One of the most vexing problems in college swimming is the NCAA qualification process. In a sport that otherwise operates on concrete time standards, this process rests on a two tiered system of cuts, alongside an algorithm that makes it impossible for all but the most dedicated to authentically determine who will make the meet. Add in a frenzy of last chance qualifiers and you have a recipe for frustration on many levels. At the CSCAA conference last week in San Antonio, Division 1 coaches sat down to try to fix the process, and failing that at least make it slightly better.
Before we get to what was newly proposed, let's talk about what we have now and how we got here. Coaches got an instructive history lesson on the formation of the "cap", now at the center of most people's complaints. For successive years in the 1980s the NCAA asked coaches for a recommendation on a cap figure. Coaches couldn't determine one, thus the NCAA decided for them: 235 men, and 322 women.
The women's "cap" figure works fairly well. This past year 15 relays were selected and 29-30 individuals. A fair individual field for a national championship to be sure, although picking 15 relays when you score 16 has it's own issues. The men's cap was a disaster, this year resulting in 12 relays and as low as 17 individuals being selected. The reason, as has been much discussed by my colleague Shawn Klosterman, is relay only qualifiers.
This year's men's championship has 76 relay only qualifiers. These are swimmers that did not qualify individually but were part of a selected relay. They are allowed to attend the meet and swim any event they have a "B" cut in. Although less traditional "power" schools always get a few relay qualifiers, the process had become a way for the rich to get richer. If you were a Texas or California, you could qualify swimmers relay only without shaving or tapering them to get an individual cut.
In San Antonio, a proposal for radical change was developed and will be submitted to the NCAA for the coming season. In it, relay qualification as we know it will be totally scrapped. The cap of 235 (and 322) will be used to select individuals only, which this past qualification year would have resulted in 29-30 men's qualifiers in each event.
Rather than destroying the role of relays in the meet, relays will make the meet through an alternate process. A cut time will be set up based on the average of the 16th place time prior to the NCAA meet of the last three years. Teams with an individual qualifier would be enter a relay provided they had met this time, and bring relay only swimmers alongside their qualifier to make the relay. These relay only swimmers would be true relay only swimmers- they would simply be there to swim a relay (or more). They would also be paid for by the school, not the NCAA.
That last part was and will be the most controversial part of the proposal. Schools are naturally concerned about anything that may add to their budget. The idea of limiting relay only swimmers to the relays stung for many schools who have seen relay only swimmers be successful. Ultimately, it was determined that schools big and small could ultimately push budget figures around if it meant getting people to the NCAA meet, the ultimate goal of most programs.
The proposal is not perfect, not without flaws, but it will improve the NCAA meet and qualification in crucial ways. It will make the meet faster, both individually and relay, as well as resulting in more participation at the meet. That is a win for everybody.