All over the Webb
by Greg Hitchcock 7.15.02

Chris Lear of Runner's World followed up on Sports Illustrated's report last month that high school mile record holder Alan Webb has ended his collegiate career at the University of Michigan to become an open professional.* University of Michigan coach Ron Warhurst is quoted as saying, "It's my understanding that Alan is definitely not returning to the University of Michigan and that he has signed with an agent to run professionally." His plans are to go to college near his Washington D.C. suburban home while training under his high school coach.

I recall last year that many people that I know in the running world were wondering why Webb did not just turn "pro" right after his 2001 Prefontaine Invitational recording setting 3:53.43 mile.

At the time, his ability seemed to be far beyond even the best collegians. Then came a good cross country showing, 11th at the NCAA championships, some injuries, and a 4th place finish in the NCAA 1500 meters—a disappointing start to his collegiate career (but one any other athlete would be ecstatic to have achieved).

The first question is whether Webb would have been better off never entering the collegiate world. From a financial standpoint, the answer is likely yes. He obviously left many hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table by enrolling at Michigan. One would hope that money is still on the table waiting for him as he launches into the future. Yet, in all sports there is a short shelf-life for maximum earning power and track is no different.

However, many athletes from various sports have concluded that the benefits of college and collegiate competition (i.e., a lower level of performance required) are better than the immediate financial rewards of the pro circuit. If the priority was to maximize his running ability and career, going to college was not the best decision. However, there are other things in life besides running, even at age 18, so it is difficult to say this was the wrong decision.

The reasons an athlete like Webb cannot maximize his ability in college as easily as he can on his own are summarized as follows. First, he does not have the high level competitors to push him during the collegiate season. Second and more importantly, he has to prepare for cross country (10K), then indoor track, then outdoor track and then he can go run against the world's best in Europe. This lack of focus and change of priorities is sure to work to the detriment of most performers. This is especially true of a runner carrying the expectations that Webb carts around the track. In contrast, a foreigner of similar ability could coast during the collegiate season and make everyone pretty happy with similar performances before shining in Europe in the summer.

The next question raised is whether Webb gave his collegiate experience enough time. I cannot say whether he picked the right program for himself, but one year is not enough to say whether he would have had a good collegiate career that led to a good professional career. Many freshmen have a hard time making the transition from the intense focus of the high school senior year to the new start in college. Being away from home, tougher classes, new foods, more difficult competition, higher mileage and a host of other factors also make the freshman year difficult. Many a runner (myself included) have been better runners as seniors in high school than freshmen in college.

As to the question that has been raised whether Webb will develop better by taking on the best international runners, I would simply point to the many top European and African runners who have developed just fine by doing exactly that. Indeed, that is the reason that many advocated that Webb skip right to the Grand Prix level circuit.

This is why Webb is likely doing the right thing by recognizing he made an error last year by going into a collegiate program. His focus is clearly on becoming the best runner he can be. In short, in college he has all of the pressure of college life plus the expectations that he compete each week at a top international level through four competition seasons. Life will be easier and better for him just focusing on being a top international runner two seasons a year. With the spotlight not shining so brightly on him in America, it is more likely that he will be a bright light on the European tracks.


*The NCAA still adheres to strict amateur rules, the only compensation allowed for NCAA competitors being the scholarships they receive. In contrast, track and field athletes left behind the (sh)amateur rules in the 1980s and remain eligible for Olympic level competitions even though they openly receive prizes, bonuses, appearance fees and endorsement contracts. NCAA athletes can compete against open runners but have to forego the money earned by the open athletes.