Friday, April 2, 2010

Yesterday’s annual NCAA press conference with Greg Shaheen

I swear to God when I walked into the NCAA’s annual press conference yesterday I had no intention of asking any questions or, for that matter, staying very long. The only reason I even wandered in was that the NCAA sort of trapped us by putting an hour break into the schedule between the time the players and coaches from Butler were available to talk and the time the players and coaches from Duke showed up.

So, if anyone from the NCAA was unhappy with what took place, they should blame themselves. Schedule the teams one after another the way you should and you won’t have me hanging around while you publicly congratulate yourselves on all the great work you’re doing for ‘student-athletes.’

What happened was this: Greg Shaheen, who is the NCAA vice president in charge of—for all intents and purposes—this basketball tournament, began outlining how a 96 team field would work. We all know the tournament is going to 96 teams, the only question is if they’ll make the leap all at once next year—that’s my guess—or ease into it over a two or three year period.

Shaheen knows that cat is out of the bag. Back in January when I wrote that it was a done deal and said that ESPN was going to put so many Disney Dollars on the table that the NCAA wouldn’t be able to resist, he wrote me an angry e-mail, not denying the expansion, but that I had implied that CBS wasn’t being treated fairly in the negotiation process. Now that CBS has partnered with Turner, the NCAA is bound to be very nice to them since the worst they can do is get into a bidding war with ESPN and drive the price higher—regardless of who ends up with the rights.

As Shaheen was describing how a 96 team tournament would play out in terms of schedule he made one completely ridiculous statement: that ‘student-athletes,’ would not miss any more class time under the new format than they already do now. He carefully outlined how the first week would work, emphasizing the fact that while the 64 non-bye teams would arrive at sites at the same time as in the past, the 32 bye teams could arrive a day or two later.

Fine. Let’s not even get into the fact that the first week of the tournament is often spring break for a majority of schools. Let’s just give the NCAA that one.

Then, having made that point a couple times, Shaheen simply stopped. He said nothing about the second week, which is when the extra round of games will have to be played. Since the round of 64 will now be played on Saturday-Sunday, the round of 32 has to be played the first half of the next week to get to the Sweet 16. Shaheen acted as if that round didn’t exist.

I couldn’t resist. I asked for the microphone—at NCAA press conferences you have to ask for a mike and for reasons I’ve never understood, “identify,” yourself before asking a question. I once identified myself as Bob Woodward and no one batted an eye.

So, I asked Greg exactly when the round of 32 would be played. He said most likely on Tuesday-Wednesday. That would mean the winners would play regionals on Thursday-Friday, meaning that teams that played on the weekend and then played the round of 32 and then the 16s would miss an entire week of school.

When I made that point, Greg referred back to the first week. I told him I wasn’t asking about the first week. He AGAIN started talking about the first week. I finally said something like, “well you just aren’t going to answer the question about the second week are you?”

He then claimed something about not understanding the ‘nuance,’ of my question. I could have said, “Oh come on Greg, you’re a smart guy, you get the question you just don’t want to answer it in this forum; don’t want it on the record that OF COURSE everyone will miss a full week of class—in addition to whatever they miss the first week and the four days the two teams in the championship game miss this weekend (Thursday, Friday, Monday, Tuesday).”

Afterwards, no longer at the podium, Shaheen admitted they’d miss the entire week although he claimed, “some teams,” could go home between their weekend game and their round of 32 game. Quick quiz: How many coaches do you think will play a game on Saturday night, fly home, maybe have the kids go to class Monday and then fly back to play Tuesday? How about none.

What bothered me about it, what caused me to jump in, were two factors: One, Shaheen was simply trying to bulldoze past the fact that there will be MORE missed class during a press conference in which the NCAA had been bragging about improved graduation rates. (A story for another day). Second, here’s an organization that runs screaming from the room whenever a football playoff is brought up because it doesn’t want to take on the BCS Presidents or the bowl lobby and then claims it is worried about MISSED CLASS TIME for football players (who would miss almost zero class time with a football playoff) and it is shrugging off MORE missed class time for basketball players as no big deal.

“Wouldn’t be that many teams affected,” Shaheen said later.

So apparently it is okay as long as the ‘student-athletes,’ from 16 schools are affected but not okay if ‘student-athletes,’ from eight schools are affected—though almost not at all—in football.

My point in asking the questions I asked wasn’t to embarrass Shaheen. I like him. He’s very bright but he is also one of those administrators who thinks if he says it then it must be so. Maybe that comes from hanging around the basketball committee for so long. When someone asked Dan Guerrero, the UCLA AD who is the committee chairman this year if he was concerned about how a 96 team field would affect attendance at the Pac-10 Tournament which already doesn’t draw very well, Guerrero said, “That’s not something we’ve addressed as a conference yet.”

Honestly, I think if you asked Guerrero where the sun’s going to rise tomorrow he would tell you that the committee had studied a lot of options: east, west, north and south and all were very worthy of hosting sunrise.

I have to admit I was a little surprised at the reaction to my exchange with Shaheen. I sometimes forget how fast information goes out on the internet and on TV these days. It’s a sign of age. But the reaction was swift and I guess what it shows is that a lot of people are pretty fed up with the NCAA’s constant filibustering on any real question.

This morning I presented Jim Boeheim with the US Basketball Writers Coach-of-the-Year Award at a breakfast. I noticed that a lot of the committee members were in the room when I got up to the podium. I was tempted to say that the USBWA had decided to expand breakfast to include lunch next year but we believed it wouldn’t cost those who came any extra money because, well, because we said so.

I decided to pass on the line and make fun of Boeheim instead, knowing he was going to nail me when it was his turn. (He did—he said the only thing that could ruin being named coach-of-the-year was having me present the award. Then he said he hadn’t worn a tie because he didn’t think he needed one with a bunch of writers. I took my tie off and gave it to him. Without missing a beat he pretended to look at the label and said, “JC Penney.” He was very funny).

One thing I like about coaches like Boeheim is that they don’t take themselves too seriously most of the time. Then again, he was the first guy to suggest expanding the tournament. All of which just proves that no one's perfect.


Matt Dick said...

As a Northwestern alum, I am driven insane by the idea that NU has never been granted a bid... I think they've been good enough several times in the last 20 years.

But given that, I understand the reasoning behind the bid system and it creates the greatest spectacle in American sports. This year, with NU on the bubble until late in the season, was a dream. I was into NU basketball more this year than I can remember.

Next year they will get in even if their record not half as good. I will be less interested, and I won't even bother watching the Big Ten tournament.


Mr. X said...


It sounds like you released your innner Kraken on Shaheen.

Woodrow said...

While I do not think expanding to 96 will be the end of the world as we know if, I do find the irony in that the new "bubble" isn't about the 97th team but about the 33rd ranked team. Everyone that doesn't get a bye is going to talk about how they got screwed - especially if that team in question comes from a non-football-BCS conference.

Anonymous said...

Watched PTI tonight and saw that Tony slipped one by the ESPN'd he do that and have a segment on you?

Anonymous said...

Has any sport ever made a move less popular with its own fans than this one? I guess this is what happens when a group of people sitting on a pile of money has to answer to no one. No commissioner, no union, nobody.

The only thing that will ever slow them down is if they feel that this billion dollar industry (except for the players) is finally going to crash. Why can't the players earn money from their efforts again? Who is still being fooled?

Anonymous said...


You are the now the closest thing that sports has to a conscience. Please, please, do not let the NCAA do this without writing about how they are pigs at a trough. Who else is going to do it? Not anyone on ESPN (obviously...they're too busy filling the trough.) There's nobody at the NYTimes who can speak to this like you can.

They're ruining a great month-long tournament, marginalizing regular seasons. It truly is a reason to be further turned off from professional and college sports, as if there's a difference between the two.

Chris said...

While many people in the sports have been throwing out cliches about how this is just a money-grab, that is to be expected, and I don't necessarily hold that against them, per se. I think the one aspect that has been grossly under-reported about this plan is how, like the BCS, it seems clearly designed to funnel more money to the power conferences at the expense of the smaller conferences.

32 additional at-large bids will be given out. How many of those will come from the current 'one-bid' conferences? Maybe a couple each year at most if a conference has a dominant team stumble in their conference tournament, but that's probably being generous. Lehigh could go undefeated in the Patriot league, but if they lose to Holy Cross in the conference final, they still ain't going. So the majority of the additional income from this expanded format will go to conferences like the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big 10, Big East, and Pac-10 who instead of getting 4-8 teams in, will now be getting 7-10 (or more) teams in every year.

Furthermore, many of the representatives from those smaller conferences will now only appear in the first round of 64 and be one-and-done most years. Since there are now 32 more games to spread the tournament monies over, even with an expanded pie to divide up, I have to imagine that a school's "share" for appearing in the new 1st round will be smaller than what they currently recieve for the current round of 64.

I won't even get into how this could ruin the david and goliath aspect of the first round as the top teams will now be insulated from the one-bid conference winner like Ohio who would now have to beat a mid-range team from a power conference before it even gets a shot at a Georgetown.

To me the biggest injustice is the finances. The Pie is increasing in size, but as the pie gets cut into 96 pieces instead of 65, the power conferences will now get almost all the new pieces, and the pieces given to the smaller conferences will actually be smaller.

We already know the NCAA just pays lip-service to academics when there's a buck to be made. (Although it's great to see them squirm when you call them out on it!) Because of your affection for the conferences like the Patriot League, I would love to see you lead the charge to expose this part of the new proposal and maybe put some pressure on them to make it equitable before the new distribution model is locked in place and the smaller conferences get completely screwed.

Keep fighting the good fight!

Chicago Socialista said...

Good for you, John. I'm sorry you didn't get a direct answer, but what was said really said it all.

Anonymous said...

What is scary is when the next opportunity for the NCAA to opt out of the television contract comes up (and they will opt out if more money can be made).

Hello 128-team tournament.

I'm sure the spin doctors will come up with some great reasons such as percentages of football teams that go to bowls and having to support men's fencing and rowing for schools.

Since the last expansion of the tournament to 64, schools have been able to cope and so has the NCAA (even through the recession). It's called budgeting.

Tom said...

John, I already respected you before Thursday's press conference, but I have even more respect for you now. Part of me wishes that you truly hadn't let go of Greg on the podium (whether he's a good guy or not), but part of me understands that you were trying to be gracious (and that you want to be allowed to attend future press conferences). I'm glad the person behind you (the transcript I read didn't say who it was) tried to keep up the line of questioning as well, even if it still wasn't really answered.

It's amazing to see the hypocrisy between the NCAA not caring about class for basketball players, but not allowing a football playoff because of class attendance issues. I really hope that NOBODY watches the new "opening round" games.

Elliot Fein said...

I would like to see the issue of paying athletes raised in this discusssion. I personally would like to see athletes at BCS schools in football and basketball paid not with money but a voucher like extension of their sholarship to extend their time in the classroom once their athletic eligiblity runs out.

I am not concerned about the athlete who is able to compete at the next professional level. The Michael Jordans of the world can afford to pay for their schooling to earn their degree once their sholarship runs out. I am concerned about athletes who are not able to compete at the next level. Once they have genuine motivation to hit the books, their scholarship often ends.

Since they contribute to the NCAA and their college institute making so many millions of dollars, they deserve an extended chance to earn a valuable degree; one without the impediment of NCAA athletics getting int the way of graduation.