NCAA track championships embark on 'grand experiment'

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) Arkansas women's coach Lance Harter called dividing the NCAA track and field championship schedule by gender a ''grand experiment.''

With the exception of the decathlon and heptathlon, the four-day meet will have the men competing on Wednesday and Friday, the women on Thursday and Saturday.

It's a compacted schedule, too. The preliminary rounds were held at the regional level, so this week's competition begins with the semifinals in most races, and goes right to the finals in other events.

The powerful teams are the same, though.

Host Oregon is expected to contend for the men's and women's titles. Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M also will field formidable men's and women's entries.

Oregon men's and women's coach Robert Johnson said he's in a ''wait and see'' mode for the new format.

The slimmed-down schedule was developed to accommodate ESPN, which is why one of the sports longest-serving coaches, Texas A&M's Pat Henry, supports it.

''Right now, if you're not on TV, you don't exist,'' Henry said at a pre-meet news conference on Tuesday. ''You're not a sport if you're not on TV. We've got to be on TV and we've got to do whatever it takes to get there.''

Not everyone likes the change.

The schedule will be a challenge to the handful of athletes who compete in multiple events.

''I didn't really like the idea,'' said Baylor's Trayvon Bromell, who won the 100 meters as a freshman a year ago. ''I liked the way it was last year. I've got to run three events all in one day. I think they didn't think about athletes and our body. For our body to recover in this short amount of time, I feel they didn't think about that.''

Oregon's Jenna Prandini, expected to contend in the 100, 200 and long jump as well as the 400-meter relay, said there will be no time to relax mentally.

''Especially the first day,'' she said. ''I'll just have to go event by event and stay focused, run smart and listen to my coaches with the goal of qualifying.''

Henry said he has some concern about separating the men from the women on teams where they've always competed together and rooted for each other. The men's champion will be crowed on Friday, the women's on Saturday.

That's going to be quite a change, Prandini said.

''The girls and guys are completely separate, which is kind of weird,'' she said, ''especially for a team like us because we usually do everything together.''

The Oregon women are ranked first nationally after last week's dominant regional performance. Arkansas is second, Kentucky third and Florida fourth. Florida is first in the men's rankings, followed by Oregon, Texas A&M and LSU.

Oregon qualified 45 athletes for the championships - 23 men and 22 women - more than any other team. The Duck men are defending champions but the women haven't won the NCAA outdoor title since 1985.

They will be competing in front of a big, friendly, enthusiastic crowd at Hayward Field, the unchallenged hotbed of track and field in the United States, so much so that it's the long-term home of the U.S. championships, Olympic Trials and the NCAAs.

''It's a pretty cool experience,'' Prandini said. ''I think if you ask anyone who runs here, the crowd goes nuts for almost anyone. Being able to step on the track wearing an Oregon uniform, being able to do it here is another huge benefit for us.''

The NCAA championships are in the second year of an eight-year contract at Oregon, and that's a long time to give the Ducks a home-track advantage, opposing coaches say.

Eugene is a great place for the meet, Florida men's and women's coach Mike Holloway said, ''but it's not the place we have to have it every year.''

''There are other places that can put on a great meet,'' he said. ''Are my kids excited about traveling 12 or 13 hours across the country every year? Absolutely not.''

The coaches acknowledge that probably no one can match Oregon for the track-savvy crowd, but an eight-year commitment was a bit much.

''I was a proponent of it being here,'' Henry said. ''I was never a proponent of it being here until I died.''

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