The Cleveland area has been selected to host the 2013 Division II Winter National Championships Festival, that is if you consider a 45 minute drive to Geneva, Ohio part of the Cleveland area. The announcement marks the NCAA’s second effort at putting together a Winter Sports Festival and while most coaches seem to embrace the Festival concept in theory, and while the Festival will give Division II access to an excellent facility at the Spire Insitute, many are crying foul at the announcement.
“We’re very excited about what Cleveland offers,” said Erin Lind, Championships Committee chair. “Not only is it a great city, but the facilities at the Spire Institute are among the best in the nation. Beyond that, we will have exclusive use of the swimming, track and wrestling venues for the entire week. All the venues are all connected indoors and are no more than a five-minute walk apart.”
While the venues may be just a five-minute walk from one another the hotel situation is another story entirely. That issue alone helped ward off the PSAC which had been considering hosting their conference championships there. According to Gannon University’s Nathan Walters, “There are a few small (Motel 6) hotels close by, certainly not enough to accommodate our needs and with the nearest adequate hotels being 35-45 minutes away.” One coach explained, in an e-mail forwarded to CollegeSwimming.com, “There is NOTHING out there!” adding, “You guys can stay on my couch. I have no idea how they are planning to house everyone out there.”
Finding a couch between sessions could prove a top priority with the potential of a three hour commute each day. “That rest between sessions is imperative,” added Walters, “and staying at a facility for the entire day would be exhausting in itself!”
But staying at the facilities seems to be what the NCAA has in mind. Cameron Schuh, the NCAA’s Associate Director for Public and Media Relations explained, “With the format and purpose of the overall Festival, student-athletes would definitely be encouraged to partake in other championship events on-site and cheer on their peers.”
To help do this, the NCAA, along with the Cleveland Sports Commission and Notre Dame College, is working to enhance the opportunities available to student athletes and coaches. They are interactive and study lounges for student-athletes on-site throughout the day. Explained Schuh, “These lounges will include wireless internet connections, video games and live streaming of the NCAA championships. There will also be customized and daily healthy food options for participating student-athletes from the SPIRE food program.”
Coaches might be able to avoid the commute by finding small nearby hotels with fewer amenities. Count Indianapolis’ Gary Kinkead as someone who is doing just that for his athletes’ benefit. “An athlete has only four opportunities to compete in a National Championships,” he explained, “and we cannot allow one of those opportunities to slide by with a three hour commute each day.”
In doing so, however, the Greyhounds could cost themselves travel reimbursement should the NCAA repeat 2009’s dictum that teams utilize the same lodging facilities. That decision unofficially renamed the 2009 NCAA Winter Festival into the “Riot in the Hyatt.”
“In 2009 Housing ALL of the athletes in one hotel was one of the biggest mistakes I have seen an event organizer make,” explained one coach. One problem was the charter/shuttle service that left athletes and coaches waiting in the hotel lobby for extended periods of time. The bigger problem occurred Saturday night when, according to one coach, “we all looked like soccer hooligans as a result of the actions of some.”
“Wrestlers and track athletes were done, we had another day to go. That meant hundreds of college athletes were stuck with nothing to do except make trouble,” noted then CSCAA President Rich Morris. And trouble they did make. “Suffice to say that when Houston SWAT members in full gear told me to stay in my room for safety reasons,” explained Morris, “I didn’t argue.”
All participating championships coaches and student-athletes are required to sign a championships code of conduct. According to Schuh, Any failure to adhere to the expectations set for the conduct of the Division II championship participants will result in penalties, including fines and disqualifications from the championship or future championships.”
No penalties of substance were handed out following the Houston debacle and more than one coach expressed the sentiment that athlete behavior is the responsibility of the coaches, not the NCAA.
“Anyone who has ever traveled with a large group knows that accountability comes with visibility,” said Tampa’s Ed Brennan. “Three hundred room hotels filled with a thousand competitors does not allow that. Every coach should have the opportunity to put their swimmers in the best possible situation to supervise and chaperone. For me that means one where we are the only team.”
“Is it that hard a concept to represent your school and your profession in a positive and professional manner?” asked Kutztown’s Tim Flannery. “Unfortunately, for some athletes and coaches it was too hard. This was the most disappointing part of the festival in Houston.”
The Festival also alters the traditional date of the championship meet, moving it up a week. While some like Brennan expressed displeasure with the move because of how it impacts academic and conference schedules, most appeared flexible. Neither track nor wrestling are affected by the date change. The strongest objection appeared to arise from the two sports not included in the festival – men’s and women’s basketball. According to Schuh, “Division II men’s and women’s basketball is not a part of the winter festival due to the championship dates for those sports not coinciding with the other winter championships.”
“I resent the fact that it is the winter sports festival, but the main draw, basketball, doesn’t participate,” said Rollins’ Rich Morris. “Its insulting to the sports that had to attend.”
Ultimately the biggest distance that matters is the 25 yards between the pool walls and to that end, it appears the NCAA has hit a grand slam in finding a facility to host the championships. Coaches familiar with the facility have given it glowing remarks. As for the concept of the Festival itself, those reviews have been mixed.
"I truly believe the intent and concept of the winter festival is good," explained MSU-Moorhead Head Coach and NCAA Committee Member Todd Peters. "The idea of bringing athletes of different sports together to support and cheer for each other and to take advantage of some opportunities of scale makes sense. Unfortunately, the National competitions for Swimming and Diving, Track and Field and Wrestling don’t mesh very well."
"I certainly feel that the Festival should represent everything that is good with college athletics and a major part of the championship experience is being able to perform at the highest level possible,” said Wayne State’s Sean Peters. But he also expressed concern about the logistics taking away from the student-athletes' performance and enjoyment of the championship. “I hope the NCAA will consider the well-being of the championship athletes and help best serve those who represent all of us in competition."
Flexibility, it appears, will be key to whether coaches continue to embrace the Festival concept. While the prospect of three sports worth of athletes standing in a cafeteria line isn’t popular, the experience “eating with our track team was a nice bonus” according to one coach. While an opening ceremony with DJ was a nice touch, the swimmers spurned the dancing for fear of losing their taper. Likewise a closing ceremonies were a much more relaxed affair, but hampered in by the fact that they started well before swimming had concluded leaving swimmers unable to fully enjoy the festival experience. The opportunity to attend different NCAA Championships held appeal for some, but they still wanted the flexibility to “come and go”.
One thing that could work in that favor is the simple fact that the NCAA has secured exclusive access to the Spire Institute and all of its resources for what will ultimately be a busy weekend. As the only game (or sports) in town, the NCAA is in a position to dictate certain expectations to the hosts, though whether swimming appears to have a voice in those discussions is in question.
With all three championships held under one roof the Festival will provide according to Schuh, “a fantastic opportunity for the student-athletes and fans to be conveniently located and able to cheer each other on when they are not competing themselves.”
Whether that is enough to overcome coaches' objections remains to be seen. Todd Peters, who sits on the NCAA Swimming & Diving Committee is hopeful. "I would love to see athlete, coach and NCAA representatives meet to discuss how to make the event a positive experience for everyone involved." Gole, however, is not. "I hope that something will come of this, but I am afraid that it is too late. The people that make decisions are not aware of everything that goes into making a successful championship experience for all of those involved."