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Sanford D. Horn: Of money and mediocrity

Column by Sanford D. Horn
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Virginia Tech men’s basketball coach Seth Greenberg gave a gracious interview upon learning his Hokies would be on the outside looking in at last months college basketball holy grail – March Madness and the NCAA Tournament.

Greenberg praised his team’s 22-9 regular season mark coupled with a strong showing in the ACC and a third place finish of 10-6 – certainly more than competitive stats to find a home amidst the field of 65, but it was not to be. Greenberg did not sound bitter in looking ahead to the NIT bid he was certain to receive hours after being shunned by the Big Dance.

However, the fatal mistake Greenberg made was in comparing his Hokies to those schools who clearly were “last in” picks by the selection committee. Is that really what one aspires to – being as good as the 64th best team? Is it enough just to be invited to the Big Dance, or is it far more important to compete and advance to fight for the shot at playing in the Final Four and compete for a national championship? When did striving for mediocrity become acceptable?

To be fair, this is not an attack on Coach Greenberg, whom I like and admire. He has risen through the coaching ranks honing his craft at places like Long Beach State all the while fighting anti-Semitism in locker rooms at places like New Mexico State in Las Cruces. But as an ACC fan and alumnus of the University of Maryland (losing on a buzzer-beater to eventual Final Four participant Michigan State), I see and read more about those teams and coaches. Clearly what was said about Greenberg and his reaction to his team missing out on the Big Dance could easily have been said of myriad coaches around the nation.

However, and this speaks to the big picture of the NCAA Tournament expanding from 65 teams to 68 staring with the 2011 tournament, and the even bigger picture of the greater acceptance of a society becoming more and more mired in a culture of mediocrity.

Make no mistake, expanding the tournament to 68 teams is merely a slippery slope to what some in the sport and more in the media want – a 96-team behemoth which would also sound the death knell for the NIT (National Invitation Tournament) the original college basketball post-season tournament that currently features 32 teams and culminates with its final four at Madison Square Garden.

While a 96-team tournament simply adds but one game to the current set up for all but the top 32 teams, as they would be given a first round bye (to which most teams would object), there’s something more sinister at play here other than scheduling logistics. First and foremost, is the money. While I believe greed is good as long as there is a demand for what is being supplied, if one overworks the golden goose, eventually all that comes out of her is crap – and that is what a 96-team NCAA Tournament will provide.

More and more money is pumped into a tournament that is already an adman’s dream with longer halftimes, more timeouts and more commercial breaks, and, oh, there is even some basketball being played. Then there’s the merchandising, which of course, I play my own part as I don the sweatshirt of my alma maters and other favorite schools throughout the three week extravaganza.

And let’s not forget the office pools generating more “unofficial” money than one wants to imagine or even admit. More people who couldn’t tell the difference between an Ohio Bobcat and a Cincinnati Bearcat or a Central Michigan Chippewa from an Eastern Michigan Eagle are willing to plunk down five, 10, 20 or more dollars to fill out a bracket. And of course the man hours lost to productive work not taking place during the first four days of the tournament as 48 of the 63 tournament games are played.

While I vociferously object to a 96-team tournament, I neither endorse the 68-team, or even the current 65-team format due to the aforementioned slippery slope. For the sake of the uninitiated, the NCAA Tournament has grown from a mere eight teams in its inception in 1939 to 64 teams in 1985 and then to 65 in 2001. The 64-team format is both manageable and the most credible by rewarding a mandatory spot to each conference tournament champion and filling out the remaining at-large positions with the most “worthy” teams.

I do take issue with the notion of conference tournament champions being rewarded an automatic bid, however, when a sub-.500 team manages to get hot and win three or four games in a row over a weekend following a less than stellar regular season lasting from mid-November through early March. The conference tournaments are also mostly about money, but for the smaller conferences, yes, they are a showcase for the nation to see their better teams and players for three or four days. I would still grant the automatic bid to the teams who perform well all season long and win their conference regular season title.

In spite of my taking issue with the distribution of the automatic bids, the 64-team format works best. Consider, for example in 1974 the last year only one team per conference received an invitation to the Big Dance, the ACC Tournament final featured Maryland and North Carolina State – two of the top four teams in the country – not just the conference. My Terrapins lost a heartbreaking 103-100 game in overtime, that has been labeled by many one of the greatest games played in college basketball. Yet, with that loss, the Terps ended a season with a record of 23-5 that did not include any post-season tournament as they turned down an opportunity to play in the NIT.

Between 1974 and 1985 the NCAA Tournament grew to the 64-team March Madness many have come to love and revere. Expanding to 96 teams does speak volumes about the level of competition being watered down and the acceptance of mediocre programs being rewarded with post-season play.

The epidemic of mediocrity is already poisoning the well starting with children in elementary school as they are given trophies not for winning, but merely for showing up and participating. Schools are banning more forms of competitive activities in favor of ones where no winners or losers are declared. Or worse, when competitive games are played sans scorekeeping. Not to mention grading on curves and the dumbing down of far too much curriculum.

This is deleterious on so many levels. Children must learn about the importance of competition. This is a competitive world and the sooner children learn that, the less they will be disappointed later in life when they are not handed jobs, contracts or other gains or promotions due to a lack of merit and not just for showing up.

Playing by the rules and a moral sense of fair play are not at stake regarding the notion of competition; they are not mutually exclusive. They are all important lessons for children to learn, as sadly, far too many adults have forgotten them.

It is some of these same adults who, in endorsing a 96-team tournament, have likened it to the college football bowl season that rewards 6-6 teams with post-season play, because, once again, we all know there are 34 bowl games due to the almighty dollar, or more accurately, the almighty millions.

Not only is it an obscenity to reward a mediocre .500 team with a bowl game, but there is little demand. Just watch some of those games where thousands of empty seats masquerade as fans. Who really gives a crap about Temple against UCLA in the EagleBank Bowl on a frigid December afternoon in the windy and filthy RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.?

Let’s not see March Madness become March Sadness with the inclusion of the Prairie View’s of the world. If teams are worried about not earning their way into the Big Dance, they should work harder – and that especially includes working to make more than 60 percent of their free throws, but that’s a column for another day. For now, 86 the 68-team tournament as it is much ado about money and mediocrity.

Sanford D. Horn is a writer and political consultant living in Alexandria. He is also a member of the University of Maryland Terrapin Club and a football season ticket holder.