Tuesday, March 2, 2010

'Championship Week’ was one brilliant idea from ESPN - March Madness starts tonight; Wilbon talk

While the big-name college basketball teams are sorting themselves out over the next 12 days—the top teams trying to pin down high seeds; the mid-level teams in the power conferences trying to play their way from the dreaded bubble into the NCAA basketball tournament—this is also the time when the little guys get their moment in the sun.

March Madness actually begins tonight. The Big South starts its postseason tournament. By the end of the weekend, if you count The Ivy League, five automatic bids will have been handed out.

For me, the one bid tournaments are about as much fun as anything that takes place during the basketball season. Very few of the kids playing are going to be one-and-done and you aren’t going to hear a lot of speculation about their pro futures. All they care about at that moment is the game they are playing because most are one loss away from the end of their season. A majority of the seniors are one loss away from the end of their careers.

That’s what makes these tournaments so much fun. When Mike Brey was coaching at Delaware he often said that winning The America East Tournament was the equivalent of getting to The Final Four for Duke—which was where he had coached prior to moving to Delaware. “And winning a game in the NCAA Tournament is like winning the national championship,” he added.

We all know that on rare occasions one of the little guys will slip through to the sweet sixteen. George Mason’s Final Four run in 2006 belongs in a different category but it is worth remembering that the Patriots didn’t come out of a pure one-bid league. In fact, they got into the tournament as an at-large team, much to the chagrin of Jim Nantz, Billy Packer and others.

The real one bid leagues are the one where no one even discusses an at-large bid, where the committee has already penciled the champion in as a No. 15 or No. 16 seed most years. Of course there can be exceptions going in either direction. In 2006, coming off a first round upset a year earlier over Kansas, Bucknell came out of The Patriot League as a No. 9 seed—and promptly lived up to it by beating Arkansas. This year, the opposite is true in the league. The only conference team likely to avoid being sent to the dreaded play-in game in Dayton is top-seeded Lehigh. Anyone else wins the PL Tournament—which begins tomorrow but doesn’t end until March 12th because of (you guessed it) television—and they’re probably headed for Dayton. At the moment that teams cuts the nets down though, it won’t be thinking about Dayton. It will be nothing but pure joy.

That’s why Brey’s description is so apt. When you watch these teams play for their championships you can see how much it means to them. None of them are thinking about the fact that they may face a first-round game against Syracuse, Kansas or Kentucky. Or that they might be going to Dayton. It doesn’t matter. They want to be champions and they want to see their name go up on the board on Selection Sunday and they want to be part of The Dance.

Sure, it is all cliché but it is real. I remember being in Lafayette’s locker room after the Leopards beat Navy 10 years ago to win The Patriot League title when I was researching, “The Last Amateurs,” and it was about as joyous a place as I’ve ever been. A week later, as a No. 15 seed, the Leopards were beaten badly by Temple but that didn’t change the memories or the feelings they had for one another after beating Navy.

The little guy that no one wants to play this year is Cornell. It will be interesting to see how the committee seeds The Big Red. They have one bad loss—at Penn—but their other three losses are to Seton Hall and at Kansas and Syracuse. They’ve won road games at Alabama, at Massachusetts and at St. John’s. They played a tougher non-conference schedule than most schools in the BCS conferences play.

Jim Boeheim has said Cornell should be a No. 4 to a No. 6 seed. That won’t happen. I think if they had run the table in the Ivy League they might have sneaked into a No. 9 seed ala Bucknell four years ago. Now, I think they’ll be more like a No. 11. One thing about the committee—they hold a bad loss against a little guy against it more than they do a big guy.

That’s all for a week from Sunday. For now, the next 10 days are about the little guys having that moment they will all remember forever. If you think the U.S. hockey team looked heartbroken, check the faces of some of the losers in these conference tournament finals—especially after a last-second game-decider. The Olympians all believe they’ll get another shot in Sochi in four years and many will. Most of the kids who lose one-big finals know they won’t get another shot. Most teams that rise in these conferences are led by seniors so this may be their last chance.

ESPN has done a lot of bad things through the years but ‘Championship Week,’—giving the one-bid kids their moment in the sun—was brilliant. It also wasn’t a coincidence. It was the brain-child of Tom Odjakian, who worked at ESPN then and works at The Big East now. Odjakian is a Lafayette graduate. He wanted his school and others like it to have a chance to play their championship game on national TV. This is what he came up with. Good for him. This will be fun.

The money teams will be everyone’s focus soon enough. For now, let’s get fired up for a potential Coastal Carolina-Radford final in The Big South. Or Stony Brook-Vermont in The America East.

Let the you-know-what begin.


Okay, I had a number of people contact me yesterday about comments Michael Wilbon made about me during an online Washington Post chat yesterday. Wilbon’s angry with me because we have a fundamental disagreement about Tiger Woods—and, I guess it is fair to say star athletes in general.

This though is about Woods. He defends him. I don’t. There’s really no need to go through the details: What we’ve both written and said is out there if you want to find it.

Wilbon got mad two weeks ago because I joked on Tony Kornheiser’s radio show that he had put aside his professionalism when it came to Tiger. As he proudly told The Post in his chat he called my cell phone and left a profanity-filled message. I responded by leaving him a message that was, I think he’d agree, considerably calmer but sticking to the essential point: we disagree on Woods. He isn’t going to back away from his position; I’m not backing away from mine.

I don’t know if the question during his online chat yesterday was a setup. I do know the person I’m really mad at is some guy I’ve probably never even met calling me, ‘Junior.’ Anyway, Wilbon responded by saying on the one hand he didn’t ‘give a damn,’ what I thought but on the other hand said he’d called and screamed profanities at me. If nothing else, the profanities let me know he cared. I was touched. He also said something about not being ‘subservient,’ to me. I don’t think I’ve ever asked Wilbon or anyone I’ve worked with to be subservient to me. In fact, I’ve never written these words: “As I was being driven from Bristol to New York on Sunday.” (Nor will I).

The only thing Mike said that’s just untrue is that I confuse my opinions with facts and legitimacy. Having been a columnist for a long time now I not only know the difference between opinion and fact I’m accustomed to people disagreeing with my opinions—sometimes angrily. It’s part of the job. As for legitimacy, that’s clearly up to the readers too.

Wilbon also says he’d put his journalistic credentials up against mine any day. That’s fine. Mike’s been very good at what he does for a long time. I feel pretty comfortable with my journalistic credentials though and here is where we differ (in my opinion): Guys like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Shaq—the rich and famous guys Wilbon thinks of as friends—have public relations machines that tell the world how great they are. If they do something good, it should be reported. But when they screw up, they don’t need us taking a bullet for them. The people in sports who maybe need a boost every now and then (when they do something good) are the kids in The Patriot League; the football players at Army and Navy; the golfers who end up in Q-School.

Those are the stories I enjoy doing the most and the people I tend to gravitate towards. That doesn’t mean the big names don’t have stories to tell—I think I’ve told my share of those stories too. And gotten to know many of them along the way. WIlbon loves hanging with big names and telling people about it. I'm looking forward to dinner with Paul Goydos this week. Neither one of us is right or wrong. We're just different.

Let me close by saying this: When Abe Pollin fired Jordan several years ago Wilbon was one of many in Washington who ranted against him for doing it. Pollin’s decision was proven correct when Ernie Grunfeld came in, hired Eddie Jordan as coach and rebuilt the Wizards into a playoff team—four straight years—before Gilbert Arenas’s injuries and stupidity brought the team down again. When Pollin died, instead of simply writing the words, ‘I was wrong,’ about Pollin’s decision (hell, we all get it wrong sometimes; I thought Tiger would be playing golf this month) he went off on some tangent about how it was a shame Abe never forged a better relationship with Jordan.

Come on Mike, you’re better than that.

In conclusion? Wilbon and I have been friends for 30 years. We’re pissed at one another right now. I hope we’ll sit down and agree to disagree and move on at some point in the future. In the meantime though I guarantee this: I will NOT criticize his clothes. He dresses VERY well.

Final note of the morning to poster Case: Not sure if you were joking but I was never scheduled to work The Patriot League quarterfinals. I’m in Florida right now—it’s raining dammit—to do some golf this week and some baseball. The league’s known since August I was going to miss that game. I’ll be back for the semis on Sunday. But thanks for paying attention!


case said...

thanksfor the reply , john
i was joking
love to have you on the pl games
hope the sun comes out
it's a nice day on the north fork of long island


It is a moot point with the expansion, but would it not be better to force the tournament committee to have the final two at-large teams play the play-in and send the winner somewhere as a 12 or 13 seed?

It would get better ratings, and that way the Lehigh's and Mt. St. Mary's of the world get the true tournament experience while 17-11 ACC team has to play 19-9 PAC10 team for a chance to move on.

Tim said...

Giant Glass...I agree with your thoughts (at least as I read them). The bottom two at-larges SHOULD be the play-in game participants. Its a farce that the automatic bid guys have to play outside the main tournament.

If they expand the tournament, its really going to be a shame that they wipe half the 'little guys' out in the larger play-in round. It should be Florida vs. VT, not Lafayette vs. South Carolina State.

James L. said...

I was similarly amazed at Wilbon's defense of Jordan's GM career on PTI yesterday (in the context of how Jordan would do as an owner), in which Wilbon basically said Jordan's terrible performance was okay because "he never wanted to be a GM anyway, he wanted to be an owner." Oh, great, I'll just tell my boss not to worry if I do a bad job at work, because what I really want to be is an Olympic pole-vaulter. Wilbon either does not understand or simply does not care about the way his relationships with athletes affects both the perception of his work, and the actual content of that work.

Anonymous said...


I've been following the back and forth between you and Wilbon on the Tiger issue and I have to say that he is right on one thing...you do seem to confuse or state your opinions as facts...sometimes. I don't think Wilbon has ever said Woods philandering ways was right...just that it's no one's damn business except his wife and kids. You on the other seem to think it's your business...it's not. If he cheated the game (HGH, steriods etc) then that becomes everybody's business and it should become open season on him but that's not the case. I know you are not surprised in the least that a $600 + million athlete in his early 30's who travels around the world for his occupation was having affairs?? You can't tell me that...you've covered sports for many years so you know the drill.
Wilbon did mention that you have had an ax to grind with Tiger ever since he refused to do a book (Rocco Mediate) with you...is that the case? Listening to rant about Tiger on every radio show you are on does seem to me like you do have an axe to grind. Then you responded by saying that you did not lose a penny by Tiger not being in the book. I would have to disagree with you on that (assuming you DID in fact ask Tiger to be in the book and he refused). If Tiger was in the book, you definitely would have sold way more copies...and you know this. After all, he DID actually win the tournament...on a SHREDDED knee! So I think some readers would've bought the book just to know what was going through his mind at the time, if he ever considered pulling out due to the pain, how painful it was...etc.
Anyways, hope you and Wilbon sit down and make up. The two of you bring smarts to the table...just different perspectives.

Hendo said...

You're far too kind. Wilbon's followed Olby off the deep end.

Bill said...

The theory that John is mad, or resents, Tiger because in the Rocco book Tiger didn't want to be included (or more accurate, participate himself) doesn't seem to hold a whole lot of water to me......I'm not an insider, but Feinstein has been about the only writer to ever call Tiger to task on anything (agree or disagree with the criticism), and it didn't just start 2-3 years ago. John would be off his rocker to even contemplate that Tiger would have wanted to be a participant of a book written by him.

Its a good soundbite by Wilbon to say John has an axe to grind with that, but I find it hard to believe there was any expectation Tiger would let down his guard and get into the book himself.

Gabe said...

John has a long admitted history of grinding on anyone who dares to limit his access. Its not John's fault or anyone else's that Tiger Woods, Georgetown coaches, or others don't want to be associated with him. People have a natural aversion to working with anyone in the media who went bobbing for french fries at a young age.

kdr said...


Your comments about Wilbon remind me of a Portland Tribune sportswriter, Dwight Jaynes, who wrote that his need to have access and be close to athletes led him to not report the whole truth. The article can be found here:

(h/t to Glenn Greenwald http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/06/12/journalism/index.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+salon%2Fgreenwald+%28Glenn+Greenwald%29 )

mikeb said...


As a former journalist and "consumer" of DC journalism, I respect both you and Wilbon. I think it's great that Wilbon has achieved the status he has, and while I wouldn't go as far as you did in addressing his credentials, a blind spot I see more and more often in his work is the apparent lack of self-recognition that he has become a celebrity/public figure. Like Tiger and others, he trades on his celebrity, and this apparent lack of recognition makes me side with you in this one just a smidge bit more, and respect his work a little bit less.

In terms of journalistic "standards," this is a loss for the field, just as Tony's decision to focus solely on TV and radio is. Whatever "golden age" their shared time at the Post is gone.

I don't blame Tony for cashing in or Wilbon for using his access to become "friends" with the rich and famous, but .... Would Wilbon reacted as vehemently if part of your words didn't hit close to the bone?

Just askin'.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to agree with Wilbon on this one. John "I know it all" on Tiger has stated several opinions as facts. Clearly JF has an axe to grind with Woods and he's not credible on this subject.

I'm no huge fan of the 'uppity' Wilbon with his famous friends. Hope it goes to show that these so called Sports Writers are angry, bitter, and highly opinionated.. Sports fans are not well served right now.

Anonymous said...

I love Michael Wilbon, but you were right to call him out. Its not just with Tiger, either. He's even worse where Shaquille O,Neal is concerned. PTI is a great show and Wilbon a giant in his field. But if he can't admit that he is in the tank for Shaq and Tiger, he needs to take a hard look at his own work.

Is this more evidence of a paridigm shift in journalism from dispassionate reporting to unabashed rooting? Or is it just what we should expect from one who traded his keyboard for a teleprompter?

pt wiley

Dana King said...

Leave it to the anonymous commenters to post offensive or racist notes. (Yes, even a middle-aged white guy like me understands that "uppity" is racist.)

I've thought for years that Michael Wilbon is one of the handful of best sports columnists working today, but he has recently become too much of an apologist for the superstars with whom he has become friendly. They can do no wrong; if they do wrong, it's none of your business; and, if they screw up in the aftermath of doing wrong, it doesn't count because the wrong was none of your business in the first place.

That, and his increasing intolerance of anyone who dares to disagree with him on his Post chats, has caused me to read less of him.

I don't always agree with John, put I enjoy the fact he doesn't pull his punches, regardless of whether it might limit his access down the road.

Chuck B '92 said...

I think more than anything else this shows the idiocy of flaunting your life in public, as if your very reactions are worthy of a news item. What was the point of Wilbon going public with the fact that he left a message with you? Who is he trying to impress?

When you say of sports superstars that they "have public relations machines that tell the world how great they are", perhaps Wilbon is drinking from the same glass.

Anonymous said...

John,I hope you have a lot of friends as it appears you lose about one a week.

Ben from Indiana said...

Really enjoyed this blog. It always seems that the 'magic' that is such a big part of tourneys come from these small schools that are lucky enough to not be seeded against the Kentucky and Kansas of the world.

Being from Indiana, your point about the League championships reminds me a bit of the old Indiana High School Basketball tournament before the IHSAA went and goofed it all up. I think the Indiana Basketball tournament sectionals can be compared to how you describe small school conference school play. Now, I'm young, and still don't know the whole scope of the tourney, but from what I've gathered in my relatively short life, is in the Indiana Tournament it was once every rare moon that a small school made it to the late stages of the tourney. However, the competition in sectionals was huge because it was all local area teams that played each other all year, and the sectionals was where you earned bragging rights. For lots of schools, just winning sectionals was a HUGE deal, much as you say these small schools just want to see themselves as conference champions and admitted to the Dance.
Too bad money seems to be the only thing on some people's minds, and they go and ruin something as pure and great as the Indiana H.S. tourney.

So there's my 2 cents worth.

Love your writing and your blog, John. Keep up the good work.

Nathan said...

John (I won’t call you Junior) Feinstein,

I don’t know if it will help smooth over your relationship with Mike Wilbon, but you needn’t worry about the question being a setup. I sent it in. It was edited a bit. I had included a somewhat smarmy comment at the end about your observation on Mr. Wilbon’s professionalism being correct, but that was cut off.

The impetus of my question was not to harass Mr. Wilbon, even though I’ve wanted to “poke the bear” for some time. It was the irony of your observation when juxtaposed against Tony Kornheiser’s suspension for comments about a colleague. I viewed your comments about a colleague, just as much if not more damning than Kornheiser’s about Hannah Storm. I was in essence wondering aloud does the Washington Post censure its staff in the same manner as ESPN. By the way we haven’t seen a column from you in the Washington Post since the Saturday just after your radio appearance.

Regarding calling you Junior, I meant no harm. Tony Kornheiser has used it so prevalently that it literally rolls off the tongue when referring to you. Not knowing how Kornheiser came to refer to you as “Junior”, I didn’t consider, although I should have, that you felt it demeaning from others. In any event I apologize. Take note, I made sure to use nothing but proper names in this post.


dc social said...

Feinstein's integrity is beyond reproach. Just ask the Duke Lacrosse team.

Devil said...

And now introducing Tony Kornheiser as "The Marriage Ref"!

I know you guys will patch this up, but before you do, I'd like to explore the pay-per-view possibilities.

StandandDeliver said...

Just more proof that you have absolutely no self-awareness. Wilbon summed up the problem with your entire career with his "facts and legitimacy" line.

Having been watching the DC media scene for a while, I have never once ever heard you admit that you were wrong about something. Not once. The only time you seemed to address one of your frequent brain farts is when you apologized for uttering a profanity on the air during a radio broadcast, and in that case it's fair to say you were scrambling to save one of your paychecks - which will dwindle even further now that you've alienated one of the last remaining national sportswriters who can stomach you.

You are not the Cosmos, Feinstein. It's probably too late in your life for you to learn that, but if you don't see the truth in Wilbon's criticism of your overinflated ego, that's your problem, not his.

Beach Bum said...

Wilbon is angry because you are 100% correct John. Wilbon is a jock-sniffing, name-dropping, wanna-be.

He wants to be "down" with these guys (Jordan, Barkley, Woods) to the point where he's probably angling for an invite to complete a foursome at Congressional.

Judging by the photos I saw of him on TheBigLead.com, Wilbon does have something in common/learned something from those 3 musketeers: Being a married man chasing white women...