Ignoring The Variables

John Keklak Photo

What do you get when you put three coaches and rules committee secretary in a room?

Apparently they become wise mathematicians. And with that faulty logic from the start, this year’s qualifying for the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships will be as big a mess as its timing issues at the cross country championships. And these indoor procedures will further distance a fan from understanding college track & field.

The NCAA is using junk science to index times this year, giving large penalties to times run on banked or oversized tracks. But then again, they are treating those two tracks equally when common sense provides better conclusions.

Track & Field News rankings’ panelist Jonathan Berenbom, an actuary who works in numbers each and every day, does not think you can even apply math to the problem. There are too many variables for which to account. After all, not only are tracks different, so are each individual lane. And so are the abilities that run on them and in them.

The College Meet Director at The Armory, Jack Pfeifer, has called the equating of 300-meter tracks with 200-meter banked ovals “absurd.” Track & Field News had profiles on the system in back-to-back issues [Part 1 and Part 2].

Pat Henry — the head coach of the Texas A&M Aggies — isn’t sold. “We continue to convolute the sport and make it harder for the general public to understand what in the world we are doing,” he said. “How am I going to get fans to walk in the door, sit down and understand what is going on?”

Well, hand them a chart and give them a calculator, because any time run on the nation’s 80+ tracks which are banked, oversized or undersized will be put through an unsound calculation to determine where it will be indexed with all others.

I suspect that the Heps Championships will use this indexing for the Indoor Championships, though that is not clear. But that is merely using it for a tool for seeding, not to determine who’s in and who’s out.

That is a big difference. Click here for the indexing code… and good luck.

UPDATE: Here is one of the committee members’ takes on the backlash.

  • Scott Jones

    I was inspired to become a track coach while serving as a volunteer assistant coach at Cornell. At the time I was in Ithaca doing a post-doc in Mechanical &
    Aerospace Engineering. I left Cornell to continue my academic career as a
    visiting assistant professor at the University of Illinois in Theoretical &
    Applied Mechanics. However, I cherished the memory of my coaching experience at Cornell and discovered my desire to coach had not faded. Because of that
    positive experience I ultimately made coaching my full-time profession. I hope
    this will be interpreted as an enormous compliment to the athletes and coaches
    at Cornell (especially my mentor, Lou Duesing) but also more generally to the
    Ivy League. I have prized being in academic environments where open-minded
    examination of evidence stood a chance at overcoming prejudice and anecdote, so I am saddened to read this superficial HepsTrack blog post that ridicules the
    committee examining NCAA indoor track conversions and parrots the self-serving
    opinions of Jack Pfeiffer. I make no claim to being a wise mathematician (or an
    actuary) but I am dumbfounded how individuals, with whom I have never spoken,
    are capable of judging me and my analytical capabilities (I’m not even on
    Twitter!). The committee, despite its characterization as hayseeds from the hinterlands, is capable and fully aware of its responsibilities and limitations. It is not
    my desire to engage in a battle over credentials, however, I will fight for the
    opportunity for the process and evidence to be evaluated fairly. That’s all we ask. While the flat track adjustments differ from the ad hoc standards used previously, there was close agreement between three independent lines of inquiry that satisfied us they are reasonable. Despite what common sense might dictate, there is no clear-cut evidence to demonstrate a distinction between performances on banked and oversized tracks. For us to go counter to the evidence would be… absurd.

    Scott Jones
    Member, NCAA Committee on Indoor Track Conversions

    • Brett Hoover

      Hello Scott,

      Let me first say that the opinion in the piece is mine. HepsTrack is not in any way affiliated with the League office. I created the site in 2009 to try to build a community and the thoughts that I share are mine.

      I also need to point out that Jack Pfeifer is one of several people I mentioned. I know and respect Jonanthan Berenbom, who was significantly mentioned in the T&F News stories. I also mentioned Pat Henry, who is not only the nation’s most successful coach, but also concerned about the marketing the sport. He clearly has concerns with the solution. And I have talked to other folks in the field, all of whom think the solution is unsatisfying.

      If all you want to do is toss a bunch of data points together to determine the top 16 athletes to the hundredth and lash out and attempt to discredit anyone who disagrees, I’d suggest that you might know your system has serious flaws.

      I haven’t seen any reasonable argument from your side addressing the caliber of elite athletes running on oversized vs. banked tracks and I haven’t seen anything addressing the lack of fan-friendliness of the indexing. This system is a mess for people to follow.

      I also want to point out that the moment I saw your post on USTFCCCA’s website, I linked it to the story on HepsTrack. I wasn’t trying to hide your viewpoint.

      It saddens me when coaches continue to make decisions that alienate fans and potential fans. It is worthy of consideration.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brett.hoover Brett Hoover

      Hello Scott,

      Let me first say that the opinion in the piece is mine. HepsTrack is not in any way affiliated with the League office. I created the site in 2009 to try to build a community and the thoughts that I share are mine.

      I also need to point out that Jack Pfeifer is one of several people I mentioned. I know and respect Jonanthan Berenbom, who was significantly mentioned in the T&F News stories. I also mentioned Pat Henry, who is not only the nation’s most successful coach, but also concerned about the marketing the sport. He clearly has concerns with the solution. And I have talked to other folks in the field, all of whom think the solution is unsatisfying.

      If all you want to do is toss a bunch of data points together to determine the top 16 athletes to the hundredth and lash out and attempt to discredit anyone who disagrees, I’d suggest that you might know your system has serious flaws.

      I haven’t seen any reasonable argument from your side addressing the caliber of elite athletes running on oversized vs. banked tracks and I haven’t seen anything addressing the lack of fan-friendliness of the indexing. This system is a mess for people to follow.

      I also want to point out that the moment I saw your post on USTFCCCA’s website, I linked it to the story on HepsTrack. I wasn’t trying to hide your viewpoint.

      It saddens me when coaches continue to make decisions that alienate fans and potential fans. They are worthy of consideration.

      • Dr. Richard J. Ceronie

        Brett: First off thank you very much for what you do promoting Track & Field. I only wish every conference had someone who does what you do and I enjoy reading your website whenever I can. All of this indexing process started about 2005 when I was at Miami University and a member of the NCAA Committee. As you know, Dayton, Miami, Bowling Green, Ball State, etc have to compete on 200 meter flat tracks. Rarely did we ever have anyone qualify for the NCAA’s. In fact, Ball State had a young lady that was NCAA Outdoor 200 champion yet she couldn’t even qualify indoors due to the flat track issue. So I started to explore the variables that accounted for that. Around 2008 I got the first batch of data from Direct Athletics and examined about 50,000 performances and I could clearly see how flat track conversions were not appropriate. So the NCAA adjusted the standards for flat tracks to make the process fairer. As part of that research I also looked at the banked track versus oversized track issue. No matter how hard I tried I could not find any difference, whether I looked at elite athletes, mid-range athletes, or low caliber athletes. And I truly did think that I would find a difference. Dr. Scott Jones, and the rest of the committee picked up where I left off and did an exhaustive research project using hundred of thousands of pieces of information. While I wasn’t on that committee I did stay close to the process. I have no doubt that the work that the committee did was groundbreaking. What troubles me is this logic that Jack, John, Pat and others are using. Track & Field and those people just mentioned have zero data, yet come out and criticize the results. I am waiting for anyone other than Dr. Jones’ committee to come up with any substantial data to refute their findings. I do not understand or agree with Pat Henry’s illogical statement. First off, Pat is a great coach, but only cares about his program solely. The fans – so his point is that when Texas A&M and TExas have a dual meet that these conversions will ruin it for the fans…..really? The fans will see an Aggie and a Longhorn, someone will get to the finish line first, someone second, etc and at the end of the day there will be a team score. Thats what fans will see. If the Aggies win that is what they will take away. It is only after the fact that the conversions will be applied. So for anyone to say it will ruin the sport I find ridiculous. Like Scott I would hope that everyone would simply keep an open mind, debate the pro’s and con’s of any research done, and then make appropriate decisions based on the data. Since you have been around the sport for awhile you know that so many decisions in Track & Field have been made on inaccurate assumptions. There are many of us that are trying to change that so that when we make decision they are based on facts, not feelings. Are these new conversions perfect……..of course not, but are they better than what we have had in the past…….I believe they move the needle forward. I am really hopeful that one of the so called “experts” will come up an alternate theory of the indexing issue. Then we can have a debate based on data and that always is fun. Thanks again for what you do, it is truly appreciated and I thank you for allowing us to post comments. Dr. Richard J. Ceronie

        • http://www.facebook.com/brett.hoover Brett Hoover

          Hello Dr. Ceronie… I think we will likely just agree to disagree on this. The long and short of it is this, I don’t think that the top 16 athletes in the nation can be determined to the hundredth with a formula. Obviously, not all tracks are created equally, but the decision was to weigh them equally. Fifty thousand data points don’t mean a lot if they are simply treated equally. That is my opinion and there are a number of others with decades in the sport who agree.

          Additionally, you may think that Pat Henry doesn’t have a point, but I believe that he does. In so many respects, college coaches have made their sport unwatchable to the average fan. I have talked to a number of athletes who can’t talk friends into come to the typical invitational because of the interminable schedule and lack of finality as a win-or-lose team event.

          And now, when times aren’t really treated as times, we have further muddled the sport. At least in the day and age of automatic qualifying marks, the fans (and announcers) had something to cheer for. Now we have confused that.

          Obviously, the best solution is to compete for advancement. I’d obviously feel better about the indexing if the field were larger (say regionals allowing for 32 or 64 athletes). Shy of that, I do understand that there is a dilemma. But I don’t think that the drastically-amended weighting is a proper solution.

          Brett