=txt>I committed one month ago to researching and writing an article about the state of the Cal Track & Field program today. I have since conducted in-depth phone interviews with 3 of the 6 Track & Field coaching staff members to obtain the insights and knowledge needed for this INSIDER's view of the program. </p>

Tony Sandoval, Associate Director/ distance coach, Ed Miller, Cal Hall of Fame inductee & decathlete coach, and Robyne Johnson, jumps & sprints coach, have been affiliated with the Erv Hunt regime and the Cal track scene for 20, 19 & 8 years, respectively.

While doing this research, I also received several quite negative e-mails from diehard Cal track fans or ex-Cal track athletes. One of these passionate communications compared individual event times or distances from the 1970s & 1980s to today's poor efforts. (For example, the high hurdle times of Kirtman, Cowling & Jett against the 15 seconds flat "high school" times of 2002). Another e-mail provided me with a detailed injury list for 2001 & 2002, implying a connection between the injured athletes and his or her responsible coach. Another claimed that the majority of sprinters and distance runners failed to improve their personal records during their CAL careers.

These are tough questions - so I elected to go directly to the Cal staff with them - and to their credit the coaches responded forthrightly and passionately. As I collected more disparate perspectives and conflicting data, I began to feel a bit like Fox Mulder on "The X Files" persistently reminding Scully that "the truth is out there" - somewhere!

To anticipate my conclusions, I will say this: there's definitely "something rotten in the State of Denmark" with regard to the current state of affairs of Cal Track & Field. But just what that is bears further and careful examination. And let me admit: I initially approached this assignment with a mind-set that said "the glass is half empty", but the coaches changed my viewpoint around 180 degrees to "the glass is half full." Let me try to share with you the essence of what I have learned...

My original negative bias was based on the following:

1. Nothing gets Cal fans as fired up as losing to Stanford. Last year, after the men's upset loss to Stanford, a spirited but decidedly negative weeklong debate erupted on the CyberBears' "Growls" message board regarding the state of Cal track. Ex-track alums and track insiders participated in this forum and concluded overwhelmingly that changes had to be implemented. Whether totally accurate or not, specific charges were levied against Erv Hunt and Tony Sandoval, the Director & Associate Director of Cal Track. On Cinco de Mayo 2002, the day following two blowout losses (men & women) at the hands of the Cardinal in the Big Meet in Berkeley, the general apathy towards Cal track mysteriously disappeared, again! The CyberBear known as "RoseBowlB4Death" built a perfectly logical case based on actual results for a dismissal of the two aforementioned coaches - in his post entitled "Enough is enough..."

2. I have attended the Central Coast Section (CCS) Track & Field Championships virtually every year for the last decade and have watched, much to my chagrin, 90% of the star prep performers commit to Stanford, UCLA & USC. I've noticed what seems to be a "lack of respect" for Cal track from both high school coaches and athletes. Last season, when I brought up Cal to the Aptos HS distance coach, Bill Hotchkiss, he chuckled and rolled his eyes, commenting that "Cal no longer takes cross country or track seriously, anymore". Ouch-that hurt! Sure enough, his top distance runner (#2 in the state), Brett Gotcher (8:55 for the 3200), recently committed to Stanford.

3. I also was aware that Cal did not fund one-third of its available scholarships. Given that Cal had recently expended millions to renovate Edwards Stadium, this seemed woefully inconsistent. I also heard that Cal's cross-country (XC) program was a budget casualty, that it received zero money and wasn't being taken seriously. I am told that the XC team travels to its meets by van and those expenses are deducted directly from Cal's Track & Field budget. That makes XC into a literal liability.

4. In general, Cal sports fans - as we see them on CyberBears - are more cynical about Cal track than any other sport, even football! Recently, "SM Fan" congratulated the list of new track recruits for joining the Cal family. His friendly initiative was met with a thread of negative comments. I added that the prep high jumper that had verbally committed to Cal just missed the all-time state record by one-quarter of an inch with his recent clearance of 7'4 1/4". A fellow CyberBear reflected upon another prep 7-foot jumper that performed poorly at Cal.

In another post, I noted that 700 Burlingame donors had raised $200,000 at its annual dinner/dance for its public high school athletics. I commented publicly that that dollar amount would fully fund the annual scholarship deficit for Cal track & field. Immediately, another Cal fan - and we use that term advisedly - responded that there's probably more interest in Burlingame HS sports.

So we must ask - why is there such a lack of interest, and even genuine disdain, for Cal's track program under Erv Hunt? With such a minimal shortfall ($150,000), it's obvious that even former track alums are not giving generously to the program. Why is this? How did even they become alienated or detached from Cal track?


THE TRACK RECORD:

For the last decade (1992-2001), the collapse of Cal track & field mirrors the demise of Cal football. The last five years (1997-2001) have been abysmal. The men's team finished 8th out of 9 Pac 10 teams four years & 6th in the other. The women's team fared similarly: 7th, 9th, 9th, 8th & 7th out of 9 Pac 10 schools.

This is Erv Hunt's 31st year involved with Cal track. He is widely credited with building a respected, national track program at Cal. Beginning in 1973, Hunt was appointed the head of Cal Track & Field by departing headman, Dave Maggard.

Even though Cal always had difficulty finishing in the upper division of the Pac 10, Hunt coached Cal's men's team to 8 top-25 NCAA finishes in his first 10 years (1973-1982). In half of those initial ten years, Cal actually placed in the top fifteen nationally. During that same decade of national prominence, the Bears managed only a single upper echelon finish within the strong Pac 10. Cal ended up #4 in 1981.

In addition, Hunt built an enviable dual meet record between 1980 & 1993. Cal track & field racked up 14 consecutive years of top 20 national dual-meet rankings! And in reality, the Bears did better than that suggests, being rated in the top ten dual meet teams nationally in 10 of those 14 seasons. Cal's high water marks were #3 in 1986 & #4 in 1993. Those two special years were also two of Cal's highest Pac 10 placements-fourth place! Remember, as assistant coach Robyne Johnson reminded me, virtually every Div I university fields a track team so it's not easy to finish in the top ten!


UNDER THE RADAR:

It is my conclusion and contention that a convergence of events has conspired to make it difficult for Hunt & Cal to stay competitive - and that significant changes will indeed have to happen if Cal is to be competitive once again. Let's examine those changes.


CHANGES IN THE "RULES OF THE GAME":

A. Title IX gender equity rules were imposed to bring all athletic scholarships into equitable balance during the later half of the ‘80s decade. The NCAA imposed stringent restrictions on scholarships allowed in track & field. Even though 38 events (19 men's & 19 women's) are contested in a dual meet today, like the Big Meet last Saturday, only 30 scholarships are allowed (prorated as follows: 12.5 (men) & 18 (women)) by the NCAA! This limitation of scholarship athletes forced all track programs to reassess their scholarship priorities, starting a trend toward re-allocation or what is now called "specialization". For example, UCLA re-focused its program toward track (sprints/hurdles/relays) & weight events. Stanford dedicated itself to becoming a national power in distance events. Cal decided to become a "field-event oriented" team, recruiting "multi-event" scorers wherever feasible. Ed Miller, the decathlete coach, was the primary beneficiary of this concentration and has flourished. Sprints/hurdles (Erv Hunt's expertise) & distance events (Tony Sandoval's specialty) were "de-emphasized" to make optimal use of limited team scholarships.


B. Due to pressure from Title IX, Cal merged its men's and women's teams into a single entity in 1991 at the behest of the AD Bob Bockrath. Tony Sandoval relinquished his position as the women's track coach to focus on training all of Cal's distance personnel. Erv Hunt was promoted to Director of Cal Track & Field and de facto head coach. Tony Sandoval became second in command as Associate Director. Many promises were made to the new track entity and its hierarchy by AD Bockrath that were never kept. (We've heard that before, eh Cal fans?)

C. This shortage of scholarships forced teams to specialize, essentially putting an end to the true dual track meet, the area of Erv Hunt's primary expertise. Since 1996, dual meet national rankings are no longer even tabulated. Most teams have major weaknesses, even Stanford, in a dual meet. For example, Cal's women swept the top five spots in the 400-meter hurdles and the Cal men swept the javelin (top 3). The Bear's women also were strong in the shot put, earning second place through fifth place.

D. Football is the primary revenue generator for any Pac 10 athletic department. Cal has not had a winning season since 1993. Due to resultant poor attendance for football, the Cal athletic department is battling with a current overall budget deficit. Curiously, AD Bockrath had a direct link to football's fall (failure to re-hire Bruce Snyder) and an indirect hand in the decline of the track program. Largely due to mandatory fiscal restraint, Hunt & Sandoval have been turned down annually for budget increases on eleven consecutive occasions. Cal Track & Field is still working within the 1991 operating budget set by the Bockrath administration.

Cross-country is no longer a funded sport, whatsoever.

Unfortunately, educational inflation has been much greater than a general inflation rate measure like the Consumer Price Index. Today, an in-state scholarship costs CAL $14,000 while an out-of-state scholarship costs $24,000. In major revenue producing sports such as football and basketball, the head coaches don't need to differentiate regarding the additional cost of an out-of-state recruit. For track & field, the out-of-state scholarship is nicknamed "a double scholarship"(because it costs almost double an in-state one). The University of California attracts many foreign student-athletes, but Erv Hunt usually has to pass on them. Bubba McLean (Hawaii), Missy Vanek (Idaho) & Jennifer Joyce (Canada) are currently on double scholarships!

E. Unfunded track & field scholarships are the result of rising educational costs and a frozen budget (at 1991 levels). Cal is currently funding approximately two-thirds of the available track & field scholarships (8 for men and 12 for women). I've been told that the men's program has a "ballpark figure" of $100,000 to allocate for eight scholarships. In reality, the eight scholarships are shared over an entire 50 member men's roster. The same phenomena apply to the women's team, but they have $150,000 (for 12 scholarships) to cover 50 teammates.

Since Erv Hunt makes the final decisions and keeps the exact count, perhaps 40 out of the 100-person track & field team receive some monetary scholarship assistance from Cal (usually in the $3,000 annual range for a new recruit). The majority are recruited as unsigned recruits or "walk-ons" that choose Cal for its academics. In principle, if you do the math, Cal has a scholarship cash shortfall of about $150,000 annually that, if met, would put Cal on a par with the rest of the Pac 10 Conference. Put another way, a lump sum charitable contribution of about $2 million would fully endow the track & field program to enable it to fill the maximum number of scholarships every year.

Since the scholarship limits for track are almost identical to men's & women's basketball, imagine Ben Braun attempting to compete in the Pac 10 with 8 or 9 scholarship players? Obviously, Braun would fill the void with walk-ons. In this area, track is somewhat at a disadvantage, too. I've been told that the recent anti-affirmative action measures that passed have further put a crimp in the non-revenue sports programs ability to secure talented walk-ons. There's a ceiling (due to Title IX & walk-on limitations) of 55 members on the men's track & field team this season.

F. Hidden logistical problems abound in managing today's Cal Track & Field Program. First, the six dedicated staff members must attempt to coach nearly 100 athletes. Secondly, the Cal coaches try to recruit most of the track talent with negligible financial aid. They have decided to provide "incentives for performance" within the program! For example, placement in the Pac 10 or the NCAA Championships is rewarded with partial scholarship assistance. In translation, Cal simply cannot compete head-to-head for "the cream of the crop" talent. Cal did offer a RARE full-ride to the state's top sprinter, Gary Jones, from Skyline High in Oakland but he signed with national sprint power, USC, instead. Coach Hunt valued him as an impact recruit because the Bears are weak in the sprints.

Finally, if less obviously, the lack of financial aid subtly hinders any leverage the coaching staff might have to motivate athletes to train in the off-season, for instance. I questioned the coaches regarding at least a dozen specific cases where someone had disappeared from the track radar screen or whose respective performance had declined precipitously. The answer in each case was simply that the individual's priorities had changed and pointed him or her in another direction at Cal.

One quit her distance running regimen to concentrate on becoming a doctor. Another top prep hurdler recently tried out as a Cal cheerleader. A sophomore high jumper just ran a splendid campaign to become Cal's student body president. In general, the track coaches encourage them to pursue their dreams.

Realistically, if an athlete is receiving zero to $3,000 per year from Cal for their overall Cal experience, how else can a coach respond? On the flip side of this equation is that academics are of paramount importance to track & XC participants. Every coach reiterated with pride the same mantra: we graduate 98% of our "kids"! Cross-country had the top team GPA for any sport at CAL for years until the men's tennis team beat them for the award this year.

G. And what causes the plethora of injuries in the Cal track program? Is it bad luck or does the track & field weight training program run by Todd Rice need to be checked out or modified? Football fans already know that Cal had an epidemic of hamstring injuries, etc, in recent years. Rice is a solid technician that trains Cal personnel in Olympic lifts. However, he was replaced as a first order of business by new football coach, Jeff Tedford, with a new weight coach that specifically tailors workouts to the person and towards his position. It is at least possible that parallel problems exist in track & field with Todd's "one size fits all" approach. It does not take a great leap of logic to suppose that distance runners, sprinters & shot putters might benefit from very different weight training regimens to accentuate the development of specific muscle groups needed to be successful in those events.


THE FUTURE

My reasons for optimism:

1. The new athletic director, Steve Gladstone, has begun a "zero based budgeting" strategy for all programs rather than the prior "work within last year's budget" approach. The new process tries to answer the following question: "What would it take to fund a middle of the Pac 10 Conference team in each team sport?" Gladstone has already spoken out that Erv Hunt & his team need a "level playing field" before they can be fairly evaluated. This means that at a bare minimum the available scholarships need to be funded. Nothing substantive has yet happened on this front to date -- but there's only one direction to go & that's UP!

The core dilemma the Athletic Department faces in achieving this goal for all programs is that the renovation of Memorial Stadium is both a massive project AND the top priority because the football program "brings home the bacon." The new football staff is in place but they've let the administration know that other facilities must be upgraded too if the program is to be competitive.

Unlike Bockrath, I believe that this AD will honor his commitments. It certainly would not hurt if donations from alumni filled the gap for the track & field program for the next year or so until the football fundraising has been successfully completed. It's only $50,000 to fulfill the men's scholarship needs and $100,000 to cover that base for the women's scholarship funding as well.

2. This season's early recruiting results are the most encouraging in many years! Although a dozen or more commitments have been made to Cal, only 4 (that I'm aware of) have formally signed their scholarships to date. These are sprinter Monica Green (Bishop O'Dowd), and distance runners Bridget Duffy (St Marys-Berkeley), Giliat Ghebray (James Logan) & Kevin Davis (Clovis West). Other big names that have been listed on public track & field websites as Cal commits are discus thrower Kurt Seefield (Marin Catholic), high jumper Teak Wilburn (Chico), 400 meter specialist Lauren Dorsey (Chadwick-Palos Verdes) & distance runner Eric Roberts (Alhambra). There are an additional six distance runners as well.

Cal coaches cannot discuss walk-ons but most are waiting for admission or to qualify. Remember, these walk-ons are susceptible to a full-ride offer from another school so "hold your breath", Bear track fans. The sprints & distance recruits are key to improving the balance of the team. I look for the men's team to have an outstanding team next season (when the lengthy injury list as recounted in my Part I article returns to health).

In summary, I arrive at a solid conclusion that the decline of Cal track & field has had more to do with lack of monetary resources than lack of coaching expertise. And that this can be remedied in the short term! Bear Backers - Bear Fans - consider designating Cal Track & Field when you make contributions to Cal Athletics.

Notes:

1. I would be more than happy to answer any queries about these subjects on the Insider Message Board set up for the purpose. Click on "Insider Boards" in the left menu above, and you'll see the place to go.

2. I'm working on an analysis that explains how Stanford runs away with the Sears Cup every year. Maybe it has a lot to do with the number of athletes that are available for Olympic sports? Look for it soon.

GO BEARS!


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