My interview with Jack Steck lamented that our system is flawed. We have a college swimming system that alienates the average sports fan and leaves college swimming to be enjoyed almost exclusively by the die-hard swim geeks and the parents of the actual swimmers. We can do a better job to address this, and in so doing we can also address the lack of parity in the system and make it more fair overall, which might be a small step toward saving some programs from getting the axe when AD's are weighing out the value of each sport to decide who to keep and who to cut. I have a lot to say on this, so I will surely be making more than one post in the next week or so about it.
First point: The "conference champs with B cuts" idea is not that far-fetched. It is a pretty traditional system. My high school state meet in Alaska took the 5 region winners and then the next 7 fastest times. We were limited to 12 qualifiers due to travel costs, the same logic by which the NCAA has a system based on a head count and A/B cuts. It is based on an athlete cap and just because some conferences are stronger than others does not mean it is inherently unfair.
I feel that the argument that "we don't want slower kids to knock faster kids out of the meet" can be thrown out the window. No one seems to want to acknowledge that we are already doing that by allowing relay roster manipulation. Here is what I did to prove the point that this is happening, it is happening way more than people think it is, and it is a horrible injustice: I did a name search of the PDF files of the pre and post-cut psyche sheets for the men's D1 championships. I only spent a few minutes and only searched for 6 names from the bottom of the list on two events. From those I found two perfect examples, both from the same team, that say: the mid-major kid is not getting a fair shake. He is forced to make it on his own while others are often not. We are not just taking the fastest kids with the current system. It is sneakier than that. For example:
1. Joel Elber from Ohio State was the #73 ranked 100 back-stroker in the pre-cut sheet. He got into the meet. I did a name search to confirm that he did not qualify on his own right because he was not ranked in the top 24 in any other events. He was not fast enough to get in on his own but was a pretty good freestyler so surely he got in through a relay. Not that big a deal... except that he was exactly a full second slower that Roko Simunic, the conference champ of the MAC, who was the #35 ranking pre-cut and did not get in. Elber was the #3 backstroker on the OSU squad. Are you telling me that he deserves to be there more than Roko? The conference championship should count for something, because obviously when you compare these two swimmers, the time counts for nothing.
2. Andrew Bretscher was the 4th ranked 100 flyer on the OSU squad. He was not listed as having any other B cuts on the pre-cut psyche sheet. He was #82 in the 100 fly. He got in. Are you telling me that OSU is so awesome that they are putting their #4 flyer on their A relay at the big show? Right... no manipulation there. That is awesomely unfair.
If we were just allowing the straight up top 24 per event and top 12 relays, it would be fair. Too exclusive, but truly fair.
In the 100 back, 24 were invited. 20 more swam it. There were 23 invited in the 100 fly. 52 actually swam it. That means almost thirty swimmers got in some other way. How many of them got in from relays? How many of them got in on a relay, when they were not the top dog of their team and are probably not really on the relay team at all? How many were added to the relay roster, probably for the prelim only, to get them into the meet? How is this any more fair than allowing a conference champ in with a time that is faster than those guys but might be slower than a few others? How many guys like this are taking valuable spots away from others who are faster and probably are more deserving? This is a loophole that the big schools get regularly and the mid-majors do not. They have a foot in the door that the small schools don't. That goes against every conceivable rule of fair play in the world of sports.
I say, if we are going to throw a bone to someone, we shouldn't be throwing it to the schools that already have more to eat. I don't have a problem with relay only kids being allowed to swim their b events... if they are there, let them swim. But this goes beyond that, because in a system with a cap on the number of athletes it hurts others... and it is an advantage that only the major schools have.
The benefit of allowing conference champs in will make a bigger impact on the sport. My good friend Randy Horner at the University of New Orleans put it this way: "if a kid were being recruited and trying to choose between a mid-major and a BCS school, he might actually choose the mid-major." That is good for the sport, because right now the blue chip athletes don't sign with mid-majors, partly because they know that if they are on the bubble, a big school can get them in and a small school can't.
I am not saying we should take away the relay opportunities for the big guys... I am saying, give us an equivalent loophole so that our swimmers don't leave their swimming career feeling bitter and regretting that they didn't get in simply because they know that they would have been invited at the major school with all times being equal, yet they chose to believe in their mid-major program and signed to go there.
We also have to look at another aspect of the conference champs with b cuts idea: it would add some value to those other conferences by offering automatic berths, which would essentially raise the stakes and create interest from outside of the conference. Right now, when people go to conference central to look at results, they are mostly looking just at the BCS meets or the conferences they have a stake in personally, meaning a friend or family member swims there, or you are an alum. Well, if this rule passed, I am pretty sure everyone will be tuning in to the MAC and the Sunbelt to see who gets those automatic berths. More people will be paying attention. Nothing but good for the sport. Wouldn't it be great if we made those meets matter too?
My initial reaction to the conference champ idea was negative. At first look it seemed unfair... but when I got to really thinking about it, it works on several levels. It was bigger than just the one meet. It might just have a leveling effect, even if it is just a small one, but it would without a doubt be a step in the right direction for our sport as a whole. I don't know how many more swimmers we would have to add to the meet to make this happen in a fair way, but I can't help but think it would be more than worth it in the long run and for our sport in general to expand the meet to make this happen.
Think it through. I might not be a perfect solution, but it should be given a fair, thorough and educated discussion. Please sound off below. More to come. ;)