Oregon’s “Unfair” Advantage in Track & Field

Pat Henry's real rub has to be with the recruiting advantage that Oregon has created -- to his detriment.

Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out

Texas A&M track coach Pat Henry thinks that Oregon has an unfair advantage at the NCAA Track & Field Championships, according to a Saturday article by Oregonlive’s Andrew Greif. Henry, it seems, thinks that the home field advantage works to Oregon’s favor — and he’s right.

But Henry misses the boat when he jumps from “advantage” to “unfair advantage.” Oregon’s advantage in track & field is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.

1. Yes, Oregon does have an advantage. There are reasons why the NCAA has committed to holding the Division I track & field championships at Historic Hayward Field through the year 2021.

Shamier Little missed Henrys memo and forgot the whine after posting one of the top times in the world in the 400 hurdles.

John Sperry

Shamier Little missed Henry’s memo and forgot the whine after posting one of the top times in the world in the 400 hurdles.

Simply stated, there is no other place in the United States that holds a candle to Hayward. The weather in June tends to be perfect (vs. sweltering or flooded in much of the rest of the country, including a good portion of Texas). The turnout of fans dwarfs any other possible venue. The fans are knowledgeable, and while they support the Ducks with the most vigor, they applaud all efforts. Good sportsmanship abounds.

The advantage that Oregon has in meets at Hayward is not the sort of home field advantage you see in football, or home court advantage in basketball. Truly, it is an advantage for all of the athletes to compete at Hayward instead of a lesser venue. It just happens to be a bit more of an advantage for the home crowd favorite Ducks.

2. There is absolutely nothing unfair about the advantage. Saying that Oregon’s advantage at Hayward is unfair is like saying it’s unfair that Jenna Prandini is faster than I am. The truth is, I’m 67 years old and am not overly endowed with fast-twitch muscles. Prandini is more or less 21 years old and has more fast twitch muscles in her little fingers than I have in my body.

Prandini leans to victory in the 100 meters.

John Sperry

Prandini leans to victory in the 100 meters.

Prandini has natural ability and she has worked for everything she has accomplished. With a moderate climate and low humidity, Eugene has the natural ability to host a top level track meet in its agreeable climate — something that I doubt exists anywhere in Texas this time of year. If anything is unfair, it’s that the NCAA sends athletes to that hellacious climate for the preliminary rounds this time of year.

But it’s not just the natural ability. The University of Oregon — and the citizens of Eugene — have worked hard for many, many years to develop the facilities and track culture that elevate it head and shoulders over anything else the country has to offer.

Eugene and Hayward have the natural ability, and they have worked their tails off to develop it. There’s nothing unfair about it. Sorry, Pat Henry, but it’s sort of the American way that the combination of natural ability and hard work provides rewards.

Henry might as well complain that the NCAA doesn’t hold its downhill ski championships in Texas. You may say that it’s an unfair comparison because Texas doesn’t have the climate and facilities for it. But, too bad for the state of Texas, it doesn’t have suitable climate and facilities for a competitive track championship, either, so Henry should just stop his whining and deal with it. His athletes certainly didn’t seem to mind competing in the sweetest environment in the country.

The solution. It is just too bad that Historic Hayward Field stands alone as the top track & field venue in the United States. The last I knew, though, the United States is a free country. There is no law that forbids other schools and cities from establishing equal or better venues. They just haven’t gone to the trouble — or they don’t have the natural ability to start with.

The Oregon men, Oregon women and Historic Hayward Field are all champions.

John Sperry

The Oregon men, Oregon women and Historic Hayward Field are all champions.

That is not the fault of the University of Oregon. It’s the responsibility of Henry — and any others who don’t like the present arrangement — to present suitable alternatives. And they haven’t done it. When they turn around and cry “foul,” they only make themselves out to be crybabies.

I can understand Henry’s fear. ESPN’s coverage of the 2015 Championships served as an effective advertisement for the University of Oregon Track & Field Program. Any high school trackster watching it would have to dream of donning green and yellow with an “O” on the shirt for that meet.

The real danger for Henry is that by the time 2021 rolls around, the Oregon track program will be solidly in dynasty mode. If Henry — or anybody else — wants to do anything about it, their interests will be better served by developing equal support for their own programs rather than crying about how unfair it is that Oregon has left them in the dust where overall track culture is concerned.

But they had better hurry, because they are shooting at a moving target. With a major facilities upgrade on the way to host the World Championships in 2019 — for the first time in the U.S. — the Ducks are not waiting around for them to try to get back in the race.

Top photo from video

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Mike Merrell

Mike Merrell

Mike (Editor-in-Chief) is a 1970 graduate of the University of Oregon where he attended the Honors College and received all-conference honors as a swimmer. After college, Mike ran for the Oregon Track Club and narrowly missed qualifying for the US Olympic Trials in the marathon. He continues his involvement in sports with near-daily swimming or running workouts, occasional masters swim competition (where he has received two Top-10 World rankings), providing volunteer coaching to local triathletes and helping out with FishDuck.com. Mike lives on 28 acres in the forest near Sandpoint, Idaho, where he has served as a certified public accountant for most of his working career. His current night job is writing novels about Abby Westminster, the only known illegitimate daughter of Britain's finest secret agent who has to bring down arch-villains plotting dastardly deeds. And, yes, Abby is also a DUCK!

  • liberalduck

    Yes! Perfectly stated.

  • Jay Altenhofen

    I didn’t see Henry complaining the three years in a row that Texas A&M swept the men’s and women’s championships. Weren’t at least one of them held in Eugene?

    • I understand that two of the three double-championships won by TaMu were held at Hayward; no complaining then!

  • Weston

    Those comments about the climate are SO true. As an athlete of sorts in my college days, when I had to go down to Oklahoma and Texas (from Eugene) to compete, I was just utterly gassed after a short time in that heat and humidity. Imagine how those conditions affect distance runners, who have long been the core of Oregon’s track and field strength. Don’t hear the A&M coach mentioning THAT.

    • Mike Merrell

      I was in Dallas once this time of year when I was in marathon run condition. Three miles and I was soggy toast.

      • Weston

        Yeah, it’s nasty. I recall sitting by the pool at the post-competition party in Houston. It’s 1 a.m. or so and the thermometer was sitting at 88. And the humidity must have been over 90%. Come on! That’s a hot and very muggy 5 p.m. in Eugene. I’ll stick with the Northwest, thank you very much.

  • Drex Heikes

    I was at both days of finals and mostly don’t agree with the analysis. What is the difference between unfair advantage and any advantage? I would argue that by definition, any advantage is unfair if any one team has home field year after year. Oregon track fans have made Hayward the nation’s premier track and field venue. Kudos to us. Now the championships will be there for at least six more years. That gives Oregon the kind of advantage we would all decry as unfair if the situation was reversed. What if the Duck footballers were scheduled to play USC at the Coliseum every year because they have a bigger stadium? Pat Henry is a highly respected coach. Rather than dismiss his complaints, we should listen closely and ask him–and other coaches–what more can be done to try to reduce the Ducks’ tremendous advantage, both at the meet and in ESPN coverage that turned into one giant commercial for the beloved Ducks. (Dwight Stones, in particular, fawns all over the program, which I love but it would irk hell out of me if I was Pat Henry.) Oregon should take steps to address their concerns because this issue isn’t going away. Once Hayward is expanded, the temptation to make it the permanent home of the championships will be tremendous–unless the complaints about unfairness drown out common sense. Let’s get it right and do it soon. Take steps to try to stamp out any other advantages and that starts with asking the other coaches for suggestions.

    • Mike Merrell

      Drex —

      Thank you for reading and commenting. The difference between an unfair advantage and any other is pretty simple. In tennis, 40-love is an advantage. There is nothing unfair about it, since the leader scored more points following the rules of the game. If the leader cheated, then of course it is an unfair advantage.

      Likewise, Oregon has — following the rules — made itself the best place in the nation by far to host this meet. It’s a competition to become the best. Oregon has completed hard and fairly won.

      To hold this meet anywhere else would be to punish every athlete
      qualifying for Nationals just to get at a few Ducks. Would you really care about these kids little enough to send them to a far inferior venue for their championships? Maybe if taking your girl or wife to Jack-in-the Box for a special dinner out is a good idea.

      Reducing things to the lowest common denominator never achieved excellence. And the highest common denominator in track & field facilities is Hayward. Fair and square.

      As far as addressing their concerns — I guess you always listen to whiners and make a minor concession from time to shut them up. But any coach who whines about how poorly his athletes were treated in any respect at Hayward Field had better be prepared to have a better alternative in his pocket. And Pat Henry doesn’t.

  • Mike Warner

    Actually, Coach Henry basically said that no other venue, including T A&M has been willing to support track as it’s done in Eugene, and that the meet should be held in Eugene until they do, so don’t be too hard on the guy. Born in Oregon, I do seem to remember A&M winning the title in Eugene, so it can’t be too unfair.

  • Michael McCabe

    Track & Field Athletes love coming to Hayward because of all the support they are provided by the fans, the national attention they receive, because of the history-rich facilities, and most certainly because Hayward Field is in Tracktown, USA. We cheer for all athletes regardless of the school they represent, i.e. ask for clapping and you will receive it loud and clear from the fans!

    • Nick

      Maybe Phil Knight had something to do with it… I’m an Oregonian since birth and still live in this beautiful state, but I can’t help but to be skeptical of the strangely close relationship between the U of O and Phil Knight (owner and CEO of Nike). Just sayin’.

  • bruce

    A&M regularly hosts the indoor nationals. In fact, they’ll have them in 2017 AND 2018. A&M doesn’t have an outdoor facility with spectator seating….hard to believe, but Google their schedule and you’ll find zero outdoor home meets. I wonder if some of Henry’s complaining was a political ploy to get his school to build a real facility where theoretically they could hold a championship (not that anyone would want to compete in College Station in June).

  • Andrew

    I think people are looking at this from the wrong stance. Eugene is a solid place to host this event however athletes and coaches have problems with this venue as a national championship because of the intense travel problems that come with it. Eugene, Oregon has a very small airport and many teams are forced to fly for 7 to 8 hours and even drive in from Portland to compete for a national championship.

    Hayward Field will draw a large crowd and I don’t argue that this is a great venue to host a national championship. But not for seven consecutive years. These bids are supposed to be for two years each and possible rotated to another region of the country. It is my belief that the following venues should be considered in 2021 after this monopoly on the NCAA D1 championship has concluded.

    Mt. Sac College (Walnut, CA)
    Univ. of Arkansas (Fayetteville, AR)
    Univ of Penn (Philadelphia, PA)
    Morgan State Univ. (Baltimore, MD)
    Univ. of North Florida (Jacksonville, FL)
    NCA&T (Greensboro, NC)