The 40 Year Storm: Change Comes to the 106th (or 107th) IRA Regatta
by Ed Hewitt
posted on February 15, 2008
Talk about a moving target - these past few months, trying to get a handle on where the IRA is headed to do a timely and correct report was like being a cat chasing a flashlight glow. The following constitutes my best shot at it as of today, even as new information hit the wires this morning.
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On November 28 of last year, 50 rowing coaches representing most of the top heavyweight and lightweight men's rowing programs in the nation gathered in Philadelphia to discuss the future of the IRA Championship. Since that time, discussions among the coaches group and the Stewards have been ongoing and, as most will admit, somewhat confounding with respect to reaching a decision on how the regatta will ultimately end up looking.
You will find below some of the background and context for the discussions that have transpired since the November 27 meeting; first, a quick recap of movement since then. It is important to understand that subsequent references to the Stewards refer not to the coaches of the five IRA Steward programs (Cornell, Columbia, Pennsylvania, Navy and Syracuse), but to the administrators at those institutions who effectively govern the IRA.
As noted below, the crux of the coaches' recommendation was first to form a new IRA regatta association composed of all DI Varsity men's rowing programs, then to charge that group with reviewing and deciding on the future of the regatta. The group went on to make specific recommendations about what that group might consider; the most salient of which were to create a championship exclusively for a Varsity eight, Second Varsity eight, Freshman eight, and Varsity four; the resulting elimination of most small boat events; and to take a hard look at the inclusion of non-varsity (club and club-varsity) programs in the racing program.
The group also recommended the elimination of the coxless four and pairs from the event docket, effective immediately for the 2008 regatta. As late as early February, this appeared to have a fait accompli; as of today's release by the ECAC, however, this is not yet clear and will be decided by February 25, 2008.
At their early December meeting, however, the Stewards postponed the recommendation to establish a new association, and charged the coaches with preparing a plan to launch the new-look four event championship effective with the 2008 regatta. Club crews were to be given one more year to compete in the regatta, and then would be disinvited. Several coaches close to the process lodged their concerns with the haste with which the new format was to be initiated, citing the fact that many teams had already made training camp and travel arrangements, and that there was not complete consensus either on the format or the future inclusion of club programs.
The coaches went forward with their task, however, and in the meantime, the club coaches convened to establish the American Collegiate Rowing Association National Championships, which will be run on May 24-25 in Oklahoma City. The organization is still in the process of defining the structure of the association and the regatta. As of January 25, eligibility was defined as ) All programs considered to be a club in a U.S. college or university; 2) Any NAIA varsity program at a U.S. college or university. The rules also note that "if your institution is a member of the NCAA and your team is a varsity team, regardless of NCAA division, the program is not eligible to compete at this regatta in fours and eights events. We are still debating on whether competition in the small boats is allowed by these programs."
Events to be contested: Men: Varsity 8, 2nd Varsity 8, Freshman/Novice 8, Lightweight 8, Varsity 4+, Freshman 4+, Lightweight 4+, Men's Pair w/o, Men's Double Sculls, Men's Single Sculls; Women: Varsity 8, Novice 8, Varsity 4+, Freshman 4+, Lightweight 4+, Women's Pair w/o, Women's Double Sculls, Women's Single Sculls
This was the situation headed into yet another meeting of the Stewards in early February, where the ship again reversed course. A decision was made to run the 2008 regatta as it always has been run - as a broad invitational with all the small boat events intact - although it remains undecided whether or not the coxless four and pair will be included in the 2008 regatta.
Last night, the ECAC sent out the annual official announcement mailing for the 2008 106th running of the IRA, which reflects the ECAC's formidable attempt to move forward with the 2008 regatta amidst considerable uncertainty about the future of the event, even with respect to the events that will be raced. The mailing opens with the following statement.
The IRA Stewards, in consultation with the ECAC management committee, administrators from non steward participating schools, and representatives of the various coaching constituencies are in the midst of full scale examination of the structure, format, and organization of the IRA Championships. Cognizant of the history and heritage of the championships, but also mindful of the financial, competitive, and practical considerations it must take into account moving forward, the Stewards have sought input from the aforementioned groups while seeking to prepare the regatta for a healthy transition to the 106th championship and beyond.
Progress has been significant, and the Stewards appreciate the input received from all corners of the college rowing constituency, but the job is not complete yet. Their intention is to have the template in place for the 2009 championships and announced at the 2008 regatta in Camden. It's an ambitious goal, but one which the ECAC is confident the Stewards will be able to deliver.
A careful review of the events list shows that the Women's Lightweight 4-oared w/cox, the Men's Varsity Pair-oared w/o cox, and the Men's Varsity 4-oared w/o cox events are "Subject to approval of the IRA Board of Stewards. Final decision regarding inclusion or
elimination of these events is expected no later than February 25, 2008."
With respect to the future of the regatta, it's a bit of back to the drawing board for the coaches groups and Stewards alike. While it is not clear whether it would be in place for the 2008 regatta, an Automatic Qualifier system for the Varsity eight is under consideration toward making the regatta more regionally representative, and to provide incentives and opportunity for a disparate collection of programs to qualify for the regatta. The approach has been compared anecdotally to FISA's attempts to provide Olympic qualifying spots to nations were rowing is an emerging sport - where opportunities exist, the quality and quantity of rowing may be expected to improve and expand. The hope also exists that a clear road to the national championship may inspire more administrators to support programs as full varsity programs.
An early and decidedly unofficial outline of such an approach was described thusly: nine from the EARC, three from the Pac-10, two from the Dad Vail, two from the ECAC, two from the WIRA, and possibly one from the SIRA, with the remainder of the 24 spots reserved for at-large invitations. If there is overlap among results in this core group (ie., the winner of the SIRA and the Dad Vail could very well be the same crew), that spot would resort to an at-large position.
Also in the air is the possible establishment of an NCAA Championship, and initiating movement toward a format that could eventually be run under the umbrella of the NCAA. This may be some way off at present, but given that much of the current self-evaluation was set in motion at the October 2006 airing of the NCAA proposal, is certainly part of the larger discussion. NCAA program sponsorship rules would be the most immediate challenge to the process - the current head count of 25 DI varsity men's programs does not meet the NCAA's minimum of 50 sponsoring institutions to establish a championship. Additionally, NCAA rules state that "A National Collegiate Championship or a division championship in any Olympic sport shall be exempt from the minimum-sponsorship-percentage requirements."
The NCAA also limits the percentage of teams that may be invited to a championship based on the overall number of institutions sponsoring programs, in this case 25. There may be ways around this, however, particularly if the championship were established as an "all divisions" championship, so the determining "head count" could include DII and DIII programs.
So that's my understanding of what has happened since the November 28 meeting, as well as where the regatta stands as of this morning, February 15. Following is some background and analysis on the regatta and the challenges faced both by the IRA and men's rowing in general as understood in the immediate aftermath of the November 28 meeting.
Formed in 1895, the Intercollegiate Rowing Association is run by a membership group of five "Steward" schools from Cornell, Columbia, Pennsylvania, Navy and Syracuse. The first regatta was held on the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie in 1895; the regatta later moved to Onondaga Lake in Syracuse NY in 1951, and to the Cooper River in New Jersey in 1995. The regatta was a four-mile race until 1968, when an "Olympic" format and 2000 meter race distance was adopted; save for the change of venues, this constituted the last major change to the regatta, 40 years ago this year.
In the absence of the long-defunct "Cincinnati regatta," and particularly since 2003 when Harvard and Yale returned to the regatta after more than a century's absence, the IRA, as it is commonly called, has become the de facto national championship of men's collegiate rowing. As such, the logistics of the regatta have come under scrutiny; issues under debate include, among others, the perpetual East coast location of the regatta; the very large program of small boat events that create many opportunities for varied programs, but also create a sometimes exhausting racing schedule; the implications of an invitational regatta standing as the "National Championship;" the implications of a couple past challenges to the regatta's rules of participation; and the regatta Stewards' uncertainty about whether they are equipped and willing to run a true national championship given these and other challenges.
Further considerations for athletic department administrators include the large per diem and lodging expenditures required to keep a considerable number of athletes around well into June. And most recently and dramatically, the downgrading of the Rutgers men's crew from a Varsity to a club program, as well as rumblings in some athletic departments about similar actions, have created a sense of urgency about minimum standards of participation. Herein lies the stickiest issue facing the regatta; many are concerned that the participation of club programs in a national championship might create an incentive for athletic departments to downgrade (and de-fund) more current Varsity programs. The obvious concern is the potential disenfranchising of many club programs, some of which are competitive and thriving programs, and which the club coaches believe hold out the best promise for growth in the sport.
In the past few years, coaches and administrators at West coast institutions have initiated inquiries into having the regatta rotate regularly to a western location, so to reduce the financial and travel burden of bringing an entire rowing program across the country every year. In particular, in 2006, a proposal to establish an NCAA championship for men's rowing was proposed by the Pac-10. The proposal ultimately failed at the time, but many coaches have been more or less receptive to the idea of a rotating championship on the grounds of fairness. However, the challenges presented by a rotating regatta to the Stewards and the Massachusetts-based ECAC, which runs the regatta for the IRA, are also strong considerations (although at this posting, these concerns seem to be fading somewhat, and the regatta may well be held on Lake Natoma in 2009; this is far from certain at present, however). In point of fact, the Stewards run a "collegiate invitational regatta," and while the group has continued to support the IRA as currently run, they have expressed concern about the ability to continue to do so in the face of substantial changes to the regatta.
Over the past several months, committees composed of coaches and administrators from Steward and non-Steward schools from "both coasts" debated the future of the regatta toward establishing standards for competition, participation, and more. Such was the atmosphere coming into the November 27 meeting . It is important to understand that neither the coaches nor the ECAC will decide the fate of the regatta; this will continue to fall, at least for now, to the administrators of the aforementioned Steward schools. Everything and anything coming from the coaches group must be considered a recommendation at this time. This may change in the future, as I will explain.
To cut finally to the chase, the committees and subsequently the coaches at the meeting produced the following recommendations to the Stewards; I will do my best to provide some context as I understand it after each line item as appropriate.
We recommended that...
To recap, the recommendations hope to:
1. ...the IRA (the organization not the regatta) expand membership by
extending invitations to all Division 1 Varsity Programs.
Explanation: The Stewards would effectively be dissolved, and a new association comprised of all DI varsity programs who accepted the invitation would be formed to govern the regatta going forward.
2. ...any further expansion to other NCAA Divisions and Club Programs
be decided on by the new organization.
Explanation: the issues regarding club participation would be decided by the new, more inclusive group, not by the current five-school Stewards group.
3. ...membership in the IRA be a prerequisite for participation in the
IRA National Championship Regatta but not a guarantee of entry.
Explanation: only members of the association are eligible to compete for the national championship; however, crews must still qualify for the regatta based on competitiveness .
4. ...the primary purpose of the IRA National Championship Regatta
should be to crown the National Champion, which will be the winner of
the Varsity Eight.
5. ...the secondary purpose of the IRA National Championship Regatta
should be to determine a Team Points Champion.
Explanation: items 4 and 5 together can be read to maintain the primacy of the Varsity Eight as the most important event; this may be in part a response to avoid the trend in women's rowing to crown the National Champion solely as a team trophy.
6. ...the IRA National Championship Regatta include the following
events: Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight, Freshman Eight, and Fours
event. All of these events would count toward the Team Championship.
7. ...the field should consist of 24 Varsity Eights, 18 Second Varsity
Eights, 18 Freshman Eights, 18 Fours.
Explanation: items 6 and 7 together will reduce the IRA program to four events of three eights and one four, eliminating the large number of small boat events now currently contested.
8. ...Crews should qualify for the IRA Regatta by a combination of
automatic qualifiers and at-large bids. Given the complexity of
establishing a qualification system, and to get it right, we asked the
Stewards for more time to study this issue and present a recommendation
at a later date.
9. ...the Stewards strongly consider including a Men's and Women's
Lightweight Eight in the Championships.
Explanation: items 8 and 9 would seem to be self-explanatory; the men's and women's lightweight groups have been charged with reviewing the structure of their own championships within the IRA format as well.
- Establish a new association consisting of DI varsity programs
- Charge the new organization with further review of the issues, particularly those concerning the minimum standards of participation in the National Championship regatta
- Dramatically reduce the size of the regatta
- Establish a qualification system for the championship
- Maintain the presence of lightweight rowing at the championship
The Club Issue
As we might expect, the fate of club programs was the source of the most concern at the meeting (and the most heated debate, according to second-hand reports). Several points emerge, some of which I have touched on above:
Reischman said "There wasn't a coach in the room that did not want the clubs to be included in the regatta. If we can come up with a way that will work, I'm in."
- Programs like Michigan and Virginia have proven themselves to be competitive at past IRAs, and eliminating these programs could reduce the overall competitiveness of the regatta.
- Many coaches believe that clubs represent the best avenue for growth in the sport; at the same time, many are concerned that the attraction of saving a lot of money by downgrading current varsity programs will prove to be too attractive to athletic departments, if they can compete for a national championship anyway.
- Many club programs are not subject to the same administrative oversight that are varsity programs; the general sense after the meeting as I perceive it after talking to several people is that establishing some oversight for these programs is probably achievable, and club programs have been asked to present possibilities to this end. It is not certain that this will be enough to satisfy the need for a sufficient minimum standard among athletic directors, however.
Club coaches responded to the invitation to establish a set of standards, and on December 30 returned with an effective "rewrite" of the eight points above, with some small but substantive changes, the most salient of which amends point 1 above to read:
1. All programs that comply with rules established by the Intercollegiate Rowing Association should be invited to join the Intercollegiate Rowing Association in an initial membership expansion. Since club membership compliance is of particular interest, see Appendix A to see how clubs propose to handle this issue.
The cited Appendix reads thusly:
At last check, club programs would be permitted to row in the 2008 regatta, and discussions apparently continue with respect to attracting and accepting the participation of athletic department compliance departments. Further, as noted above, many of these crews will attend the new American Collegiate Rowing Association championship. It is too early to tell whether crews that find themselves eligible for both regattas will attend one or the other regatta, or both. At present the future of men's collegiate rowing at the club level remains unclear on several levels.
-A non-varsity program can be monitored for compliance by their own athletic departments the same as any varsity team, as that athletic department determines that it is viable.
-A non-varsity team can be monitored for compliance by their recreational sports department, who could employ an officer certified to enforce NCAA rules.
The main compliance issues are Eligibility, Playing/Practice Season, Recruiting, and Financial Aid.
Eligibility - All NCAA rules would apply, including initial eligibility, full time enrollment, and progress towards degree.
Playing/Practice Season - All NCAA rules would apply, and playing and practice seasons would be declared, practice logs kept and monitored by the athletic departments.
Recruiting - Coaches of "non-varsity" teams would be required to pass the NCAA coach's certification test each year as per NCAA rules. Coaches would keep recruiting contact and evaluation logs as the NCAA requires. The same would be true for official visits, unofficial visits, money, etc.
Financial Aid - All NCAA rules pertaining to financial aid would be enforced and monitored, including limits on scholarships, etc.
Recent discussion among the lightweight men's coaches groups has focused on attracting a greater variety of programs to reduce the appearance of the IRA championship largely as a "re-row" of the Eastern Sprints, something that has not played well in some athletic departments. Much as the overall structure of the championship remains in flux, how the mens' lightweight events will look is undecided at present. Format changes under consideration have included reducing the number of invitations in order to make the event more exclusive, and establishing automatic qualifier slots from the various regional championships in a fashion similar to the heavyweight men's eight qualifier approach outlined above.
Navy coach Rob Friedrich, who has served as the point person for the lightweight coaches group, declined to give specifics of potential scenarios last month, but outlined some of the mechanisms behind discussions.
"I would rather not give specific numbers since the Stewards have not had achance to meet and discuss the lightweight proposal yet," Friedrich wrote in an email. "However, many lightweight coaches have worked together to propose a plan that will support the growth and continued strength of collegiate lightweight rowing while making sure the regatta is a merit-based invitational event. The idea is based on limiting EARC schools and creating an opportunity for other programs to field a lightweight eight for the IRA National Championship. If some or most of the heavyweight small boat opportunities are taken away, we hope more schools will start fielding a lightweight eight to race for a national championship."
Among the lightweight women, the primary change in the air is the adoption of an ongoing lightweight four event. As noted in the ECAC's announcement, the status of this event for 2008 is to be determined by February 25.
As for a conclusion, as stated at length in the first several paragraphs above, there truly is currently no conclusion at hand, at least in the near view. Betting folks would go with a greatly downsized regatta in 2009, with 24 Varsity eights and 18 team invites competing additionally in the 2V, 1F, and a V4, quite possibly on Lake Natoma in Sacramento.
Mason Cooley said "I resist change even as I call for it." This describes well the personal feelings and professional view of many of the collegiate rowing coaches most closely involved in the current discussions; they seem mindful of the traditions of the sport, may prefer to preserve them, and have serious concerns about where major changes could lead the sport, but are as deeply concerned with the implications of inaction given recent events in and around the sport.
We will continue to report on the evolution of the regatta and the greater implications for men's collegiate rowing as events unfold and trends develop.