By Ferd Lewis
The question seemed simple enough: When would ESPN be showing the NCAA men's volleyball championships?
"Volleyball?" the man at the network asked quizzically.
"NCAA championship?" he said with obvious puzzlement.
Indeed, among the dozens of championships the NCAA holds, there are your final fours and, then, when it comes to men's volleyball this week, there are the Forgotten Four.
The University of Hawai'i, Pepperdine, Ball State and Penn State go after the national championship beginning today in State College, Pa. But for all the interest in it beyond the Stan Sheriff Center, it might as well be the championship of another nation.
ESPN2 will show today's semifinals, but for most of the nation it will be available only on tape delay. Only here has there been enough interest or even a request to show it live. Only here is it scheduled to be shown twice live at 2 p.m. and rebroadcast at 6:30 p.m., on OC 16, according to Oceanic.
Through yesterday, USA Today had summed up the event in all of one paragraph. Only here is there an appetite for daily stories and player diaries.
Here, volleyball is the talk of the moment. Elsewhere, it is barely a whisper. If that. For beyond these shores and a few points in the West, it seems few people really dig this game. Most places, it is the lonely stepchild of the vast array of NCAA sports. As a sport, it began in the East and is heavily played in the West, but is overlooked most everywhere.
UH coach Mike Wilton tried to explain this phenomenon at a press conference yesterday, but he might as well have been explaining ice hockey to Bedouins.
And, it isn't just a matter of success. When Brigham Young won the NCAA title last year, a Salt Lake City newspaper tried to put the Cougars' achievement in perspective by declaring it, "bigger than winning a free order of fries by scratching a card with a coin" but "not as big as winning first place at the World Dog Show in Portugal."
As a national championship sport, men's volleyball is barely hanging on by its finger tips. Only 22 Division I members field teams. By comparison, there are 312 Division I women's programs. So, what the NCAA does is throw all 81 of its men's teams, regardless of divisions, into one pot just to have enough of a field to hold a championship.
For how much longer it will survive as a championship sport is anybody's guess. The budget-challenged schools are forced to twist their bottom lines, the more they look at men's volleyball as expendable.
Winning a national championship trophy in men's volleyball is still a considerable accomplishment but nowhere would it mean as much as if the Warriors manage to bring one home.