For the past few weeks I’ve been saying and writing that those of us who love college basketball had better savor this coming Selection Sunday because it is likely to be the last one with the kind of suspense we have become accustomed to on the second weekend in March. When the NCAA expands the tournament—which I think is almost inevitable—teams like Illinois, Seton Hall, South Florida, Georgia Tech, Arizona State, Florida, Wichita State and Northeastern—all of whom are on the bubble this year, will already have locked up bids.
It’s worth nothing that none of those teams has done anything particularly special this season. They’re all just solid teams that may (or may not) get squeezed out by the numbers game. That’s part of what the process so much fun: who gets in and who gets left out and the fact that each of those teams has SOME claim to a spot in the field. That will be gone with a 96 team field we all know that. The NCAA knows that and doesn’t care as long as the money offered by ESPN or (less likely) CBS-Turner is so out-of-whack that they can roll around in it for years to come.
In writing about how much I have come to enjoy Selection Sunday I would be remiss if I didn’t remind people who don’t know how it came about. Most basketball fans—especially younger ones—just take the day for granted, sort of like Christmas. There’s always been Selection Sunday, right grandpa? Well no, there hasn’t been.
It started in 1982, the year that CBS took over the rights to the NCAA Tournament from NBC.
The role that NBC and the syndicate TVS (run by Eddie Einhorn) played in building the NCAA Tournament into a national event can’t be underplayed. Remember, as recently as the historic 1966 Texas Western-Kentucky championship game, The Final Four wasn’t on network TV. It was syndicated—and not picked up in many cities—by TVS. It wasn’t until 1969 when TVS entered into a deal with NBC that The Final Four—in Lew Alcindor’s senior season at UCLA—was televised nationally. Even then the semifinals were regionalized: The East-Mideast regional was shown in the eastern half of the country, the Midwest-West regional in the west. That was the first year the semifinals were moved from Friday to Thursday because the championship game was moved to Saturday afternoon since it clearly wasn’t worthy of prime time.
The progression from that point forward was rapid: NBC took the championship game to prime time in 1973, making The Final Four a Saturday-Monday night affair and Bill Walton made it work by shooting 21-of-22 for UCLA against Memphis State in the championship game. Two years later the tournament expanded from 25 teams to 32 and conference runners-up were allowed to participate. A year later Indiana and Michigan played in an all-Big Ten final as the post-John Wooden era began.
Then came Magic and Bird in 1979 and more expansion: first to 40 teams, then 48 and 53 and finally 64 in 1985. Note that the number moved up slowly, the committee wanting to be sure it wasn’t going too fast. The move to 64, pushed hard by Wayne Duke and Vic Bubas had as much to do with wanting to eliminate byes and have everyone play the same number of games as anything else. Obviously with a 96 team field that will go out the window.
Al McGuire won the national championship with Marquette in his final game as a coach in 1977. The next year, he joined Billy Packer and Dick Enberg to form basketball’s first three man booth and they became cult figures in college basketball. When CBS wrested the rights from NBC by offering $48 million for three years—triple what NBC had paid—there was a good deal of talk that an era had ended (which it had) and that college hoops would never be the same.
CBS needed to do something to establish itself as THE network of college basketball, especially since NBC still did regular season games with Enberg and McGuire and there were those who still thought IT was the network of college basketball.
After failing in an attempt to hire Bob Knight (yes, Bob Knight) as its No. 1 color commentator, CBS hired Packer, both for that job as a consultant on scheduling (it had no college hoops contacts at the time) and on the package in general. Packer and Len DeLuca, then a CBS producer who now works at ESPN, sat down to think of ways to connect CBS to college basketball.
They came up with two ideas: Tie together the entire season with some kind of theme: The Road to The Final Four. Every game would be part of that road and every week would lead to—in the case of 1982—New Orleans. Then, one of them said something like this: “Why don’t we announce the brackets on TV?”
There is still some dispute between the two of them as to who actually thought of the idea first but together they came up with it. Until then, coaches would sit in their offices on Selection Sunday—there were no games played that day, the ACC didn’t move its championship game to Sunday until 1982—and wait for a phone call from the NCAA office in Kansas City, which is where the selection committee would meet.
Packer and DeLuca changed that. No one got a phone call anymore. Instead, they were told to watch their TV on Sunday afternoon to find out if they were in and if so where they were going. From there, the whole thing just grew and grew until it reached the point where it has become a national holiday for college hoops fans.
So, as we get ready for what might be the last truly meaningful Selection Sunday of our lives, let’s pause for a moment and pay tribute to Packer and DeLuca. It probably seemed like a minor thing to them all those years ago but it turned out to be a truly big deal.
I had a nice talk with Scott Van Pelt yesterday. He called after reading yesterday’s blog, understandably a little upset, but very willing to discuss both his point of view and mine on the subject. He admitted that he had “wrestled,” with the issue for years. “I grew up a Maryland fan, I went to Maryland and I’m very passionate about my school,” he said.
All of which is absolutely fine as far as I’m concerned. In fact, I can honestly say I wish I felt a little more passion for my school. He also asked if I was wrong when I directed a profanity at the officials five years ago during a Navy-Duke football game. Of course I was wrong. That’s why I apologized on the air right away, offered to resign and, as I’ve said before, kind of grin and bear it when people bring it up now. I screwed up; I pay the price.
That said, he and I agreed that there’s a difference between one brief outburst and repeatedly getting up and screaming in public even if you aren’t on duty at the time. I would add in response to some of yesterday’s posts that I readily admit I have a bias towards Navy (and Army) but during broadcasts I probably defend the officials on calls that go against Navy about as often as I criticize them. Ask the Navy fans who listen regularly. That said, I withdraw nothing I’ve ever said about Perry Hudspeth.
One more point on bias: OF COURSE I’m biased. Everyone is for one reason or another. Do I like Mike Krzyzewski (or Gary Williams or Roy Williams or Paul Goydos or Ernie Els to name a few) more than Tiger Woods? Yes. I think they’re nicer people, having nothing to do with what they do away from their professions. That doesn’t mean I have an axe to grind with Woods, I just disagree with his behavior often—and did so long before November 27th—while always admiring his brilliance on the golf course.
Scott said he had talked to Jay Bilas, who I mentioned because I believed then (and believe now) that if he or I were to sit behind a Duke bench and yell at officials we’d be crucified. He said Bilas told him he thought what Scott did was okay—something about believing in the “duality of man,”—spoken like a true lawyer, which is fine. As I said, TV guys do commercials and the standards ARE different than for print guys.
In the end, I think we agreed to (sort of) disagree. I think Scott understands WHY I’d criticize him and I understand WHY he feels the way he feels. And we’re both proud members of FOG—Friends of Gary (me, unofficially of course). I give him credit for making the call and handling the situation, in my opinion, very maturely.
Finally to my friends from Hoya Paranoia Inc: Yes, you are RIGHT I was WRONG. Georgetown made The Big East Tournament in 2004. My memory is good but it isn’t perfect. I looked it up last night after I hosted the radio show on WFAN. Georgetown was 4-12 in the league and tied for 12th with Miami in a 14-team league and made the tournament (losing first round) on a tiebreaker. Craig Esherick was fired soon thereafter and replaced by John Thompson III.
Here’s the irony of the whole thing: I made the comment about the 2004 team on the air last night in the context of complimenting Thompson for coming in and rebuilding the program and going to The Final Four three years later. I wasn’t ripping Georgetown or, as one poster put it, “lying,” about the Hoyas. I was complimenting them and had a memory block. Like I said, my memory is good, but it isn’t perfect—especially these days.
So, I apologize for my mistake. I would also urge all of you to calm down for crying out loud. Will I continue to criticize Georgetown for not playing in the BB+T Classic? You bet. You want to say I’m wrong to do that, have at it. We’ll agree to disagree. I also will continue to say that John Thompson the elder killed local rivalries in DC in part because HE says he did it and in part because the evidence is right there for anyone to see.
For the record: I get along fine with JT the elder these days even if we disagree on the issue of local rivalries and the BB+T. Neither of us screams or yells or calls the other a “liar,” when we talk about those subjects. I’ve known JT III since he played at Princeton and think he is a terrific coach even though I wish he would just tell his dad, “I know you didn’t play in the BB+T but I think it is the right thing to do so I’m doing it.”
My guess is his dad would get over it. You Hoya fans need to do the same.