Monday, December 12, 2005

How Can You Compete Against Wisconsin's Numbers?

It only seems natural to wonder if Wisconsin might not become dominant in lightweight rowing, simply because with a larger student body than most of the competition they have so many more potential athletes to recruit from. Looking at last year's final top 10 rankings, there are two schools with larger student bodies - UCSB and Ohio State - but those programs are not varsity (I'm only concerned with undergraduate populations). Interestingly, last year's second place boat, Princeton, had the second smallest undergraduate population at 4,678, just 100 more than Lehigh. Wisconsin has 29,078 undergraduates. I also suspected that Wisconsin might offer some scholarship money for lightweights, but a reader told me that is no longer true. If Princeton, Radcliffe, and Stanford are able to offer some admissions preference to rowers, that certainly helps them compete for recruits with Wisco. Studies have shown that rowers are likely to be the smartest group of athletes on campus so that means that many are potential candidates for admission into those selective schools (and of course, lightweights are smartest among rowers!), but there are many more who are not. How then, can schools like Princeton and Radcliffe continue to compete with fewer high school recruits to choose from (due to admissions requirements) and fewer walk-ons to recruit (due to smaller student populations)? Radcliffe's situation is somewhat tempered by the fact that they have a large student body (9,519), but they certainly have difficult admissions requirements. Princeton has a very difficult situation with tough admissions and a small student body. Even worse is a school like Lehigh with very few, if any, recruits, selective admissions, and a small student body. On the other hand, some of the state schools should have a lot of potential if they can just improve recruiting. Ohio State has over 35,000 undergraduates from which to recruit. Of the 2005 top ten schools, however, only four have student populations over 10,000, a reflection of the dearth of scholarships and varsity programs in many of those schools.

This situation should even be worse for the heavyweights. With all of the scholarship money sloshing around those programs, Ivy schools, which are unable to offer scholarships, and small schools should have problems competing. Of last year's top ten heavyweight boats, 6 have student populations over 10,000 with a seventh, Radcliffe, at close to 10,000. Because of the lack of scholarship money in lightweight programs, the smaller schools are probably better able to compete and admissions preferences for varsity programs are a big recruiting advantage. It's hard to think of another sport (hockey maybe?) in which small schools can win national championships. It's hard to imagine that small schools can remain competitive in heavyweight rowing for too much longer, although only time will tell. Although every lightweight rower would like to be on scholarship, it's the lack of scholarships that make lightweight rowing as competitive as it is. There's a pretty wide disparity between the first tier and the second tier of V8s, but that seems to be narrowing as some occasional lightweight schools are adding permanent lightweight programs. The NCAA's presence in heavyweight rowing has had quite an effect on that sport, bringing big scholarship money, tiers of competition (DI, DII, DIII), and removal of the heavyweight women's championship from the wider rowing community. I've heard heavyweight coaches say this is all a good thing, but I have my doubts. I think that lightweight rowing is the place where small schools will continue to be nationally competitive, and smart coaches will increase their focus on lightweights for that very reason.

This discussion raises another question, - just how many women's lightweight programs are there? Over the next week or so I'll be doing some research into that question and will post my results to see if they square with what you think.

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