From The Editor — April 2006: I say take the relays out of the NCAA Championships

I’M ALMOST AFRAID to tackle this subject, given what an impassioned response—negative response, that is—we have gotten since Bret Bloomquist’s piece a couple of issues back suggesting that the 4 x 200 relay is bad for the Texas State Meet.

So allow me to don my flameproof suit and offer an opinion of the same radical stripe: I think the relays should be removed from the NCAA Championships. Wow! Feels warmer in here already.

Now I know that a qualifier along the lines of “some of my best friends are relays” will ring hollow, but I assure you I have nothing against baton events per se. Just their being staged at the biggest collegiate meet of the year.

This year’s outdoor NCAA, the 84th edition, will represent a tipping point. For the first 42 editions of the meet, through ’63, relays weren’t a part of things. The 42 since have had them, and this year will make 43. Now I may be getting old, but not so old that I’m not still too young to have actually remembered the NCAA without relays, so my feelings about their removal aren’t based on some “good old days” train of thought. If that were the case we’d also be talking about getting rid of the steeplechase, 10,000, 400H, TJ and HT. That’s not good old days.

No, my antipathy towards the presence of the 4×1 and 4×4 at the Nationals is generated completely by what I believe is the general good of the U.S. sport. Too big a portion of limited resources, I fear, goes into forming these modern foursomes.

If you look at the early years of NCAA relays, you’ll find a very good representation of athletes from “other” events. The 4x1s frequently had quartermilers, hurdlers and long jumpers on them. The 4x4s would recruit from the 200, 800 and long hurdles. Sure, you still see all those people, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

What’s so unsettling is that back in the days when college coaches were scrambling to fill their relay units with suitably fast bodies they had “unlimited” scholarships. But a funny thing happened on the way to today’s limited squads of about a dozen men. You’d think that contraction would be the perfect reason to cut and paste athletes from other events into the relays, but instead the relays have gotten more and more specialized. Too many schools now go out of their way to fill the relays with pure 100 and 400 guys.

That makes for some great relay watching, but who used to get the scholarships that a third- or fourth-string relay guy now gets? In general, field eventers. Jumpers and throwers who have seen their value to the team marginalized if they’re only good for a single event. And if you’re not concerned about having much of a jumps/throws program, then you needn’t worry about hiring assistant coaches who know anything about technique. I can’t help but think that this phenomenon is playing a significant part in the U.S.’s shocking loss of field-event medal-share at the Olympics and World Championships. I think of the sport as field & track as much as I do track & field.

This is why I’m concerned—as I mentioned earlier—about the “general good of the sport” in the U.S. No college coach thinks that part of his/her job description is as a feeder unit for the professional side of things. And I don’t blame them for not thinking that way. But unless they do, U.S. fortunes will continue to fade internationally.