There’s an item in The Sports Business Journal this morning reporting that the NCAA has opened preliminary talks about a new TV contract. This isn’t news. Everyone knows ESPN is dying to swoop in with its Disney money and steal the tournament away from CBS, which has televised it since 1982. Anyone who thinks loyalty will play a role in this negotiation—CBS has literally spent billions helping to build the tournament into the mega-event that it now is—also thinks that there’s no football playoff because of concern about the ‘student-athletes.’
The important part of the story concerned the make-up of the tournament. Apparently the NCAA is looking into expansion—going from the current 65 teams to 96 in order to add a week of TV that would add more money to the new contract.
I can’t call this the worst idea I’ve ever heard because the BCS still exists. But it is a solid No. 2.
The perfect number for the NCAA Tournament is 64. The only reason a 65th team was added was (surprise) a money grab by the BCS commissioners who didn’t want to give up an at-large spot when The Mountain West Conference became eligible for an automatic bid, upping the number of automatic bids from 30 to 31.
Unfair as the play-in game is, it is a minor kink in an otherwise smooth-running machine. With a 65-team field, making it into the bracket is an accomplishment. Sure, there are always a handful of coaches screaming that a horrible injustice was done when they get left out but that’s kind of the beauty of Selection Sunday: who will get in and who won’t. The committee doesn’t always get it right and occasionally a team is left out unfairly. But more often than not, the deserving teams get in and when they do they feel as if they’ve actually done something.
Compare that—for example—to the bowl system where 68 of the 120 teams playing Division 1-A football make postseason. All you have to do—literally—is be mediocre and you can play in a bowl someplace. In basketball, the only time a team that hasn’t played well all season gets in is when someone comes from the depths of a conference to win a conference tournament and get an automatic bid. Even when that happens, the team in question has to be playing well when it matters most to pull off that sort of an upset.
(The football-basketball talk reminds me of a story. If I’ve told it on the blog before, forgive me but I think it bears repeating. Years ago, during an ACC coaches meeting Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins was complaining to Commissioner Gene Corrigan about the extra pressure on basketball coaches to make the tournament.
“But Bobby,” Corrigan argued. “There are 64 bids out there. That’s a lot.”
“Sixty-four bids out of how many teams?” Cremins asked.
Corrigan shrugged. “About 300,” he answered.
Cremins turned to Dean Smith and said, “Dean, you’re the math major, what’s 64 into 300?”
“A little more than 21 percent,” Smith answered.
“Okay,” Cremins said turning back to Corrigan, “how many football teams make bowls?”
“Well, there are 26 bowls right now,” Corrigan said. “So that’s 52 teams.”
“Out of how many?” Cremins said.
“About 100,” Corrigan said.
Cremins turned back to Smith. “Okay Dean, 52 into 100, what percentage is that?”)
Back to our story for today.
So now the NCAA, which went to the 64 team bracket in 1985 is talking about expanding to 96 teams. If it happens they will claim this is being done in the name of fairness which is, of course, a lot of hooey. It will be done to up the TV money and to appease all the whining coaches who think expanding the field will help them keep their jobs.
You see, Cremins wasn’t wrong. There IS tremendous pressure on coaches, especially those at the big-time schools, to make the tournament every year. Jim Boeheim went two straight years without a bid and heard sniping all around him. Gary Williams missed three years out of four and if his team hadn’t rallied last season to make the tournament you can bet his AD would have been trying really hard to find a way to force him out at Maryland.
But the theory that more bids means more job security doesn’t really work. You see right now an NCAA Tournament bid MEANS something. If you expand to 96 teams and the ACC gets nine bids every year instead of six or The Big East gets 12 instead of eight then you’ve got the bowl system—except that a real champion does eventually get crowned.
Making a bowl does not guarantee these days that a coach keeps his job because AD’s know that it is often meaningless. In the BCS leagues, you can schedule three home games against weak opposition and go 3-5 in league play and presto! You are on your way to the Insight Bowl or the Independence Bowl or the fabulous St. Petersburg Bowl where you get to go to Florida—to play indoors.
If there is one thing the NCAA gets right every year (except for the play-in game) it is the basketball tournament. It hit on 64 as the right number 25 years ago and—with good reason—has kept it (almost) right there.
That reminds me. Apparently my good friend Bill Hancock, who is now executive director of the BCS (it is sad when a good man goes to work for the forces of evil) is trying to defend the BCS by talking about ‘bracket-creep,’ in the basketball tournament. Bracket creep? The tournament has expanded by ONE team in 25 years and he calls it bracket creep? Bill also claimed that if there was an eight team playoff this year there would be terrible controversy because two of the four two-loss teams in the major conferences would have been left out of the field. Think about what he’s saying: It is okay to leave three UNBEATEN teams out of the national title picture but really awful to leave out a couple of two-loss teams.
For his next trick, Bill will tell us that if unemployment went down it would be unfair to those still unemployed so maybe it would be better for unemployment to go UP.
I love Bill, I really do. He’s coming to dinner with us Friday night in Philadelphia before Army-Navy. Maybe I can perform an exorcism and save him.
Meantime, the NCAA needs to NOT expand the basketball field. If money is the issue do this: Tell the BCS schools that beginning in 2010 there will be an NCAA Football Bowl Sub-Division Tournament. If an invited team declines to play, none of its other teams can participate in any other NCAA postseason tournament. The NCAA would make more than enough money by having a football tournament to make the dumb idea of expanding the basketball tournament go away. The BCS would go the way of The Edsel, New Coke and pet rocks. And Bill Hancock’s soul would be saved.
One clarification on yesterday’s blog: I was NOT implying that the replay official got it wrong when he put one second back on the clock in the Texas-Nebraska game. Some hysterical Texas fan claimed that by saying he put one second back on the clock I was implying he got it wrong. I was simply saying he put the second back and almost certainly got it right but wondered if he would have gotten it right if the second had belonged to Nebraska. I stand by that statement. The same fan also went into a long diatribe about why Texas deserves to play in the national title game. I’m not saying Texas does NOT deserve to play in the game. I’m saying under this ridiculous system NONE of us knows who deserves to play in the game. That’s why the question should be resolved through actual competition rather than hysterically bleating that MY TEAM is the best. If your team is the best, it should get the chance to prove it on the field. Period…
One more note: Several people asked last week how I feel about Billy Packer. I like him both personally and professionally. We agreed on almost nothing but arguing with him has always been great fun and I always believed he broke down a basketball game better than anyone. I missed him during last year’s tournament especially during the Friday practices at The Final Four. We had an unofficial tradition of sitting together and arguing about everything while the practices were going on. My favorite year doing that was 2006 when I waved Jim Larranaga over during George Mason’s practice and said, “Billy wanted to be sure he had a chance to congratulate you.” Billy never missed a beat. “Great playing,” he said. Then he turned to me as Larranaga walked away and said, “It still doesn’t mean I was wrong you know.”
Actually it did. But that’s okay.