College Cross Country: Issues and Answers
Jesse Squire | On 23, Nov 2014
I went to the NCAA Cross Country Championships this weekend. Here are my random thoughts, news and views.
If you’ve never had a chance to go to the NCAA Cross Country Championships, you’re missing out. It is an absolute blast. I’ve gone twelve times now (eleven at Indiana State and once at Louisville), every time with one or more old college teammates, and it’s always been fun. It’s been a hang-out-and-act-like-idiots weekend for me and my buddies, but you can do it however you like.
For one, you can’t help but run into the teams and the coaches and the other people in our sport who are “almost famous”. (I’ve long said that Andy Warhol was almost right; the future is now, and we are all famous but only to fifteen people.) Terre Haute has barely enough hotel space for all the teams and press and fans coming to see the meet, so we’re all occupying the same space. When we checked into our hotel on Friday evening, I looked over and said “Hi” to Linh Nguyen and his Toledo Rockets, and the place also housed Arkansas and Northern Arizona and BYU and Florida State and probably several other teams I didn’t see. Soon after I ran into Ryan Fenton, aka “Flotrack’s Chris Berman”, who’d just had a difficult experience at one of the town’s, um, less expensive hotels.
Shortly after, our crew headed out to find a spot for dinner. That’s another challenge given the large number of teams in a relatively small city. We got a tip about a nice Italian restaurant and headed across town, eventually coming upon a slightly sketchy post-industrial working class neighborhood, the kind where you always find the very best family-run ethnic eats. No dice. Teams had them booked up all night. (A twenty-something who came with us: “Dude! Stanford’s in there! Let’s just wait in the parking lot so I can get Maxim Korolev’s autograph!”)
So we went back to the area just off I-70 to hit up Buffalo Wild Wings, and even that place had a long wait for a table. When we finally did get to sit down, the next table over was none other than a bunch of Flotrack employees, scarfing down wings and beer while editing and uploading preview videos.
I don’t sleep well when on the road, so I woke up at 5am and headed down to the lobby to drink coffee and chill. I’ve discovered that you can learn a lot about the teams and athletes, either college or pro, by just sitting and watching the hotel lobby. You can see which coaches chill and relax and which ones are nervous and controlling, and of course their attitudes trickle down to their runners. Hotel lobbies are where I long ago observed that there is an inverse relationship between a coach’s appearance and the performance of his/her team. (I mean, if you see a coach who looks like a bucket of s**t then you just might have a winner.)
Going out to the course is when you really have your fun. The pre-meet atmosphere is very tailgate-ish, and the Michigan State fans did it up right:
— Jesse Squire (@tracksuperfan) November 22, 2014
And then there were these guys:
No comment. pic.twitter.com/a329hrgh8v
— Jesse Squire (@tracksuperfan) November 22, 2014
The other cool thing is that you can just go right out onto the course pretty much any time until the races start. So if you’re looking for a workout that morning, you can run the course. You can’t shoot around at the final four or play touch football in the Rose Bowl, but in cross country you can experience the NCAA Championships from the athlete’s vantage point just before they do. Very cool.
And when the races start, there are lots of ways to see them. The traditional way is to run around the course to see the athletes go by. Given the large open nature of the Terre Haute course, that means the runners have a tunnel of screaming fans constantly disassembling and reassembling itself for maybe 80% of the race. I no longer follow that plan, since I always seem to show up with some nagging injury (hamstring, presently) and I stand in front of the video board that shows the webcast while listening to the PA announcer. I happened upon an older couple that had an even simpler plan:
The easy way to watch an XC race. pic.twitter.com/gwlnpZMXDm
— Jesse Squire (@tracksuperfan) November 22, 2014
However you can get there and watch, go. It’s great fun.
Predictable? Yes and no.
Every Thursday, Deadspin.com runs Drew Magary’s Thursday Afternoon NFL D**k Joke Jambaroo. (Stay classy, Deadspin.) Amongst Magary’s weekly items is a lampoon of an ESPN columnist in Gregg Easterbrook Is A Haughty Dips**t, often noting how self-congratulatory Gregggggggg is when his predictions are correct, but conveniently ignoring them when he isn’t.
Let it never be said that I don’t admit when I am totally and completely wrong (more on that later). Let’s Run starts off their NCAA coverage with the following:
We could use this space to brag about our pre-meet predictions (we correctly called the men’s and women’s team/individual champions) but we’re sure that several other experts could do the same.
Um, yeah, like all of the experts and lots of idiots too. Every pre-meet favorite won, and they were all heavy favorites.
In the women’s race, Michigan State wasn’t an unbeatable team except that none of the other teams had what it took to beat them, and Iona’s Kate Avery had just come off a Commonwealth Games 4th-place finish and no one had come within 20 seconds of her this season. So those were easy picks. On the men’s side, Colorado was a unanimous #1 from the first day of the season and Edward Cheserek might be the most dominant college runner since Henry Rono, so those were even easier picks.
Was it a predictable meet? To the casual observer, yes. The favorites won. After that, it was anything but predictable. The women’s individual runner-up was Wisconsin’s Sarah Disanza, who was third in her region and 12th at the Badgers’ own adidas Invitational. The third-place women’s team was New Mexico, which was completely unexpected as the Lobos were ranked #9 coming into the championships.
The men’s race was even screwier, mostly due to the fact that the race went out extremely slowly and a huge mass of runners were still in the lead pack at 5 miles. #9-ranked Stanford, who had developed a pattern of bombing at the NCAAs over the last few years, ended up second (and was just nine points off the lead at the 8k split). Podium favorites Syracuse, Oregon and Oklahoma State all went home without a trophy.
By far the greatest overachievements of the day were by Portland and Northern Arizona. The Pilots were ranked #7 but finished third, and that was off just five runners—two of their runnerrs were DNFs, including West Coast Conference champion David Perry, who suffered an achilles injury during the race. The Oregon Ducks entered the meet ranked #2 but exited it as just the second-best team in the state of Oregon. NAU came in as the #10-ranked team and just sixth at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational.
In my last column I gushed about Wisconsin’s streaks of 43 straight men’s NCAA Championships appearances and 18 straight top-ten finishes, noting how they are among the most impressive in all of NCAA D-I athletics. So just as soon as I mentioned that, the Badgers very nearly lost that streak by finishing tenth, their worst finish since 1995. On the other hand, I’m going to guess that this was the first time during that streak that their squad consisted of four freshmen, two sophomores and a senior. And I didn’t do my homework: Arkansas reeled off twenty-nine straight top-ten finishes between 1978 and 2006, which has to be the best in any NCAA sport with broad participation.
Here are current and record streaks. Note that the men’s competition didn’t truly become a “national” championship until about 1960.
Wins: Colorado, two straight (record: 4, Arkansas 1990-93 and UTEP, 1978-81)
Podium (top four): Colorado, four straight (record: 9, UTEP 1973-81)
Top Ten: Wisconsin, 19 straight (record: 29, Arkansas 1978-2006)
Qualified: Wisconsin, 43 straight (record)
Wins: Michigan State, one (record: 6, Villanova 1989-94)
Podium: this year’s teams, one (record: 9, BYU 1995-2003)
Top Ten: New Mexico, 5 straight (record: 15, Stanford 1994-2007)
Qualified: Stanford, 22 straight (record)
I would never wish poor performance on particular athletes, especially not ones I know. As individual people, I hope for nothing but the best for the athletes at the University of Toledo. But as an alumnus of their archrival, Bowling Green, collectively I detest the Toledo Rockets with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Anything less would be disloyal. So I’d like to point out that Toledo’s 30th-place finish means that the record-high finish by a Mid-American Conference women’s team remains 19th, by Bowling Green in 1995 (the year after I graduated).
The Ohio State Buckeyes finished 26th, the best ever women’s finish in their school history, which means those BGSU Falcons also have the record-high finish by a women’s team from Ohio.
Michigan State won the first-ever women’s title for the state of Michigan, and it’s a pretty rare accomplishment for my part of the country. The only other women’s team from a state with Great Lakes shoreline to win is Wisconsin, who won back-to-back titles in 1984 and 1985. Interestingly enough, 1985 was the last top-four finish by Iowa State, this year’s runners-up.
An Unbreakable Record?
Oregon’s Edward Cheserek now has two consecutive individual titles, and he’s been so dominant that it’s hard to imagine him ever being beaten. The men’s record is three, co-held by Gerry Lindgren (Washington State), Steve Prefontaine (Oregon) and Henry Rono (Washington State), the three best long-distance types in the history of college running. Can Cheserek match or exceed them?
Well, this is a different era. When a runner gets just so good, they do not complete their collegiate eligibility and instead sign a pro contract. Will Ches leave early, and if he does then how early?
What I Would Change About College Cross Country
While it has its critics, I like the current setup for college cross country. The at-large qualifying system for the national championships means the regular season has meaning, but only so much. Basically, you can guarantee a spot at the NCAAs during the regular season but you’re never completely eliminated until the regional scores are posted.
One criticism is that the first half of the regular season doesn’t count at all because points for at-large consideration aren’t up for grabs until late September. Fine, we can make the whole season count. We’ll just do it “Family Feud” style and double the points in the later part of the season.
Still, only about 10% of the nation’s Division I teams qualify to the NCAAs and only about 15% come to the regional meets with any real chance at it. If I could change one thing, I would have only 20 teams qualify to each regional meet instead of everyone going (as is the case right now). I’d have the top two teams in each conference championship automatically qualify and use the same points system to fill them out with at-large bids.
One example is my beloved Bowling Green Falcons. They had their best season in eight years but they were not an NCAA Championships-quality team. Basically nothing they did had any benefits or consequences until the Mid-American Conference Championships came around, and so there wasn’t any reason to get passionate or excited about it. If regional qualifying is on the line, then the regular season would get a little more exciting–even if teams had the exact same results as they had this year. The vast majority of teams wouldn’t have to change how they race or train or peak, it just makes fans (and potential fans) look at those race results with a different–and more interesting–perspective.
It’s never too late to look ahead. Here’s a 2015 projection (as determined by weeding out seniors and rescoring).
232 West Virginia
258 Iowa State
320 North Carolina