If football can do it, why not track: a plan for collegiate track playoffs!

LOS ANGELES, May 17, 2012 – With all the noise about a college football playoff system coming in 2015 or so, it’s not too early to examine another sport which picks its national champion in a peculiar way: track & field.

Since its start in 1921, the NCAA track & field champion has been selected by scoring each event and than crowning whichever team – among the hundreds that compete – ends up with the most points at the end of three or four days of competition.

This inevitably skews the team race toward the speed events, where a small cadre of sprinters can – in individual events and relays – can essentially win the team title by themselves. In an extreme example, USC won the 1943 team title with four entrants!

So why not create a true team championship – as gymnastics does – and then hold the traditional mass meet later to crown national event champions? It can happen, and quite easily:

• Make the conference championship meets meaningful by advancing winners of the top eight conferences into four quadrangular meets (two entries per event per team) to be held the following weekend. Despite the silly scholarship limits in track – 12.6 for men and 18.0 for women – you need a real team to win a major conference title.

Happily, even the selection of the conferences from which the winners will advance can be done without politics, by using the performance-based U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) rankings, which are compiled weekly.

• In most years, the conferences contributing “automatic qualifiers” to a 16-team playoff system in track will be the ACC, Big 10, Big East, Big XII, Pac-12 and SEC and a couple of others. The USTFCCCA rankings, which are compiled by comparing actual marks across the nation and ranking teams by their combined national standing – a much better method of comparison than the computer and human polls used in football – can then be used to select the eight highest-ranked teams as “at-large” entrants. Everyone gets to play and politics has little to do with it: you’re in or out because of your marks.

For 2012, the 16 teams advancing to the regionals would include:

Men: Conference champions Arkansas (SEC), Notre Dame (Big East), Oregon (Pac-12), Princeton (Heps), Texas-San Antonio (Southland), Texas A&M (Big XII), Virginia Tech (ACC) and Wisconsin (Big 10) plus at-large qualifiers Florida, Florida State, Indiana, LSU, Nebraska, Texas, Texas Tech and USC.

Women: Conference champs Central Florida (Conference USA), Clemson (ACC), Louisville (Big East), LSU (SEC), Ohio State (Big 10), Oregon (Pac-12), Texas (Big XII) and Wichita State (Missouri Valley) plus at-large qualifiers Arizona, Arizona State, Florida, Kansas, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

There can be no doubt that the best “teams” in the country are among these schools.

• Four quadrangular meets for men and women would follow in one-day formats. If held at a single site on the weekend, with the men’s meet on one day and the women’s meet on the other, these meets can be held inside of three hours (excluding the hammer, sorry), making them easy to televise.

The winners of each of the four quadrangulars advance to the national team championship meet, to be held the next weekend: one day for women; one day for men, again in a 3+ hour format.

• This entire process can go on concurrently with a “preliminary round” format for qualification to what would be the “national event championships” if desired. Simply reserve four places in the NCAA event championships semifinals for the top finisher in each regional quadrangular and let additional team-championship competitors in based on their marks and placement in the descending-order lists (as shown on the TFRRS results ranking site now used.

Using this style of “playoff” system to determine the national team champion has several advantages that can help the sport in the long term:

(1) It emphasizes the team aspect of track & field, often derided as an individual sport. Anyone who has been on a high-quality collegiate team knows this is wrong, but there are very few opportunities to demonstrate this.

(2) If successful, a true team-championship playoff system will be a catalyst for increasing the scholarship limits for track to at least one per event: 21, instead of the current limits.

(3) If properly presented – a major issue in this sport – the team “regionals” and “finals” will create up to 30 additional hours of television programming. This could be helpful to the NCAA in view of its new, 10-year, $500-million non-basketball championships television agreement with ESPN.

Additionally, the major conference championship meets – as qualifiers – could also become better possibilities for television; most are currently ignored.

(4) Having the team championship decided in the format outlined does not detract in any way from honors – All-American or NCAA “finalist” – compiled by individual athletes, and just as importantly, for their coaches.

(5) Costs are modest for this program: the only “added” travel is for the national team championship meet, for just eight teams (four men + four women). For the teams in the “regionals,” travel there would replace travel to the current “preliminary round” competition.

(6) The team championship meets could be held at a rotated or constant site. Baseball and softball have profited from having their “College World Series” in permanent sites at Omaha and Oklahoma City, respectively. Perhaps this is the right kind of meet to be stationed in Des Moines or Eugene, or elsewhere, if a community wanted to step up to it. The reality is that one-day quadrangulars are not that difficult to organize and stage well; with some continuity from year to year and adequate hotel and air travel availability, the program could grow in stature with ESPN television support.

Having announced UCLA’s track & field meets during a revived era of dual-scoring events over the past two years, there’s no doubt that fan interest is heightened by an easy-to-follow scoring format. Why not crown a real team champion in track and create new interest in the sport?

If it can happen in college football – and it appears that it will – why not in the sport football players love (second) best?

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)


  1. So in Olympic years, such as 2012, the potential collegiate athletes would be forced to run extra races because of their scholarship contracts and perception of not being a true team player. This would shrink their chances of making the Olympic team. The season is long enough with Regional Qualifier meets for National Championships. I understand that revenue is an important necessity, but it is worth hurting US Gold possibilities in individual and relay events?

  2. Excellent, well thoughtout plan, love the team concept, spliting the program into men and women an excellent idea, shortens the meet and making doubling in events more consistent with the old days.

  3. Sorry LG but what HBCU as currently constituted is among the best 8 in the country on either side. This coming from an HBCU alum. We don’t have any depth in field or distance events and only a few make it to NCAAs thru the regional system as is.

    Very good idea, but the idea of the athletes partaking in so many high level races back to back to back with so little recovery time could be detrimental to their bodies and possible future successes as DC mentioned, but these coaches are paid handsomely and should be able to have a clear and defined approach to the season for their athletes if this system were in place, no different than the adjustment they had to make when regionals were introduced.

  4. Any kind of innovation to track of trak and field should be welcome. The sport need to try new things to make it able to compete for viewership and spectators in the stands. Like every things in life you will have a success and failure but that should not prevent you from trying.

  5. Great idea. It would also be more interesting if there were far more scored dual/3/4 way regular season conference meets conducted in 3 hrs or less. Lastly, ESPN needs to find exciting announcers. The 2 guys that have announced meets for them the past 20 to 30 years are the most boring announcers on the planet (you know who they are). In fact, if you want to point out what contributed heavily to the sport’s demise look no further than ESPN’s bland presentation.

  6. First of all, is track and field a team sport or an individual sport? I would love to see more team emphasis in the sport. When I competed in college track and cross country in the 70’s, we had several dual/quads. The focus was on scoring points for your team.

    Being a college coach, we never went to a meet this year that had team scoring other than our Conference meet and the quad we hosted. The quad was the most exciting one of the year. Some of our best marks came from that meet as well.

    The big invitational meets, I feel, kids don’t learn how to compete. They just perform and wait to see how they stack up in the results.

    The team concept would also give the athletes who don’t have a chance to make it as an individual, some pressure and “worth” on the team knowing that even one point may help their team get to a national championship.

  7. “Despite the silly scholarship limits in track – 12.6 for men and 18.0 for women – you need a real team to win a major conference title.”

    You can stop right here. Your proposal is dead in the water as the NCAA and schools will never get past this point. Are you proposing to REQUIRE each track to to provide enough scholarships to field a team? And then require that each team recruit for each event?

    On paper your proposal has some merit, but is not practical (or financially feasible).

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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