There have been times in recent years when it seemed the NCAA was trying to make life extra tough for Penn State.
Whether that perception is true or not can be debated for hours, but another instance has come along in which, indirectly, an NCAA decision has provided another potential obstacle for a Nittany Lion program.
The Penn State men’s volleyball program has qualified for 15 consecutive national championship tournaments and made 28 appearances all-time, which is more than any other school, but the NCAA has changed the format for next season’s tournament and the Nittany Lions — or whoever wins their conference — would have to win a play-in game to earn a berth in the national tournament.
“I’m just a little bit dumfounded,” said Ron Shayka, associate athletic director at George Mason, a former member of the Penn State team and one of three members of the NCAA men’s volleyball committee. “I am trying to find out, really, how much does the NCAA really dictate the path we play under. Being on this committee, if we’re the ones that are supposed to be the leadership of our sport, we’re trying to take it in a direction but are being told, ‘That’s great, it’s a good idea, you just can’t do it. It’s just not feasible within the financial structure of the NCAA.”
Essentially, attempts to grow the sport are being stunted by the NCAA.
Penn State has long been the 800-pound gorilla in the room of its conference, the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association. The Nittany Lions have absolutely dominated the EIVA, not only winning all those titles, but also totaling a 263-12 record in regular-season play since 1988. Only twice during that span did Penn State even have two conference losses in a season, and 16 times the team was undefeated.
However, the new development is the product of the rest of the EIVA being rather weak, and the addition of a new conference that now has an automatic qualifying bid to the national tournament.
The new addition is Conference Carolinas, which has been around since 1930, gained provisional status as an NCAA conference in volleyball two years ago and is now a full member, which means it has a guaranteed path to the tournament. The conference is made of 10 schools in North and South Carolina and Tennessee — all Division II programs — and nine of them play volleyball.
The men’s volleyball tournament is called a national championship, not NCAA championship, because it has programs from multiple divisions competing. There are only 22 Division I men’s programs, and until the addition of the Carolinas there were only three conferences, the EIVA, the MIVA (Midwest) and the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, which has long dominated the sport.
The general rule for nearly every NCAA tournament is there must be at least as many spots in any given tournament for at-large berths as there are for automatic qualifiers. Men’s volleyball has had a waiver from that rule, with just a four-team tournament with three A-Q spots and one at-large. Adding a fourth conference meant something had to be done or there would be no at-large berths.
The solution was to have a play-in match, and determining who was in that match was decided by each conference’s Ratings Percentage Index from last season. The RPI is a formula used by the NCAA in nearly every sport in determining relative strength, based 25 percent on a team’s won-loss record, 50 percent on an opponent’s won-loss record and 25 percent on an opponent’s RPI.
Surprisingly, the Conference Carolinas, despite being all-Division II, was the No. 3 conference while the EIVA was fourth — or last. The MIVA actually was No. 1, ahead of the powerful MPSF.
“There’s no question how the RPI works,” Shayka said. “Numbers are numbers and formulas are formulas. Nobody will argue that.”
As Penn State head coach Mark Pavlik pointed out, those numbers do not take into account what a team does to challenge itself. MPSF teams rarely fly to the Midwest or East for matches, and teams in the EIVA and MIVA played nearly triple the number of top teams in the other two major conferences that the MPSF and Carolinas did.
That the NCAA would use the RPI as a basis for this decision is backed by its use in other sports — and a continual aim for consistency — even if the end result hurts a Penn State program that has been in the top 10 nearly every season, won the national title twice and essentially has had the easiest path of any program in the nation to reach the national semifinals.
“It may look that way,” Shayka said. “From the NCAA standpoint, I think they look to template work as much as possible. If they have a plan, a template, on the shelf and they can squeeze whatever challenge into that template, they’re going to squeeze it into that template and they’re going to say, ‘That’s what we do with this sport. That’s what we do with that sport.’ Regardless whether it makes sense for that sport, it makes sense for the operation.”
It meant the EIVA and Carolinas were stuck into the play-in game, and based on who was rated higher, the Carolinas champion would be the host of the match. So, next spring, the EIVA championship will be played April 19, the following weekend that champion will travel south somewhere for the play-in, then fly to Chicago for the national championships May 1-3.
Bob Krimmel, the athletic director at St. Francis who preceded Shayka on the NCAA committee and is now on the NCAA championship committee, is disappointed the play-in route was the only one available.
“I’m not in favor of play-ins because of the championship experience,” said Krimmel, a former associate athletic director at Penn State. “If you want to have a championship experience for the student-athletes, they need to feel they’re a part of it. I’m not certain play-ins provide that opportunity.”
Other than the slight for making the two conferences jump through an extra hoop before getting to play in the NCAA’s party, the biggest problem is the NCAA will not pay for the expense of the extra match, even if it is now mandated. With short notice, teams will have to travel possibly 500 miles or more. The cost of sending a team and traveling party on such short notice on a plane, plus hotels and other expenses, could reach close to $20,000 — which is close to an entire year’s budget for some men’s volleyball programs.
“It will put some stress on (the budget),” Pavlik said. “But we might be the one program in the EIVA that is suited to handle something like this. Forget about us, what happens if Harvard wins?”
The NCAA does pay expenses for the four teams in the championships, but a fifth team is not in the budget. Even though the NCAA has known for two years Conference Carolinas was going to be admitted and this problem would be coming, the extra expense was not factored into the budget.
The obvious solution is to expand the tournament, either adding one more at-large team for two play-ins or first-round matches, or making it an eight-team affair and bring the tournament on-line with nearly every other NCAA tournament with four at-large berths. All of those ideas were shot down because of the lack of money.
“It’s a tough situation because as a committee, we’re essentially held to those options — they really aren’t options,” Shayka said. “This is what we were told had to happen because we were in the middle of a budget cycle and there is no identified additional funds to do anything differently.”
The committee will keep looking at the problem, and maybe have it modified by 2015. There are fingers crossed that by 2016 they could even expand the tournament.
“There’s a process, you follow the process and you don’t always win,” Krimmel said. “But it can be revisited, revised and re-presented, you live to fight another day.”
Pavlik is just disappointed his program and his conference have to suffer because of the process.
“It goes back to men’s volleyball being treated as an afterthought,” Pavlik said. “It’s a shame. Our championship committee works real hard to put on the best championship it can, to forward men’s volleyball and improve growth. I have no issue with our championship committee. This is one of those things the NCAA … things just managed to fall through cracks.”