May 12, 2009

Pure Silver

For the first time in six years, and only the second time in the last 19, Jack Clark's rugby team did not win a national championship, falling in tight title match to BYU by a 25-22 score. Watching his lads surrender a 10-point second-half lead in the May 2 clash must have brought Clark's head dangerously close to explosion, and the fact that the defeat took place at Stanford's Steuber Rugby Stadium only added to the misery.

On a positive note, the setback had no impact on Cal's Directors Cup standing.

If you're sensing a bit of sarcasm (and, for the record, there is absolutely no shame in a second-place rugby finish; if anything, it makes me even more appreciative of the 17-out-of-18 run that preceded it, and Clark might tell you it makes him feel alive), this is the column you've been waiting for since the advent of the Directors (nee Sears) Cup, otherwise known as the Obnoxious Advertisement For Stanford's Alleged Athletic Dominance.





















As you might have gathered, I'm not a huge fan. Established in 1993-94 by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), the Cup is designed to measure comprehensive athletic success via a complicated points system. Basically, NACDA calculates each school's national finish in its best 20 sports, 10 for each gender, and crowns a "best overall collegiate athletics program," awarding a crystal trophy to boot.

In the first year of the competition, Stanford finished a close second to North Carolina. Then the Red Menace won the next 14 Division I Cups, beginning its ongoing run in an insufferable period that coincided with the on-campus presence of Tiger Woods and Chelsea Clinton and a general sense that Stanford was the most special place on earth.

Wait… just a second…. must… dislodge… finger… from…. throat… OK, that's better.

Look, as much as I like to tweak the Bay Area's second finest university, I'll give Stanford its props: The school does have a highly impressive sports program, albeit one largely funded by the ultimate intercollegiate Sugar Daddy, real-estate mogul John Arrillaga, who'd have a much different role as a deep-pockets booster at a public university. The Furd hires excellent coaches at premium prices, does a good job of branding itself (which helps attract talented athletes from a national pool) and commendably succeeds, on a relative level, at staying within the spirit of its admissions standards when bringing in recruits.

Despite the fact that Stanford's largely passive student body and pompous alumni contingent don't necessarily deserve it, the Cardinal teams consistently contend for championships in numerous sports, though with Ty Willingham's luster long gone and Mike Montgomery now residing on the proper side of the Bay, football and men's basketball will likely remain exceptions for the foreseeable future.

Have I mentioned that, for the seventh time in eight years this coming November, Stanford will have the distinct pleasure of kissing my Axe?

Anyway, where was I? Right, paying compliments to the Cardinal… scary. Let's move this column along and talk about why the Directors Cup, despite Cal's consistent top-10 showings in recent years, royally pisses me off.

• First, the obvious: Two of our best sports don't count. Because, for reasons of tradition and self-reliance, neither rugby nor men's crew chooses to compete under NCAA jurisdiction, Cal loses a chance to cash in big in the standings each spring. The fact that the sports in question are two of the manliest on campus makes this even more dubious. Besides, back in 2001, when Stanford refused to play us in rugby because its coach at the time said he feared for his players' physical safety, we pretty much knew where things stood in the rivalry. Stanford: "We'll kick your butt in cross country and women's gymnastics, but if we don't think we have a chance to win, we'll take our ball and go home."

• Speaking of cross country, has anyone besides me noticed that Stanford is the undisputed king/queen of the slop championship? By slop I mean sports in which about five or 10 schools have a realistic chance of winning it all… which lack a single-elimination tournament to decide its champion… and sports in which a few elite recruits can score enough points to ensure that a team will score big in the final national standings. Men's and women's swimming (the Bears' recent national title notwithstanding) are prime examples of this; national finish is largely determined by individual point-scoring, and the title race is basically an annual battle between elite programs in two conferences, the Pac-10 and SEC, with the occasional appearance by Texas. Other slop titles include men's and women's gymnastics, fencing (fencing! Stanford just finished ninth nationally; Cal doesn't have a team) and the cross country/indoor track/outdoor track triumvirate, a.k.a. the Triple Crown of Slop. Think about it: A school can recruit, say, a couple of top distance runners on the men's and women's side, run them in multiple events, and basically ensure high national finishes in three Directors Cup sports. That's broad-based athletic excellence? Yecch.

• The water polo fiasco. I know, I know-Cal won back-to-back men's water polo titles in 2006 and '07, and we have a richer history in the sport than any school. But there have also been years, like this past one, when we get brutalized by a ridiculous system that only allows four teams into this sport's national tournament. Two of the teams come from the powerful Mountain Pacific Sports Federation-the champion of the conference tournament and an at-large team decided by selectors. Essentially, that means that two of the sport's perennial powers (Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA) will make the field and two will be left out entirely. The other two schools in the four-team field are conference champions who serve as ceremonial semifinal roadkill so that the two MPSF rivals can go at it (for the fifth or sixth time in that given season) in the title match. In Directors Cupville what this means is that, if you make the NCAA field, you'll get either 100 points (for winning it all) or 75 (for finishing second); worst-case you'd get stunned in the semis and take 25. If you are the third-best team in the country but don't make the field, you get zilch. Women's water polo (in which Stanford has had a decided edge over Cal) is only slightly less odious, with an eight-team field that, this year, did not include No. 5 Cal.

I could go on and on (have you noticed?), but let's just say that as someone who pays attention to broad-based athletic excellence, I find the Directors Cup to be a substandard measurement device. Certainly, it seems to have been created in Stanford's image-though, in fairness, it may simply be that Stanford's athletic powers that be, consciously in search of the validation a Cup victory provides, have consciously tailored their priorities toward realizing maximum scoring potential.




























That said, while the Red Menace certainly had a decided overall edge on God's University at the start of the current century, things have changed considerably since John Kasser stepped down as athletic director and his replacements, first Steve Gladstone a coaching great who also won some national men's crew titles that, naturally, provided zero points for the Directors Cup cause) and now Sandy Barbour, began going after it on a level Cal has not previously seen.

The reality is, the Bears now go toe-to-toe with the Cardinal in virtually every sport-even the two in which the deficiencies have been most glaring in recent years, women's basketball and baseball. Stanford still has great coaches in most sports, but so does Cal, and a case can be made in so many instances (Clark, Jeff Tedford, Mike Montgomery, Joanne Boyle, Teri McKeever, Kevin Grimes, Diane Ninemire, etc.) that there is no better person in the field than the one calling the shots in Berkeley.

Among the sports which, since the Gladstone Revolution in 2001, have either enjoyed a renaissance or have never been better over an extended period: football, men's golf, men's gymnastics, men's cross country, men's soccer, men's water polo, men's and women's track and field, women's basketball, women's crew, field hockey, women's golf, women's soccer, women's swimming, women's tennis, softball and volleyball. (I guess it would've been easier-but far less enjoyable-to list the sports that don't meet these criteria.)

So how does all of this translate into Directors Cup terms? As of the latest standings Cal sits in seventh place, which is where it finished at the end of '07-08 (matching its best-ever standing from two years earlier, and putting it in the top 10 for the fifth time in six years). The only other Pac-10 school ahead of the Bears-and I know this will shock you-is Stanford, which has a huge lead over Minnesota and is headed for consecutive title No. 15.

Let's put aside our bitterness for a moment and extend some heartfelt congratulations to our rivals across the Bay.

Have I mentioned that we have the Axe?


CIRCLING THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE:

----Cal remains in the hunt for national titles in crew and women's crew (which would help its Directors Cup cause), and the two seem to be taking turns progressing and regressing. Most recently the Bears' then-top-ranked women's crew lost four of five races to Stanford in the Big Row, while the Cal men, who had previously fallen from first to fourth in the rankings, rolled to an impressive victory over the third-ranked Cardinal….

----Have I mentioned that a lot of Cal athletes are really, really smart, especially the women's soccer players? Speaking of which, coach Neil McGuire has been a busy man lately. He signed New Zealand national-teamer Betsy Hassett to a letter-of-intent, continuing a highly impressive run of recruiting coups, and replaced assistant Brian Zwaschka, who got a head coaching gig at Fresno State, with former Golden Bears standout Tracy (Don't Call Me Mia) Hamm. With Golden Bear extraordinaire Jennifer J.T. Thomas having also stepped aside earlier this year, Hamm will play an important role in ensuring that the unique Cal women's soccer culture is carried forth into the next generation…

----Jamal Boykin hits the glass hard, sketches with finesse and, like yours truly, has apparently decided that 'Sleep When You're Dead is a viable motto…

----I was a little bit surprised that the 25th-ranked women's golf team, which has been so clutch in big moments in recent years, couldn't gut out a berth in the NCAA championships, collectively struggling in the final few holes of the West Regional to finish three strokes shy of advancing. That said, Nancy McDaniel is an excellent coach, and she'll have the Bears in fighting shape at this time next year. Meanwhile, the 32nd-ranked men's golf team travels to Austin, Tex. needing to finish fifth or better in its regional (Thursday through Saturday) to qualify for the NCAAs… As usual, softball got shafted by the NCAA selection committee-denied a top 16 seed despite a No. 12 national ranking; shipped to a regional hosted by 16th seed Florida State, with a likely Super Regional matchup at No. 1 Florida for the second consecutive year if the Bears advance-and, as usual, Ninemire's team will block out the negativity and put up a ferocious fight for a Women's College World Series berth…

----In her first year as the replacement for legendary coach Jan Brogan in '08, former Cal tennis star Amanda Augustus coaxed a best-ever No. 2 national finish out of the Bears-and Cal's got the talent to finish the job this time around. After first- and second-round victories in Berkeley over the weekend, the No. 9 Bears face No. 8 Georgia Tech in College Station, Tex. in what should be a gripping round-of-16 matchup on Friday….

----Finally, as I noted in my most recent edition of The Gameface, props are in order for recent Cal journalism school graduate Alexandra Berzon, who just nabbed a Pulitzer Prize for her "courageous reporting" on a string of construction-worker fatalities for the Las Vegas Sun. I know everyone in North Gate Hall is very proud, including unparalleled professor Tom Goldstein, whose class I had the opportunity to visit last month. (Considering that Goldstein once had to put up with my short-attention-span-driven fidgeting in a large lecture hall on a regular basis, that's nothing short of a minor miracle.) My impersonate-an-academic tour continues Monday night at Saint Mary's College in nearby Moraga.


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