The final 2016-17 Directors' Cup standings were released recently. The good news? Pitt showed some decent improvement. The bad? There's a lot of work still to be done.
The Panthers were 106th in Division I in last year's standings. This year, they jumped 14 spots up to 92nd. In all, here are the points Pitt's programs earned this year:
- Women's Volleyball - 50
- Wrestling - 41
- Men's Swimming/Diving - 38
- Women's Swimming/Diving - 32.5
- Men's Track and Field - 29.5
- Football - 25
Add it all up and you get 216 points. Better, but still not good. The problem for Pitt is that they have a lot of work to do to get close to the top. While that looks unattainable, the good news is that with even some minor improvements, they can improve significantly.
What is the Directors' Cup?
The Directors' Cup standings aren't something on the radar of a lot of fans. It's a collaborative effort between the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) and USA Today. The Directors' Cup standings emphasize having an excellence across the board in all of the NCAA's sports. It's basically a review of how well schools compete in all NCAA sports.
The more sports in which you participate, the better chance you have at obtaining points. The more points you have, the higher you rank. So schools that field programs and do well in small sports that don't have a lot of participation have a two-fold advantage. They not only have the ability to more easily pick up points since there isn't a lot of competition, but they also are picking up points that most other schools are missing out on.
For example, USC picked up a cool 100 points this year for winning the beach volleyball championships - the max you can receive in any sport. Few teams participate by comparison to other sports but those points count for just as much as they do in other sports. Those 100 points are exactly what Clemson received for winning the FBS football championship, for example.
Fair? Probably not. I understand the need to recognize the smaller sports but I'm not sure the points should be the same in a sport where you much less competition in terms of the number of schools participating. This has nothing to do with the sport of beach volleyball - rather, it's about the amount of competition. It's simply much easier to win a title with about 50 schools participating than in one with more than 100. Nevertheless, that's how this thing works.
How Are Points Earned?
In short, you get points based on how you finish in the polls and how you perform in the postseason. Here's the full breakdown on the NACDA website.
The important thing to know is that even small postseason successes can make a lot of difference to schools like Pitt. For example, the football team earned 25 points in this year's standings. They would have earned at least about twice as much for simply winning their bowl game. 25 extra points means next to nothing to the top schools in the Cup standings. But had the team been able to beat Northwestern in this year's Bowl, they would have jumped at least a full six spots in the standings. Those sorts of gains are very significant for a school like Pitt, which is so low in the pecking order.
So the next time anyone tells you that winning minor bowl games don't matter, you can inform them that that's a blatant inaccuracy. Those games are important not only for perception and rankings but also from a Directors' Cup standpoint. Kind of makes the argument for big time NFL prospects skipping games a little more hollow. Those games are very, very important from the school's perspective.
You might remember that former athletics director Scott Barnes wanted Pitt to be in the top 20% of Division I schools by the 2018-19 year per the school's strategic plan released last year. That was a somewhat lofty goal because when it was released, the Panthers' 106th ranking put them around the 36th percentile. But in one year, they've improved up to 92nd, which puts them in just outside of the top 30%. They have two more years to get up another 10% to remain on target for their goal. Statistically, anyway, given the amount they improved this year, they would be on track to do that with similar improvements.
The problem is, of course, that jumping that many more spots won't happen unless the teams are able to win more.
Fine. So, fix the basketball mess, right? Well, envisioning the basketball team eventually getting better than they were this year isn't too much of a stretch. But it's also not as important as it sounds because of the equal distribution of the sports. In short, it would help but Pitt needs much more than that. Getting any points from basketball will help but what the program really needs is more strides to be made in the Olympic sports - some of which have been woeful.
One thing to point out is that while the program is in about the top 30% of all Division I programs, they are nearly last among the larger FBS programs. Essentially, they are ahead of a lot of smaller schools, as they should be, but trail almost every major college. How does that happen? It goes back to the Olympic sports. Schools that are irrelevant in football and basketball can still fare well in the Directors Cup because they perform well in other sports.
Pitt really isn't excelling anywhere. The football program has been solid and the team has had some success in sports like wrestling and softball. But they aren't fielding any team that's contending for a national championship, which is how you really accrue large numbers of points.
Remember that 14-spot jump the team just enjoyed this year? They would jump another 20 or so spots if they won a national championship in any sport, including the minor ones. So if they're not excelling anywhere, how does Pitt improve? That's a complex problem. But before I tackle that, let's talk about a common misconception.
Pitt has some awful programs, but ... that's not the biggest problem
One idea that's thrown out quite a bit is that Pitt just needs to fix the worst programs they have. Men's soccer has yet to win an ACC match since joining the conference. The tennis program is 1-55. Women's soccer hasn't been quite as brutal, but close.
That's abysmal, right? Of course it is. But here's the thing - fixing them doesn't matter as much as it sounds, at least in the short term of trying to accumulate points because of a major flaw in the Directors' Cup system.
You obviously don't get any points for performing terribly but here's the thing - you also often don't get any points for even being in the middle of the pack. Unless you go on a big postseason run, it sometimes doesn't even matter if you're .500 or .000.
It would be great if Pitt's tennis team won a few more matches but in terms of immediately helping in the Directors Cup, that wouldn't matter. Remember the women's softball team that finished 24-23 this year? Even though they were over .500 overall, they didn't make the NCAA Tournament and were still awarded zero points. In other words, while they were much more competitive than teams like Pitt's soccer programs or the tennis program, they were just as (excuse the word) useless when it came to helping out in the Directors' Cup. Zero points is zero points. They could have been 0-47 instead of 24-23 but it wouldn't have mattered one bit because either result nets the same amount of points.
Again, fair? Probably not. Surely, .500 programs should be ranked ahead of programs that don't win a single game. That inequality between programs in the middle and terrible programs is one major flaw of the system. Now, to be fair, some average programs do walk away with Directors' Cup points. But many that are significantly above the bottom feeders do not.
It's easy to look at some of the woeful programs that Pitt has but that's not necessarily the biggest problem in terms of trying to move up in the Cup standings. The biggest problem is the school isn't having enough success in enough sports to register. Pitt doesn't just need its Olympic sports to be better ... they need them to be getting to the NCAA Tournament and, if not competing for titles, at least getting into the rankings, etc.
This isn't to suggest that having terrible programs is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. You have to start somewhere and you're not going to go from winning no conference matches to winning enough to accrue Directors Cup points overnight. You have to crawl before you walk so Pitt should absolutely be making improvement of the bottom feeders a priority. But in the short-term need of scoring points, those programs being awful isn't as important as it seems because even if they were halfway decent, there's still a good chance they wouldn't be producing points.
How does Pitt improve?
The first thing to keep in mind is that expecting Pitt to improve to the point where they're competing to win this thing just isn't realistic. A school like Penn State that excels in this is eighth overall. Even with more than 1,000 points they were still almost 500 points away from the winner, Stanford. Even if Pitt were to magically jump to the top 10% of the standings, or even the top ten overall, they would still likely be hundreds of points short. Currently, Stanford fields about twice as many teams as Pitt does so catching them now, or ever, just isn't all that realistic if the scoring criteria remains the same. The idea is that Pitt focuses on getting respectability first.
The formula for Pitt improving in the Cup standings isn't particularly difficult but, as I outlined in the last section, it's a little different than what casual fans think. As I mentioned earlier, winning a championship simply isn't all that believable at this point. So Pitt needs three things to happen.
First, the basketball program needs to return to form. The sport was often a solid provider of Directors' Cup points (and, without looking, a likely leader) in the past and without them, Pitt has taken a beating. This isn't about getting Pitt to the Elite Eight or Final Four. A Sweet 16 run would help. Getting back into the Top 25 would help. Pitt needs that program to be producing something since the capability is there.
Second, they need the programs that are accruing points to do a little more. For as excited as we may be about the direction of the football program, 25 points is still a pretty inconsequential amount in the grand scheme of things when the top schools are scoring over 1,000. Stanford, the usual winner here, had over 1,500. 25 is a drop in the bucket to them.
To Pitt, however, 25 points is significant since even that amount would move them up another ten spots or so in the standings. Even very small steps up in programs like football, wrestling, etc., would make a big difference to Pitt. A big difference.
Finally, the school needs more teams making volleyball-like jumps. Volleyball scored 50 points for Pitt and is a program that's gotten significantly better. To me, they're the poster child for what Pitt needs from its Olympic sports. And having success turns non-followers into casual fans. Personally, I've gone from not caring much about the program 2-3 years ago to a guy that watches almost every match on TV. Win even a little and people become interested.
Things like gymnastics, women's track and field, and baseball have had some success in recent years. The school needs to see those programs that aren't currently earning any points take a step forward to become more competitive. There's a significant amount of work to be done there but it isn't the Herculean task of something like trying to get the tennis program to that level. It's simply easier to get those programs competing for points than it is in trying to get the tennis program to that level.
Pitt needs to invest in its worst programs - that goes without saying. But if we're talking about competing for more Directors' Cup points in the short term, the best way to advance is through the two ways I mentioned above. And the good news for Pitt is that if they can make even a little bit of improvement, it can lead to a significantly better showing. Win an extra football game. Grab a few extra points at the NCAA Wrestling championships. Win one more match in the NCAA Volleyball championships. Get Pitt basketball back in the NCAAs.
Longer term, there are some things Pitt can do to take bigger steps. Maybe a program breaks through and gets closer to competing for a national championship. Maybe other programs like softball make a decent run in the NCAAs. Maybe Pitt adds some sports in areas they can be competitive (looking at you, lacrosse and men's hockey). There's room for growth and with sports like wrestling and volleyball that could be national players, some would even argue there's a realistic path for significant growth.
But those earlier three steps are all very achievable steps that would net Pitt significant improvement. Not improvement to the point where they'd be even in the middle of the FBS but improvement by moving up another 15-20 spots overall, which would be a start.