The .500 rule: College coaches debate the merits

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•••

Editor's note: With plenty of buzz around college teams pulling out of tournaments to preserve a .500 record, we decided to take a deeper look at the .500 rule in men's college golf.

• We talked to a plethora of college coaches, here is our quote board.

• Our Lance Ringler has seen plenty of these situations first-hand, here is his take.

•••

Podcast episode

College Golf

College golf: The .500 Rule

Lance Ringler and Asher Wildman discuss the merits, or lack thereof, of the .500 Rule in men's college golf.

Download podcast

What does Clint Eastwood’s 1966 classic western “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” have in common with college golf?

Well, it seems that’s a perfect way to describe the NCAA Division I men’s .500 rule, which is in its fourth season. The rule is simple enough: For a team to be eligible for the NCAA postseason, it must have a .500 or better head-to-head won-loss record against Division I opponents.

Some coaches think it’s a good rule. Some think it’s a bad one. And some consider it a downright ugly rule for the college game.

But it is the rule, one that no doubt has changed the way coaches plan their schedules.

“The .500 rule has had a significant impact on college golf,” said Northwestern coach Pat Goss, whose Wildcats were one of four teams (with Arizona, Vanderbilt and Minnesota) affected by the rule in its first season of 2007-08. “Perennially stronger programs are now playing in some weaker-fielded tournaments than they even imagined five years ago, and weaker teams are getting opportunities to play against the better, more recognized programs.

“It has created opportunities for smaller programs to compete against traditional golf powers, but I don’t think it has been influential in creating more parity.”

In 2008-09, Auburn was the lone team that would have otherwise made the postseason but sat at home because of a below-.500 record. Last season, it was Purdue.

“I did not like the rule from the start,” said Mike Griffin, who ended his 24-year coaching career at Auburn after that ’08-09 season. “I always wanted to play the best schedule possible.

“Obviously, I did not reduce the quality of our schedule my final year of coaching when we failed to reach .500. We lost six seniors from the previous season and were going to be playing mostly freshmen. But what kind of message would I be sending my players by cutting the competitiveness of our schedule? They needed to learn the importance of playing to a new level. Was I aware that our chances of having a winning season against that schedule were slim for that season? Yes. Would I do it again, if given the opportunity? Yes. Any coach can schedule a winning record, but is that the best thing for the players? No.”

Consider that in the 2006-07 season, the last before the .500 rule took effect, nine teams with records below .500 received postseason invitations: Texas, TCU, Texas Tech, South Carolina, Augusta State, Central Florida, New Mexico, Oregon and Oklahoma.

“The rule certainly has changed the way I make up my schedule, big time,” Vanderbilt coach Tom Shaw said. “And it will continue to do so. That’s not all that bad, because I give my guys a good mix of tournaments, both geographically and strength-wise.”

Shaw said he was 100 percent behind the rule in the beginning because he thought it “was good for college golf to diversify tournament fields and not run a closed shop to the smaller schools and conferences.” Now, he lacks some of that initial enthusiasm.

He concedes the rule still has merit but adds that it “has taken away some of my ability to experiment with different lineups and play different players.”

John Knauer, head coach at Texas-San Antonio, was an assistant at Arizona in 2008 when the Wildcats missed out on the postseason because of the rule. To him, that was the ugly.

His thoughts are different now.

“My opinion has changed 180 degrees from when the rule was enacted,” Knauer said. “I thought it was terrible at first and would make teams schedule down to avoid missing the cut. We have not really seen that, except for a few instances. Overall, now I think it’s a good rule for college golf. And I still want to play, and try to play, the best and toughest schedule I can.”

One thing is certain: Coaches are taking more time evaluating their current teams, as well as their future rosters, and paying more attention to how they set their schedules and which teams are invited to tournaments they host.

For instance, two seasons ago, Florida played in the Columbia Invitational; last season, Georgia played in the Charleston Shootout; and just this month, TCU competed in the Navy Invitational – events those schools likely never would have played in the past. All three of the schools won those tournaments, padding their win total in the process.

There also have been cases during the past few seasons in which teams hovering near or below the .500 mark have changed their schedules at midseason. Unlike most other college sports, golf has very few contracts. Therefore, financial penalties to bind teams to tournaments to which they have committed are almost nonexistent.

Early withdrawals have happened at least three times this spring, with Florida State pulling out of the John Hayt Invitational, Oregon doing the same at the Battle at the Beach and, most recently, Arizona withdrawing from the ASU/Thunderbird. All three squads were below .500 at the time and now, thanks at least in part to the late schedule switches, are safely above that mark. Some coaches have said they are considering drawing up contracts that include fees for late withdrawals from tournaments they host in the future.

No rules were broken in the above instances, and the bottom line is that coaches are trying to do what is best for their teams in order to reach the NCAA postseason. But does it violate the spirit of the rule?

“I see a lot of schools scheduling down, and I certainly don’t have a problem with that,” said Mike McGraw, coach at top-ranked Oklahoma State. “Personally, I won’t do that, but I can understand the reasoning behind it. The way I figure it, if we don’t have a good enough team to get there (postseason) with the team we have and the schedule we play, we probably don’t belong there anyway.”

photo

Texas A&M coach J.T. Higgins during the 2009 NCAA Championship.

Texas A&M’s J.T. Higgins, whose Aggies won the 2009 national championship, wasn’t quite so understanding.

“I would never withdraw from a tournament for that or any other reason, including an injury to a starter, academic issues or unforeseen circumstances. We would find five guys that could play, tee it up and give it our best shot. I know it’s not against the rules, but it definitely is against the spirit of the rules, and most importantly, it’s the wrong thing to do. It sends a terrible message to your team. I would much rather try and fail than quit or worse, manipulate the system.

“If you can’t beat half the teams you face, you are not very good, regardless of the schedule you play. I have yet to meet a coach that finishes in the bottom half of the field who says, “That’s OK. It was a tough field, so you guys should be happy with 10th place.”

In fact, Higgins says punitive action should be taken against teams that pull out of scheduled events.

“The NCAA Golf Committee should have the power to count a withdrawal from a tournament as a loss to every team in the field,” Higgins said. “I know they do that in other sports, and we should implement the same policy.

“Can you imagine Texas A&M being 11-0 in football and canceling the Thanksgiving game with Texas because we were undefeated and didn’t want to blow our chance at the national championship? Because our sport flies under the radar, there is no outcry, but that doesn’t make it right.”

Says Arizona coach Rick LaRose, who reluctantly pulled his team out of the Thunderbird event hosted by in-state rival Arizona State: “I have not really changed my schedule until recently. You have to get the wins. I’m not really happy about it, but in the end we do what we have to do. Everyone will tweak their schedules to accommodate the team they have that particular year.

“Teams in very tough conferences are certainly put at a disadvantage and need to be well ahead of the .500 mark as not to get burned in their conference championship if they are close to .500. Take the Pac-10 Conference (which counts Oregon and Arizona as members). There are so many top teams that you could easily lose to eight or nine teams. Some teams are in weaker conferences and know they most likely will win and receive an AQ (automatic qualifier) berth regardless of their wins or losses. If the .500 rule remains, I think conference championships should be exempted.”

LaRose, who hosts two spring tournaments, said that while he continues to try to get the strongest fields possible, he has seen “some changes in the number of top teams who participate – not only in our events but in other (top) events, as well.”

On the flip side, the rule has helped enhance fields at some smaller tournaments.

“I like the rule,” Fresno State coach Mike Watney said. “It spreads the wealth – the wealth being the top teams in the country. It gets them to play other schools rather than just the elite schools.”

Watney said that since the rule was established, it has helped his school’s Fresno State/Lexus Classic.

“The interesting thing is that I get requests from schools I wouldn’t expect to come to my tournament,” he said. “Recently we’ve had Duke, Michigan, Oklahoma, TCU and Texas come to the Lexus Classic. I’m happy to have them come to Fresno. It’s good for us and good for them.”

In truth, the .500 rule all comes down to scheduling. Coaches have to have a touch of fortune-telling skills now as they evaluate their teams and make their schedules. This season, the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings had only two teams in the top 80 with sub-.500 records: No. 76 Minnesota (63-73-3) and No. 79 South Carolina (45-72-1). No. 61 Coastal Carolina had a 64-68 record after finishing third at the Big South Conference Championship, but added the one-day, eight-team Cavalier Classic on April 27 in Charlottesville, Va., where it finished second to improve its mark to 74-71 and solidify its postseason chances.

Said Georgia coach Chris Haack: “I didn’t like the rule when it was first implemented, and I’m not totally sold on it now. But I will say what I have liked is that it made me go to some events I might not have under the old rule. I have had a chance to meet more coaches, see other parts of the country and play in some wonderful tournaments that I had never heard of before.

“The thing is, you really have to know the makeup of your team and create a schedule that best fits them. If I have a young team, I might have to give up playing in the (Ping/Golfweek) Preview or some other events with strong fields because you can’t afford your team to take a lot of losses during their learning phase. I would probably try to find some events (where) they could have some success and build their confidence so that they are ready by the end of the year to compete at the highest level.”

It seems every coach has his own opinion on the .500 rule. As they voice it, you can almost hear that well-known theme song from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” playing in the background.

•••

Editor's note: With plenty of buzz around college teams pulling out of tournaments to preserve a .500 record, we decided to take a deeper look at the .500 rule in men's college golf.

• We talked to a plethora of college coaches, here is our quote board.

• Our Lance Ringler has seen plenty of these situations first-hand, here is his take.

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