Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The 2nd worst idea in college sports; Stories on Cremins, Billy Packer

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.


Kevin Kaczmarek said...

Vintage Cremmins...thanks, John!

Anonymous said...

If there is an expansion of the basketball tournament, then it should only be to allow ALL teams in ala the way the Indiana high school tournament used to be.

Regarding the football system - I think the teams outside the Big 6 conferences ought to stage their own playoff and declare the winner the true national champion as decided on the field. Invite the big conference teams and give them 48 hours to accept a bid. If they don't accept or ignore the bid then another team from the WAC or MWC or MAC or whatever would be invited.

Denver, CO

Dana King said...

Wow, a lot of ground covered here.

Expanding the NCAA basketball tournament for the reasons cited reminds me of John Lowenstein's plan to eliminate close calls at first base by making the bases 91 feet apart.

Football tournament: The six BCS conferences can have bids, plus the next two best schools. This year, the two at-large bids would have been TCU and Fresno State.

I cut my teeth on college basketball listening to Jim Thacker and Billy Packer do ACC games on the old Jefferson Pilot network when I was in the Army. Packer drove me crazy sometimes, being such a smug know-it-all, but listening to Clark Kellogg last year proved how good Packer is.

Shaun E in PC said...


Want to hear how Friday's dinner goes with Bill Hancock. Wonder if he feels that he's not the crazy one and is trying to educate the masses of the BCS beauty.

Bobby said...

Can you get Hancock to come on here and answer a few questions for us? Or can we pool our thoughts together for you to feed him one question through dinner, that he only answers after the second bottle of wine is popped (assuming he's a drinker, of course)?

Boy, we could have good, civil fun with the chance....

Vince Spence said...

Cremins was a Gamecock in '69-'70 before South Carolina left the ACC. Back then, regardless of how good a team was, the ACC only sent the regular season champion. Others simply played in the 'real' N.I.T. Trust me, he, Roche and Owens were not recruited for their math skills...

I'd love to see 32 teams play consecutive weekends at the Garden in NYC for the NIT championship. It is a shame, with 65 teams in the fray in the NCAA, the NIT is now a joke.

Anonymous said...

Mantra of the NCAA: "If ain't broke, break it."

Michael said...

John wrote: "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."

Writing as the "hysterical Texas fan," I went "into a long diatribes" because you wrote the following statement at the start of the Monday, Dec. 7:

"I’m not sure what the best part of the BCS bowl lineup announcement on Sunday night...was: the shocking news that Texas, even though it was more-than-fortunate to beat Nebraska on Saturday night will play Alabama for the national championship..."

Having read and enjoyed several of your books, you are not careless with your words and rarely if ever do you mean something other than what you wrote.

The statement from Monday, Dec. 7, completely contradicts what you wrote on Tuesday, Dec. 8. If you wanted to discuss that no one knows which two of the five unbeaten teams is better than remaining unbeaten teams than you should have written “no one knows which two of the five unbeaten teams I better than the remaining unbeaten teams.”

But you did not write that statement.

You wrote that Texas was fortunate to be selected for a game against Alabama to determine the mythical national champion in NCAA Division I-A football. You did not write that Alabama was fortunate to be selected. Your argument focused on Texas’ claim but not Alabama’s claim.

I challenged your argument. Instead of writing that perhaps your argument was faulty or lacked merit, you referred to me as hysterical. I prefer fanatic as in the longer form of the word, fan.

Later in the Monday post, you wrote, “Texas ought to take (the referee who correctly set the game clock to one second) on the trip to Pasadena.” That statement appears as simply gratuitous and insinuates a pro-Texas and/or anti-Nebraska bias by the replay official.

Again, I challenged that statement because you failed - perhaps selectively - that Alabama had benefitted from multiple horrible refereeing decisions by SEC officials from several games. You did not write “Alabama ought to take the entire SEC officials who made several calls throughout the season on the trip to Pasadena.”

For some reason all of your examples of egregious behavior were of Texas. You omitted any references of egregious behavior by Alabama. I challenged your over reliance of Texas examples by showing how Alabama had benefited from similar behavior. Indeed, my argument provided examples of how Alabama had benefit from a far greater degree of dubious and bad calls by officials.

Instead of writing a thoughtful and nearly reflective answer, you referred to me as hysterical.

Anonymous said...

Hey Michael, that is a damn good retort to John. I wonder if he'll bother to answer you. I doubt it

Chris said...

I can see both sides of the Michael and John argument....Michael does seem to be hanging on as most fans do to their teams, John probably over blew the hysterical nature of his diatribe, it was most definitely fanatical instead.

Maybe Michael and John should just hug it out?

Anonymous said...

John it is great to hear you got to call Billy out at the Mason practice in 2006. I remember like it was yesterday the comments of Packer and Nance regarding Mason's at large bid that year. They infuriated me. It was later amazing to hear that they as the professionals that were the spokespersons for CBS on the tournament they had not seen ONE George Mason game that year prior to making their comments. Unlike you, I felt Packer's absence last year was no loss to the tournament.

JJ said...

Basketball should go back to 32 teams. With conferences tournaments and conferences getting 6 teams in, the regular season is a joke.

Anonymous said...

Hi, John. I have one of your many books, "Last Dance", and enjoy listening to you on NPR. Moreover, I and just about everyone not a college president is in agreement with you - in fact, a congressional subcommittee took the first step towards trying to force the hands of the large colleges. (Link: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=4727426)

The people you need to influence, really, starts with this guy:


Second YouTube video from the top.

Time Magazine has him as the most influential college president. He's surprisingly modern, with food and drink outlets in the libraries and his very own Twitter account (presidentgee). He also says a Division I-A football tournament happens over his dead body, and states he doesn't care about what the sports writers think *in an interview with the school press*.

Bill Hancock isn't the person you need to talk to. Barack Obama probably doesn't need to be convinced, even though reminding him can't hurt. This is where you need to focus. John Feinstein, you need to talk to E. Gordon Gee.