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Penn Relays losing SEC teams

Louisiana State and Texas A&M have been two of the perennial track powers at the Penn Relays over the last three decades. Dennis Shaver figures he has attended the last 24 carnivals as a member of the coaching staffs at Auburn and LSU. Pat Henry says he has missed one in "probably 25, 27 years" as head coach of LSU and the Aggies.

Louisiana State and Texas A&M have been two of the perennial track powers at the Penn Relays over the last three decades. Dennis Shaver figures he has attended the last 24 carnivals as a member of the coaching staffs at Auburn and LSU. Pat Henry says he has missed one in "probably 25, 27 years" as head coach of LSU and the Aggies.

However, neither the Tigers nor the Aggies will be attending this year's Penn Relays, and it appears that it's going to be quite a while before both teams - or any team from the Southeastern Conference, for that matter - will be competing at Franklin Field.

This year's absence is a result of final exams at LSU that resulted in the creation of the LSU Invitational track meet, where Texas A&M and four other SEC teams will compete with the host on Saturday. But the real obstacle to SEC schools attending the Penn Relays starts next year with a new event, the SEC Relays, scheduled to be held on the same weekend as Penn.

The SEC Relays were created by conference coaches to provide programming for the SEC Network, which premiered in August 2014. Every team in the conference will participate under "a gentleman's agreement among the coaches," Shaver said.

Shaver, in his 12th season as LSU head coach, said Monday that the SEC's head coaches in track and field have been discussing how to get their athletes on the network. An indoor meet with all conference schools also is scheduled to begin next season.

"The SEC Network has just grown tremendously," Shaver said. "We think collectively that it's really important to get our product on television. There's a strong mission from the head coaches here to produce, and this is the kind of event that would be good for the SEC Network to put on."

This year, Shaver said the LSU administration prohibits athletic teams from traveling from April 27 through May 1, which he called a "concentrated study period" for finals, unless they're competing in an event scheduled by the SEC office. The LSU Invitational was scheduled for this weekend after he was assured that other teams would attend.

"So that's why we're not [at Penn] this year, and really it's the only reason we're not there," Shaver said.

LSU, which won its first women's Championship of America relay in 1985, leads all teams in women's victories with 46 and is second all-time to Villanova in combined wins with 70. Texas A&M, which attended its first carnival in 1991, has 28 championships - 18 women's and 10 men's.

Henry, who is in his 12th season at Texas A&M, coached both teams to Penn Relays success, having spent 17 years at LSU. He has won a total of 35 Division I national championships in indoor and outdoor track during that time, 27 with the Tigers and eight with the Aggies.

Henry said he has always enjoyed the atmosphere at Penn but added that he feels the carnival now focuses more on the annual "USA vs. the World" competition that it does on colleges.

"It doesn't seem to be a priority in the whole management of the meet," Henry said. "It's become difficult to bring a team. The USA portion of the meet is great. That's fine, there's a place for it. Then there's the high schools and the collegiate meet seems to be kind of in the middle of the two."

Shaver said there is "a great emphasis placed on the professional aspect of the sort at the Penn Relays . . . and it's put less emphasis on the university and college division of the meet.

"I'm not saying that's bad, but it's a reality," he added.

Dave Johnson, director of the Penn Relays, said he agreed that USA vs. the World has changed the dynamic of the meet, but for the better.

"The crowd response is so big for that," he said. "When USA/World started, people started wearing national team uniforms. And that brought up the number of high schools participating. We've doubled the amount of high schools in the last 20-25 years. Things will change and we'll adapt.

"I'm very sorry to see people like Pat go but I also understand their thinking. I can't really fault them for it. I wish that we had found another accommodation."

Henry and Shaver said they will miss Penn.

"It's not an easy decision," Henry said. "It's extremely difficult. It's one I have pondered for a number of years. It's just come to the point to where I think it's best for our team."

Shaver said he will miss the help and hospitality of Penn Relays officials but the move for LSU is a function of "thinking what's best for our student athletes."