Mike Merrell’s Three and Out
Sport for sport, the University of Oregon is one of the most successful athletic schools in the country. Cross country and track & field national championships — or at worst, high top ten finishes — have become the norm. Championships in football, softball, baseball, women’s volleyball, men’s basketball and golf have been close enough to taste.
Success on the field has led to financial success, both for the athletic department and the University as a whole. With strong financial support accruing from an elite football program, the Pac-12 Networks and generous donors, the athletic department is one of the most financially successful in the land. With a strong core of athletic teams on the field and sources of funds that are possibly even stronger, this is an athletic program positioned to claim ultimate victory.
While many view a football crown as the ultimate prize, there’s an even bigger one out there — one that, combined with a strong showing in football and the association with Nike, would make the University of Oregon nationally recognized as the Champion of the Conference of Champions, the No. 1 athletic school in all the land. The Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup – and the strategy to get it – is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.
1. The Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup is like the medal count at the Olympics. It recognizes overall supremacy in all sports — women and men combined. Schools earn points for each of their top ten finishes in sports of each gender. At the end of the school year, the school with the most points wins.
Last year Oregon finished 15th in the Directors’ Cup standings. Traditionally, the Directors’ Cup goes to Stanford. It’s been that way for so long that it probably goes back to the days before Columbus, before the politically-incorrect Stanford Indians became the politically-correct Stanford Cardinal. While Stanford doesn’t always have the best teams in the highest profile sports, it is sneaky great in many other sports, sports that Oregon doesn’t even compete in, which brings us to …
2. What Oregon Needs to Get There. Presently, Oregon simply doesn’t have enough sports to win the Directors’ Cup. The Ducks field only eight men’s teams and ten women’s teams that count toward the standings. Stanford, on the other hand — with 29 sports that scored points — had the luxury of throwing out its bottom nine sports that scored.
Since Oregon doesn’t have enough teams to start with, and since some of the teams — both men’s and women’s — don’t perform well enough to earn points, a top ten finish is about as high as the Ducks can aspire to. The conclusion: Oregon needs to add sports, and with the success and backing already in place, the Ducks should have the financial support to do so.
The question: What sports should Oregon add?
The answer: 4 sports in 1: Men’s & Women’s Swimming and Water Polo.
Why? To win the Directors’ Cup, the Ducks would want to add programs that could win. And when it comes to swimming and water polo, Oregon would be uniquely positioned for competitive advantage. At the age group and high school level, the Northwest is strong in swimming.
But at the college level, there is not one single Division I-A men’s program in the entire Northwest. And while there are four women’s teams (Oregon State, Washington State, Idaho and Boise State), not one has the facilities to be a serious program.
Further, Oregon sits near the hotbed recruiting land of California. British Columbia has strong potential for recruiting, as well. Membership in the Pac-12, which is the strongest swimming and water polo conference in the country, would make Oregon an attractive destination, both for elite athletes and coaches.
But there’s more. Nike. Nike, the Greek Goddess of Victory. As in the Olympics. Swimming is the second-highest profile sport in the Olympics, behind only track & field. And yes, Nike does sell competition swimwear.
How fitting it would be to have the University of Oregon, the birthplace of Nike, dominate in both track & field AND swimming, the two highest profile Olympic sports. And how fitting it would be for Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, to see his two schools, Oregon and Stanford, sitting 1-2 atop the podium in the Directors’ Cup, primarily based upon their performances in Olympic sports.
3. Who wins? Everybody Oregon.
To truly compete, Oregon would need a new swimming pool — not the 12-lane, 25-yard job in the rec center, but a truly Olympic-size pool. Forget the motel ads. An Olympic-size pool is 50 meters long. Not 36 feet (and kidney-shaped) like the motels. Not 25 yards like the rec center. 50 meters, like the Olympics. Period.
Despite all the good press the new rec center pool is getting, it is still grossly inadequate for a young, active community the size of the University of Oregon. Many small communities with aging, aquatically-disinterested populations have more water per capita than the rec center provides.
A new 50-meter pool would be a must. To limit construction costs, it could be built to be outdoors during the pleasant months and tented over during the winter. (This is already being done in Bend and at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham.) Since swimming and water polo athletic programs would not require pool use 24/7, this would provide more water space for student and faculty use — and it would provide the ambiance of outdoor swimming during pleasant weather. So the students and faculty win.
The Oregon Department of Athletics wins because it picks up four Title IX gender-balanced sports that are immediately positioned to succeed.
Nike and Phil Knight win, because they become identified with another program that excels in the Olympic sports, which are their root.
The age group and high school swimmers of the Northwest win, because they finally have a place on their home turf to develop their skills at the college level.
All-that-is-right-in-the-world wins, because athletically or otherwise, the idea that “Ducks don’t swim” just doesn’t make any sense.
Finally, everybody who learns the technique and discipline to swim laps wins, because as you age and your joints weaken, swimming is one of the best activities to keep you strong and healthy. And just as an elite track program inspires many Oregonians to take up jogging and running, an elite swim program would promote the healthy lifestyle that the sport offers.
It was Steve Prefontaine who said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” The Ducks have a well-deserved gift: the opportunity to move ahead and add more sports, to climb to the very pinnacle of collegiate athletic success. Let’s Go Ducks!
Top photo from commons.wikimedia.org