Setting the Bowerman Bar


If you've been on Twitter over the past few days, you have likely seen a handful of exciting news. Grant Fisher signed with Nike and will run for Bowerman Track Club. Jessica Hull will forgo the rest of her eligibility and officially turn pro. Even a handful of transfers have begun to snag a few headlines.


In other words, it's been a busy week.


However, the one thing that stood out to me the most weren't the transfer announcements or the signing of professional contracts. Instead, my attention shifted to the announcement of The Bowerman finalists. Not familiar with what The Bowerman is? Let's get you up to speed.


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The Bowerman, which was first established back in 2009, is an award given out by the USTFCCCA to the most outstanding collegiate track and field athlete on an annual basis (one for the men, one for the women). It is widely considered to be the most prestigious level of recognition that a single athlete can earn in this sport. Recent winners include Michael Norman, Keturah Orji, Christian Coleman, and Raevyn Rogers.


Despite the incredible honor that is often associated with the award, the 35 pound 20 inch gold-plated aluminum trophy has built an interesting reputation when it comes to the criteria required to win it.


When The Bowerman was first presented back in 2009, the honor of best collegiate track and field athlete went to two standout distance stars: Oregon's Galen Rupp and Colorado's Jenny Barringer (now Jenny Simpson). For distance running fans, it was an encouraging first year for an award that was expected to wield a heavy amount of influence within track and field (at least at the collegiate level).


However, that same favoritism towards distance runners was rarely seen again in the ensuing years. Since Rupp hoisted the trophy a decade ago, the only men's distance runner to win The Bowerman has been Cam Levins of Southern Utah which was back in 2012. For the women, the story is a little bit different - mainly because it depends on how you classify 800 runners.


In 2014 and 2017, The Bowerman went to middle distance specialists Laura Roesler and Raevyn Rogers, both of the Oregon Ducks. The two superstars from Eugene were excellent 400 runners, but most fans of the sport knew them as true 800 runners. Their consistent dominance was simply unmatched by anyone else in their respective events thanks to their brilliant race tactics and raw fitness.


Remind you of anyone?


So, if you are opting to exclude 800 runners, we haven't had a distance running woman win The Bowerman since Jenny Barringer won it back when the award was first introduced.


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Earlier this week, The Bowerman released their three men and three women who would be considered as the finalists for this year's award. The announcements, which failed to list a single distance runner, were met with a number of angry responses from distance running fans who condemned the selection committee for their choices.


On the women's side, it was admittedly understandable why the committee opted not to move Jessica Hull, Allie Ostrander, or Sinclaire Johnson into the final three. Despite the sheer dominance from Oregon's Jessica Hull, her failure to clinch a national title at the end of the outdoor season likely hurt her chances of advancing. On the flip side, Sinclaire Johnson had a magical performance at Nationals with a 1500 result that is now #2 all-time in the NCAA. However, her regular season lacked the exciting highlights that we saw from Hull.


As for Ostrander, the Boise State superstar had a superb spring season with a handful of wins, top collegiate times, and an overwhelming championship victory in the steeplechase. Yet, despite her excellent performances, she found herself finishing outside of first on a handful of occasions during the indoor and outdoor seasons. While she was surely an incredible talent, her indoor season may have left something to be desired (at least to be a Bowerman finalist).


But on the men's side? Well, that's where the debate really begins.


Throughout the outdoor season, The Bowerman released continuous updates of who was being considered as a nominee for the award. Despite staying undefeated in numerous events (which included prelims), it took until the completion of the Outdoor National Championships for Hoppel to be recognized as a semi-finalist.


That story, however, is a bit different for Morgan McDonald who was mentioned in multiple weekly updates of potential candidates to win it all. When you consider his unwavering consistency of fast times, lethal kicks, and national titles, it was hard to imagine a scenario where he wasn't among the final three finalists.


Of course, things don't always go as you plan it.


The three men's finalists for this year's award will be Florida's Grant Holloway, Texas Tech's Divine Oduduru, and LSU's Mondo Duplantis.


With both McDonald and Hoppel being left out of The Bowerman conversation, now seems like an appropriate time to begin a discussion about the specifics of the award's criteria...or the lack thereof.


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Let's travel back in time to 2014.


And 2015.


Heck, throw in 2016 as well.


What do these three years have in common?


I'll give you the answer. They were the three years where Edward Cheserek was named as a finalist for The Bowerman award.


Ya know, Eddy Ches?


Arguably the greatest collegiate distance runner of all-time?


That guy?


Apparently, the performances we saw from Edward Cheserek throughout his career simply weren't good enough for him to be considered as the greatest collegiate track and field athlete in any of the three years where he was a finalist...even after he pulled off the 5k/DMR/3k triple gold at the 2016 indoor national meet.


So if King Ches wasn't good enough to be considered as the best collegiate in track and field on three different occasions, what does that mean for future distance runners? How can an individual who never lost a single race and who ran under 1:45 for 800 meters not be a finalist? How can someone who accomplished something that only Lindgren and Cheserek have ever done not even make it among the top three athletes in a single year?


The snubs of these two superstars shouldn't necessarily be surprising, especially when you consider that The Bowerman seemingly puts less weight on winning and national titles than they do on high-profile, record-breaking performances. If they had put a greater emphasis on winning, then Mondo Duplantis wouldn't have been a finalist after he lost to South Dakota's Chris Nilsen at the outdoor national meet and Cheserek would have been an easy decision to win The Bowerman back in 2016 (the year where he won five national titles on the track).


If the allure of record-breaking results overshadows winning a handful of national titles, then so be it. While it may not seem to make perfect sense, I can at least appreciate an award that has an idea for what they are looking for.


But if national records and jaw-dropping times/marks are such a high priority for The Bowerman, then why was Michael Saruni not named a finalist in 2018 despite breaking the collegiate record for 800 meters and winning an indoor national title? Most would point to the fact that he lost at the outdoor national meet, but couldn't you say the same thing about Mondo Duplantis?


Where's the consistency? How do we measure these performances? Truthfully, I'm not sure that anyone (even the selection committee) has an answer for that.


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As someone who writes and covers the NCAA, I imagine that I'm expected to remain objective in my analysis and to avoid personal opinions. Of course, if I did that, then TSR wouldn't exist.


I've said it once and I'll say it again: The Bowerman is flawed. Severely flawed.


The inconsistencies between who wins the award - or who even makes it as a finalist - are glaring. It is impossible to compare resumes of these nominees mainly because there are no uniform standards in terms of what the committee is looking for. Does fan voting play a role? Yes, but The Bowerman website explains that fan voting is one of three methods used to determine the winner. Not the finalists.


Let me be clear: All three men and all three women who were listed as finalists for this year's award deserve to be in the conversation for winning track and field's most prestigious award. That doesn't mean, however, that I can't point out the fallacies in what should be a massively impactful honor.


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Am I biased? Absolutely.


I write for a distance running website. Of course I'm going to argue in favor of guys like Bryce Hoppel and Morgan McDonald. Still, I can also recognize that there were plenty of other years where distance runners didn't deserve to win (or be named as finalists).


2018, for example, was a phenomenal year for those in the sprint and hurdle events. It just so happens that the women's winner (Keturah Orji) was exceptionally talented in the horizontal jumps. But the distance events never really produced a standout star who was overwhelmingly more talented than their competitors. Instead, we saw an abundance of upsets at the outdoor national meet in races such as the 800, 1500, 5k, and 10k. If the heavy favorites couldn't win a national title that year, they certainly weren't going to be in the conversation for The Bowerman.


But in 2019, that narrative couldn't be more different.


At the end of the day, life goes on. Who wins the award doesn't necessarily dictate who will have future success and who won't. Still, a precedent has been set and right now that standard is out of reach for distance-oriented athletes.


If Hoppel's 19 straight wins, McDonald's four national titles, or Cheserek's five national titles weren't good enough...then what is?