A Balance of Power?
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Is there really an evolving balance of power in college athletics? Well, in some sports such as college football and men’s college basketball, yes, there does appear to be some semblance of parity – or at least diversity in the number of different national champions awarded in recent years.
During a 25-year period from 1985 to 2010 there have been 17 different football national champions, including just seven multiple title winners. Miami leads the way with four, followed by three from Florida, and two each from Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida State, Nebraska and LSU.
Compare that to only 14 different college football title holders during the same 25-year period from 1960-85.
Men’s basketball, too, has had 17 different national champs during the last 25 years with only six programs winning two or more, led by Duke’s four championships and Connecticut’s three. The prior 25-year span from 1960-85 saw UCLA win 10 titles and 14 different programs claim crowns.
Since 1985, college baseball has had 15 different champs, men’s soccer 14, and women’s basketball 13, which is very comparable to two of the three major U.S. professional sports. In the last 25 years, there have been 17 different world champions in Major League Baseball while the NFL has had 14.
Only the NBA has seen most of its titles claimed by ruling elite – the Lakers with eight, the Bulls six, the Spurs four and just eight different overall champions since ‘85.
That also happens to be the present circumstance for a number of sports competing at West Virginia University, with no Mountaineer athletic program encountering more elitism than women’s gymnastics, where the last 27 national titles have been claimed by only four schools: Georgia (10), UCLA and Utah (six), and Alabama (five).
The disparity is almost incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the sport.
“At Utah, Alabama and Georgia the original coaches that kind of started those programs brought them from the ground up and it's such a small talent pool, especially back then, that they were kind of the ones that pioneered women's gymnastics,” explained first-year WVU coach Jason Butts, who witnessed first-hand Georgia’s dominance in gymnastics while serving as a club coach in Athens for 12 years. “Because of that they were able to keep pulling from the top of that talent pool for years and years.”
Butts estimates there are roughly 15 programs capable of winning a women’s gymnastics title in any given year (out of approximately 63 competing programs), but diversification is beginning to come about in the sport.
"I think you are seeing a changing of the guard a little bit,” he said. “That first generation of coaches … they are kind of phasing out and some of the younger coaches are stepping in."
A ruling royalty
Gymnastics is not the only sport dealing with a ruling royalty. Since 1985, wrestling, men’s swimming and rifle have seen just six different national champions; women’s soccer seven; women’s swimming and women’s tennis eight each; women’s outdoor track nine and women’s volleyball and women’s cross country 10 each.
And in most instances, it’s a couple of programs winning the vast majority of the championships since ‘85. In women’s soccer it’s North Carolina with 17 titles. In wrestling it’s Iowa with 14. LSU has captured 14 crowns in women’s outdoor track, as has Stanford in women’s tennis.
West Virginia has 12 national titles in rifle; Texas owns nine in men’s swimming while Villanova has nine in women’s cross country. Brown has claimed seven of the 15 rowing championships awarded since 1997. Fifteen of the last 26 crowns in women’s basketball have been won by either Tennessee or Connecticut, and 11 of the last 25 titles in women’s volleyball have come from Stanford and Penn State.
There are a variety of factors for their dominance, but the two most prevailing seem to be funding and facilities. Women’s soccer coach Nikki Izzo-Brown likened North Carolina’s mastery in her sport to getting a 50-yard head start in a 100-yard sprint.
“Back when North Carolina had more scholarships than anyone else they were already ahead of the rest of us,” Izzo-Brown explained. “When they were dominating for all those years what happened was they were funded way before any of the other programs were.”
Second-year women’s tennis coach Tina Samara, who played on Georgia’s 1994 national championship team, says once the snowball gets rolling down the hill it’s difficult for others to stop it. Such is the case with Stanford in women’s tennis.
"Once you start winning titles it's hard to pull kids away from that,” she explained. “The thing is there are the stereotypes you deal with. I'm from New York and going to college in Georgia coming out of high school was like, 'What?' In California, you don't have those negative reputations. It's all about how great the tennis is and how beautiful the weather is."
Swimming coach Vic Riggs spent time on the other side of the tracks working at Georgia and USC and he says the two common denominators at both places were consistency in the coaching staffs and top-notch facilities.
“I was fortunate to work down at the University of Georgia. Jack Bauerle swam there, was a graduate assistant there, and then became head coach and he’s been coaching there now for 31 or 32 years,” Riggs said. “He won his first national championship in ’96 or ’97, so he had been coaching there for 15 years before he got his first one.”
According to Riggs, Bauerle had to use guile and ingenuity to get elite swimmers on campus before the new aquatic center was built, which incidentally, came shortly before the coach won his first NCAA title.
“They would take them on a campus tour and let them hang out with the kids,” Riggs recalled. “But when it came time to go see the pool he would say, ‘Oh, we’ll get to that tomorrow.’ Then when tomorrow came he would say, ‘Oh, there is a football game going on and we’re not going to be able to get by it.’ He was there for 15 years and he would never show the pool to their top recruits, and they wouldn’t even see it until their freshman year began.
“Then he gets the new facility and within a year or two, he wins the national championship. That’s the nature of the business we are in.”
Men’s soccer coach Marlon LeBlanc empathizes with what his women’s counterpart Izzo-Brown has had to contend with in her sport dealing with soccer powerhouses North Carolina, Notre Dame and Portland. The men’s game only has 9.9 scholarships to divide up among its 28-30-person roster, while women’s soccer has 14 to use, meaning the North Carolinas and Notre Dames have more scholarship money at their disposal to stockpile elite players.
In men’s soccer, 9.9 scholarships can actually even out the playing field a little more.
“For us, maybe an Indiana (five NCAA titles since 1985) can offer less money to get a kid, though it’s harder to stretch your dollars at 9.9 than it is at 14,” LeBlanc explained. “That’s one of the big differences, and the reason there is a lot more parity on the men’s side that’s forced upon us. We put 11 players on the field and we only have 9.9.”
LeBlanc recalled a situation in the 2007 NCAA tournament when the men’s soccer program at the time was down on its scholarship numbers and was facing Wake Forest in the Sweet 16.
“We lost Paul Cunningham to an injury and that injury caused us to make three or four changes to our lineup,” LeBlanc explained. “That same year, Wake Forest brought three future top 10 MLS draft picks off their bench. That’s the difference between being a fully funded team and not being a fully funded team.”
Many WVU coaches say one way ground can be made up is by recruiting outstanding international kids who are looking to come to the United States to get a good education and are not always influenced by the negative stereotypes and perceptions that the American kids sometimes possess.
Women’s soccer at WVU has had great success with Canadians, as has women’s cross country and track. Other Mountaineer programs have benefitted from recruiting foreigners, too.
“All of the best U.S. kids are going to those schools that have had traditional success, so what is happening internationally is that other countries are now investing money in their youth soccer programs so now there is better soccer in other countries,” said Izzo-Brown. “And now we can go into other countries and bring players here.”
“The international game for soccer is so much bigger than it is here,” added LeBlanc. “There are kids over there playing that want to go to the pros, but it’s like football here, how many of them actually make it to the pros?
“The next opportunity for them is to get an education,” LeBlanc said. “For us to go overseas, we obviously have a much bigger pool of kids to recruit from where maybe we don’t always get the top kid from the States.”
Top-notch programs don’t always need to possess an overabundance of funding either. LeBlanc points to what Akron (2010 NCAA champion) has accomplished in men’s soccer as an example of what a non-BCS program can do when they maximize their resources.
“Akron has a very, very rich tradition of success in college soccer,” he noted. “They’ve made significant investments there and at some of the smaller schools, these programs are the cream sports for their school. If the investment and the commitment are there, I think there are enough good soccer players around to make a run at (an NCAA title).”
Butler men’s basketball is another example of a school reaching the pinnacle without possessing huge resources. The Bulldogs have played in the last two NCAA tournament championship games.
Programs can also make up ground through outstanding player development – by recruiting hard-working, dedicated athletes who want to improve and are willing to buy into the system.
Many place West Virginia University into this category.
For years, Don Nehlen ran a developmental football program at WVU, getting to the cusp of a national title twice in 1989 and 1994; John Beilein took the developmental route in reaching the NCAA tournament Elite Eight in 2005 and Bob Huggins was one game away from making the NCAA finals in 2010 with many of Beilein’s players. Izzo-Brown, too, got to the Elite Eight in 2008 by developing good players; ditto cross country, which placed fourth at the 2008 NCAA championships and had a sixth-place finish in 2009.
Riggs says that’s also true with his program.
“In my case, a Rachel Burnett (NCAA qualifier) is a perfect example,” said Riggs. “She was somebody the Georgias and those programs missed. She was from a small program; she wasn’t from a high-volume program and she wasn’t cranking out these times her senior year.
“Then she got here and got involved with our conditioning program, obviously got involved in my program, and then explodes. We’re getting more and more of those kids.”
LeBlanc said WVU’s reputation for developing pro soccer players has become one of his biggest selling points.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve had Nick Noble, Jarrod Smith, Andy Wright, Dan Stratford, Pat Carroll and Paul Cunningham all go on to the pros,” he said. “We’ve had scouts coming in to watch our kids play because they feel like they are getting a good foundation that translates to the next level. We like to think of ourselves as a really good opportunity to develop talent.”
According to Samara, she talks about her experiences as a player helping Georgia win the national title whenever a recruit asks her to explain her vision for Mountaineer women’s tennis.
“You can read as many books as you want and you can do all kinds of things, but you can’t put yourself in someone’s shoes unless you’ve been in those shoes,” she said. “That’s the one thing I try to tell these kids, ‘Hey, when you are in a match deciding a conference championship or a national championship … I actually happened to be in those shoes – not just to win it, but my match actually decided it. I can relate to any emotions that you are going through.’”
Butts believes becoming a consistent big-meet program is the best way to get to the top of the mountain in his sport.
“Before you are going to win a national championship, which is controlled by the judges, you are going to have to show that you are a top-three finisher for a few years just because they are going to get a certain leeway we don’t get because we haven’t shown it yet,” he said. “It’s there. It definitely exists. Before we can break into the Super Six, we are going to have to show that we can perform well at nationals.”
As for Riggs, he is working hard to locate that one breakthrough athlete who can help his improving program really take off.
“To be top 20 at NCAAs is not that difficult,” he said. “It’s one stud swimmer and then getting some relays to the meet. Our challenge is to get those better kids on campus. Once they get here they love it.
Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik
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