Category Archives: march madness

Time out for NCAA mascots

This is a pet peeve. Why is it that televised coverage of March Madness, which the NCAA insists is amateur sport contested by “student-athletes” motivated purely by devotion to Dear Old Alma Mater, skips the college atmospherics?

Instead of grave, ad nauseam dissection of strategy amid pauses in the action not already taken up with commercials—all that redundant hoops talk-talk-talk—how come we don’t get to eavesdrop on the occasional school fight song? Or catch a glimpse of some mascot high jinx?

During an early-round game in Memphis a couple of years ago, TV missed UCLA’s Joe Bruin acknowledging the geographic proximity to Graceland by donning dark glasses, scarf and white jump suit and hoofing to Elvis music. Can’t help falling in love with that.

elvis

Instead of official canned “CBS College Basketball Theme” music going in and out of advertising breaks at this weekend’s Final Four, why not linger briefly on the Oklahoma band pounding out a few bars of “Boomer Sooner”? (The music is a rip-off of Yale’s “Boola Boola,” but any fight song does a better job of placing the viewer on the scene than generic network tunes.)

What mostly separates the Big Dance from just another NBA production are the pep bands and anthropomorphically costumed wildcats and ducks and shocks of wheat—partners in high times for the schools and their most involved followers, the students and alumni.

Not so long ago, I found an interview of Iowa’s Herky the Hawk during a March Madness timeout every bit as stimulating as listening the coaches and players ponder tactics and who’s No. 1. Since birds don’t talk, Herky’s end of the conversation consisted of charades….

herky

Me: How tall are you?

Herky: (Tapping a finger six times into his other palm, pausing, then tapping four times) 6-foot-4.

Me: What year in school?

Herky: (Tapping twice). Sophomore.

Me: Your major?

Herky: (Rubbing his thumb against two fingers). Business.

When lightly regarded Stephen F. Austin shocked West Virginia in this year’s first round, then gave Notre Dame a serious scare, the folks on the “electric teevee machine”—as my friend Charlie Pierce calls it—raved about the gritty, unemotional play of SFA senior Thomas Walkup. What never was mentioned was how Walkup, a muscular lad with a wilderness beard, was doppelganger to the school’s lumberjack mascot. (Newsday’s Laura Albanese noticed, and posted the Tweet below.)

lumberjacklumberjack

West Virginia, by the way, joins Stephen F. Austin as one of the few colleges whose mascot appears in human form (also bearded) with its Mountaineer. Which is fine, though not as much a conversation piece as St. Joseph’s University’s student-inside-an-eagle suit, who tirelessly flaps his wings throughout games. Or Syracuse’s student-inside-a-giant-orange.

We all know the tournament has no real relationship to higher education. The NCAA’s current 14-year March Madness television-rights deal is worth $10.8 billion. A single conference, the ACC, already was guaranteed $30 million based on advancing six teams into this year’s Sweet Sixteen. The most successful coaches regularly are the highest-paid employees at their colleges. One of this year’s semifinals features two teams—North Carolina vs. Syracuse—shaking off the effects of recent academic fraud.

By stripping away the peripheral ambiance—which, I submit, is a saving grace for an otherwise cynical and hypocritical operation—television’s treatment of the event further amplifies the serious-business aspect. At least give me a hint of campus life with the periodic fight song. And a student in a wacky critter suit.

(Mizzou's Truman, left, and me)

(Mizzou’s Truman, left, and me)

 

Upsets are the madness in March

IMG_0912

Bless the NCAA tournament’s custom of upsets, all of which are great things (except when they victimize your team). If it weren’t for Middle Tennessee State ambushing pre-tournament co-favorite Michigan State, Yale waylaying Baylor and Stephen F. Austin bushwhacking West Virginia over this year’s first weekend, where would the madness be?

yale

Each March, when the traditional rich-getting-richer powerhouses—the Kansases, Kentuckys, North Carolinas and Dukes—set about chasing yet another national championship and bigger television payday, the real charm is provided by the underprivileged. It is the presence of gypsies in the palace, unlikely to assume the throne but meanwhile smashing some of the fine dinner China, that expands the audience.

According to the 538.com Web site, the 2012 first-round victory by No. 15 seed Norfolk State over my alma mater, No. 2 Missouri, remains the biggest upset since the Big Dance was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. That’s a moment I choose not to celebrate. Still, what is so appealing about the tournament is the sudden, sky-high growth by previously perceived pipsqueaks. Apparent finders of magic beans.

So, no offense to Norfolk State, but among my favorites were Valparaiso, George Mason and, 34 years ago, Middle Tennessee State’s first iteration of its NCAA fairy tale. On that occasion, when the tournament still was limited to 48 teams, with 12 seeds per regional, I had been dispatched to Nashville by Newsday in anticipation of a second-round showdown between in-state powers Kentucky and Louisville, their first since 1959.

Louisville, as the Mideast Region’s No. 3 seed, had a first-round bye, awaiting No. 6 Kentucky’s assumed romp over the lightly regarded No. 11 seed snidely referred to as “Middle Tennis Shoes State.” Kentucky’s advance past Middle Tennessee was so likely that I left my portable computer in my motel room, across the Vanderbilt campus from the arena, with no plans of reporting on the game.

Naturally, Middle Tennessee won, 50-44—its first-ever NCAA tournament victory—prompting my mayday phone call to the office and a mile sprint back to my writing machine, on deadline, with the lead sentence becoming obvious as I ran: “Never plan ahead.”

Middle Tennessee’s coach then was an aw-shucks fellow named Stan Simpson, who recalled growing up in Georgia, “sitting up nights and listening to Cawood Ledford broadcast the Kentucky games on WHAS out of Louisville. Lord, I never thought I’d see this day.”

In 1998, Valparaiso—a small, Lutheran-affiliated school in Indiana so little known that its proper pronunciation of Val-puh-RAY-so regularly was miscast in the original Spanish, Val-puh-RIZE-zo—rolled into the Sweet 16 despite its No. 13 seed. Against No. 3 Ole Miss in the first round, Valpo was trailing by two points when it in-bounded the ball under the Ole Miss basket with 2.5 seconds to play, executed a 60-foot pass, then a quick flip to Bryce Drew, whose 23-foot three-point basket shocked all concerned. Valparaiso in a most delightful way.

bryce

The personal downside to that uplifting development was that the crushed Ole Miss lads were coached by Robert Evans, a former high school classmate of mine in Hobbs, N.M. But that was offset, on a trip to Valparaiso the next week, when I encountered a community beside itself with giddiness. Valparaiso is the home of gourmet popcorn maker Orville Redenbacher, and its annual Popcorn Ball is described as the town’s “adult prom,” the biggest social event on the calendar. Yet that year, even Valparaiso’s mayor skipped the Ball to be in St. Louis for the university’s Sweet Sixteen game.

And Valparaiso’s coach, Homer Drew—Bryce’s father—told of how his son had turned down an offer from perennial NCAA tournament contender Syracuse to stay home with his dad’s team, in spite of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s incredulous response: “Don’t you want to play in the Big Time?”

“When I was an assistant of Dale Brown at LSU,” Homer Drew said then, “I got to experience the Big Time. I’ve been coaching long enough to understand that fame is fleeting. I’m thrilled for my team, but you won’t be here next week. TV won’t be here. I’m just very blessed to have shared these four years with Bryce, because when fame is gone, family and friends will be there. That is most important.”

They’re still together at Valpo, too—Homer as associate athletic director and Bryce, since 2012, his successor as head coach.

Then there was the George Mason experience from 2006, when the school’s basketball team, an at-large addition to the NCAA field and seeded 11th in its regional, levitated right to the Final Four by knocking off No. 6 Michigan State, No. 3 (and defending champion) North Carolina, No. 7 Wichita State and No. 1 UConn.

gmason

That run not only was a SportsCenter sensation and an underdog’s public relations windfall, but prompted then-university president Alan Merten to conflate the achievement of George Mason (the school team) with George Mason (the man). The latter, already dead 99 years before basketball was invented, “was the true bracket buster,” Merten gleefully informed me. One of the original American revolutionaries, a vigorous opponent of unrestricted power, an advocate for the little guy, Mason wrote Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, the blueprint for the U.S. Bill of Rights. And he told his neighbor and friend, George Washington, that he could not bring himself to sign the U.S. Constitution because it lacked a stipulation to eliminate slavery.

“We’re pesky,” president Merten said then. “I love that word that’s being used for our basketball team. As a university, too, we’re annoying, like George Mason was. We’re aggressive. We go by the rules but we don’t do it the way it’s always been done.”

This is the beauty of March Madness: The insistence that we revisit assumptions.

March Madness…and Stony Brook

steve

When Steve Pikiell arrived on Eastern Long Island’s Stony Brook University campus in 2005, embarking on his first season as a head basketball coach in Division I, he had three small shelves installed in his office, one slightly higher than the other.

The lowest shelf was reserved for the game ball that would commemorate his first victory. (That souvenir appeared months later, on Jan. 2, 2006, in Pikiell’s 10th game, after one of only four victories in 28 games that season.) The next shelf up was set aside for Stony Brook’s first league title in Division I. (That was occupied on Feb. 24, 2010, with a victory over America East Conference regular-season runner-up Vermont.)

The top shelf was left empty for “that NCAA ball,” Pikiell said shortly before his teams reached the first of five conference tournament finals in the last six years in 2011. “When the guys come in here and tell me how hard they’re working,” he said then, “I just point to that shelf and say, ‘If you’re working that hard, we’d have that ball up there already.’”

So now—not so terribly long after Pikiell envisioned what certainly seemed to be a stretch in 2005—his team has met that goal with a first-round NCAA Tournament date against the University of Kentucky.

A bit of history, in terms of context, is in order, since the match-up is widely construed as Stony Brook fighting with rocks against Kentucky bazookas.

First, Kentucky (where the emphasis on college basketball long has been so substantial that it has bordered on obscene): Kentucky is the most successful college basketball operation in history—more NCAA tournament appearances (55), wins (120), Sweet Sixteen (41) and Elite Eight (36) appearances than any other school, with eight national titles that rank second only to UCLA’s 11.

Kentucky also was caught up in the point-shaving scandals of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

By 1924, Kentucky was playing in the largest basketball arena in the South, seating 2,800, moved into an 11,500-seat coliseum in 1950 and now plays in 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, named for 42-year, 880-game-winning coach Adolph Rupp.

ky

Stony Brook, in humble comparison, has been playing in a relatively palatial 4,000-seat on-campus arena the past two seasons after years in what resembled a high school box—1,700-seat Pritchard Gymnasium. Originally the State University College of Long Island, founded in 1957—shortly before Kentucky won its fourth national title—Stony Brook didn’t begin playing intercollegiate basketball (in non-scholarship Division III) until 1960, didn’t settle on its current campus until 1962 and didn’t move to Division I until 1999.

The first time I did any reporting for Newsday on Stony Brook history, I found far more emphasis on its health sciences and medical school than on its athletic prowess (nothing wrong with that), with even a quirky nod to its 1973 graduate school alumnus Stephen Kaplan, who became the world’s foremost vampirologist, founder of the Vampire Research Center. Kaplan conducted a world-wide 1980s demographic study in which he was curious to hear from people who had seen vampires, been attacked by vampires, knew vampires, claimed to be vampires, wished to correspond with vampires or wished to become vampires. (Kaplan, known as a skeptic of the infamous Amityville Horror hauntings of the mid-1970s, died in 1995.)

18 Nov 1977 --- Original caption: Dr. Stephen Kaplan, a Vampireologist among his other talents, sits in his Elmhurst, Queens, home 11/18, surrounded by artifacts of his interests- including a devil in the painting upper right. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Stephen Kaplan

Anyway, when Stony Brook’s administrators concluded that big-time athletics was a reasonable endeavor to generate publicity and school spirit and opted for sports scholarships, they first hired veteran Canisius and Fordham coach Nick Macarchuk, then opted for Pikiell, a former captain of UConn teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.

There was no sexy heritage of Stony Brook basketball greatness when the 38-year-old Pikiell arrived. Nothing like Kentucky’s folklore. Then again, I am reminded of what celebrated coach Larry Brown told me when he was coaching at Kansas in the mid-1980s. Brown, now at SMU, led 10 professional teams and got perennial powers UCLA and Kansas to the NCAA title game. Yet he made the apparently counterintuitive point that “tradition is who’s been in the Final Four the last four years. The top recruits…think of tradition as what’s on the tube right now….”

True enough. To some extent, the way it works is that high school big shots want to be on ESPN or the networks, those arbiters of tradition. Yet Pikiell somehow kept selling recruits on that cramped, dinky Pritchard gym for years, gave them a Nostradamus view of a future NCAA Tournament status, and crafted some nice, entertaining teams.

So Stony Brook isn’t Kentucky. So what? My occasional dealings with Pikiell were of a committed, respectful, optimistic gentleman. A top-shelf guy.