Stanford's total dominance of the Men's NCAA Swimming & Diving Championship was almost a subplot of the 75th anniversary meet at beautiful Auburn University. Almost.
The meet was really over after the first day. By the time the pool cleared after the 400 medley relay, it was obvious that the meet belonged to Stanford. "They were firing on all cylinders," said one long-time observer of the meet. "Every stroke and every distance."
The Auburn team swam well with the home pool advantage, but they ended the first day almost 30 points behind Stanford. Texas surprised everyone by swimming flat. The Texas Longhorns lacked the big meet swimmers of the past, and last year's Swimmer of the Meet, Neil Walker, looked mortal. "You can even tell by Eddie's (Reese, Texas Coach) body language," noted one observer, "that something's not right."
The only interesting team race looked to be between the University of Southern California and Tennessee for fourth.
Stanford swam so consistently and so well that by the end of the second day they could have gone home and still won the meet! Unfortunately for everyone else, they didn't. Instead, they scored enough points on the third day to place 6th in the team standings based on that day's races alone!
By the second day there was consensus on four issues: the sprint relays were bad for the sport; at the college level they are terrifically exciting; the Auburn fans might be the best anywhere; and the team race was over.
The international flavour of the meet was evident; in the 400 individual medley, the battle for the bronze was won by Michigan's Owen von Richter (Canada, 3:48.91) over Auburn's Lionel Moreau (France, 3:49.02). The 200 freestyle may have been the most international event of the program, and the result again highlighted the continuing struggle by the Americans in this event. Arizona's Ryk Neethling (South Africa) picked up his second gold with a 1:34.19, ahead of 1996 champion Bela Szabados of USC (Hungary) with a 1:34.36, and Harvard's Michael Kiedel (Germany) was third in 1:34.94.
But while the meet was Stanford Cardinal red from the start, Auburn nearly stole the show with the town, the school, and the pool. In the era of "super-pools," Auburn may have won the battle by scaling down. Less is more.
The pool itself is a typical, excellent, and boring Counsilman-Hunsicker design. By having less than half the seating of an Indianapolis or Texas, the meet looked and felt like a sellout. "It was the most energized, electric, exciting environment since the ‘quota-system' began," one coach said.
The announcer was excellent and their use of music rivaled the NBA, although a little more could be used during warm-up and the heats of the 1650. The facility's excellent sound system provided clear announcements and music, and its horrible acoustics provided NOISE! Whose dumb idea was it to try to "improve" the acoustics in swimming pools? Noise equals excitement!
The University grounds were beautiful, easy to navigate, and with the students on spring break, parking was the easiest it had been in a decade.
What no one expected, with the students on holiday, was the wild home crowd. Auburn fans would cheer a rock if it was painted orange and blue! Each night fans would stream in from baseball games, softball games, jobs in town, mothers with children, all there to "support our boys," as one fan said. And support them they did.
But as much a home crowd as it was, it wasn't partisan. They applauded outstanding performances when they saw them and gave standing ovations when they were deserved. By the end of the meet, the Auburn fans seemed an extension of the classic Southern hospitality that was evidenced everywhere.
Even the weather was hospitable, with warm, dry days and cool, crisp nights. One had to wonder why these meets are ever held in the north in the winter.
But a greater concern than where the meet falls on the map is where it falls on the calendar.
This meet was one of the best NCAA swimming shows in years, but who knows about it? Only the few thousand lucky enough to be in Auburn, Alabama.
Hosting the meet during "March Madness" is a gross disservice to the event and to the sport itself. Coach Eddie Sinnott of Southern Methodist has been leading the battle to change the date of the meet to a more media-accessible time frame. Victory in this effort would be even more significant than those scored in the pool.
Placing the NCAAs literally on top of the basketball Final Four (the last night began as the first game tipped off) illustrates the lack of marketing concern the NCAA has for its non-basketball events.
The quality of the international field shows that the NCAA Division I Championship is a major international meet. And it needs to be conducted over an international distance-metres. The inability to set World Records also shows the lack of marketing interest the NCAA has in this event.
America is the leading swimming nation in the world and the NCAA coaches must be allowed to lead productively, so that the meet can be conducted in the way most worthy of these athletes.