How Selection Sunday Nearly Ruined My Life
At one point in The Usual Suspects (The second greatest movie of all time), McManus (played by Stephen Baldwin in what may well be the only good role of his life) looks through a rifle scope, counts the seven guys he’s about to dispatch and says “Oswald was a (redacted derogatory term, but you get the idea).”
While I would never say something like that, you’ll have to forgive me if, on yet another Selection Sunday, I am unimpressed by Joe Lunardi and the billion or so “Bracketologists” who have come after him. Years before Bracketology became a word, I worked with a group that predicted who would be in the NCAA Tournament not on national television and not for big money. And they didn’t take pride in accurately predicting “63 of the 65 teams in the Tournament field,” because if they got two teams wrong they got fired. We produced the game programs for the NCAA Tournament games.
Without going into all the boring details of the process (which I tried in an earlier draft before I put myself to sleep) once upon a time, this was no easy process. As hard as it is to imagine now in the days of the internet and media mock selection events, even the Tournament selection criteria was a fairly closely held secret. In fact, a publication I used to edit was one of the first to print a story that outlined the selection process. It was so unusual we were stunned when the story got approved. There was no on-line access to the RPI or the nitty gritty reports. When we started, there was no internet and no e-mail. So you can see the hurdles that had to be overcome.
We prepared as if there would be about a 200-team Tournament, requesting a minimum of a team photo, roster, schedule and a logo from every Division I school in the country. Again, in the age before the internet and e-mail, this all meant asking small schools with limited budgets to mail a package (which cost money) that included a hard copy of at least a team photo (that cost money), for a page in a publication that may never happen. That was a pretty tough sell to a lot of college SIDs, but there was no way, if a team won a conference tournament on a Saturday, for materials to get in, a page to be produced and a program to be printed to ship the following Monday or Tuesday. And if an unexpected team did reach the field of (then) 64, and you were responsible for information that wasn’t in, you were fired, no questions asked.
In the case of severe emergency, the printed materials could be faxed. We re-typeset the printed material, prepped the photos for printing and proofed the pages. We would produce pages for every team with a late conference tournament, every team with a realistic shot at an at-large bid and the top four seeds in every early conference tournament.
Only once did we get what amounted to a rejection letter, though. The best response our office ever received was a hand-written note from a Sports Information Director from a then-Big West school that read, “I would like to be optimist, but am realist.” He told us how his team hadn’t won much and was unlikely to advance and that since they had any early tournament, he’d FedEx the information on Monday if they won. To this day, everybody that worked in the office at the time uses that line at least once a year and two of my coworkers scheduled a side trip on a visit to California to meet the SID (from that point forward an office legend) in person.
Every team page had to be proofed and approved by the school it represented well before Selection Sunday, so that as the season wound down, all we had to do was update player stats, add game results and double check that pages were ready for production.
We’d get the brackets faxed to us about half an hour before the show went on. One year we knew the absolutely last team out, as shortly after we received the first bracket the fax (yep, fax) buzzed again and we received a revised version. Then we went about the task of organizing teams for each individual site’s program and getting ready for press.
In my eight years there, only once was no page ready for a team that was selected to the field – Southern Cal with Roderick Rhodes in 1997. ThePac-10/12 still didn’t have a tournament at the time and everybody had written the Trojans off. But the information was in our office, the page got put together quickly and we went about our business. No firings.
Part of that process was exciting and exhilarating. But the part of it that involved things like your job riding on the six-seed in a low major conference who had refused to send their team photo losing to the one-seed in a game on the last Saturday of the season. And it was both terrifying and exhausting.
Now all this seems ridiculous. By sometime last week my beagle had probably watched enough ESPN to accurately pick which 68 teams will be in the field. Every school has a functional Web site that has an accurate roster, stats updated in real time and a printable copy of any photo you could ever need is only an e-mail away. But from 1993 to some time before I left that company in 2001, that wasn’t the case. And by 2001 it had taken its toll on me. Selection Sunday wasn’t something you looked forward to like a kid at Christmas. It was something you started to dread immediately after Christmas.
Over the years, I’ve obviously regained my love for the Tournament, but I didn’t watch a selection show for the first two years after I no longer had to. On Selection Sunday 2002, I looked up at a clock and realized that I had forgotten completely about it. At the time it felt fabulous.
This year, though, like the eight years since I fully recovered from Selection Sunday stress, I’ll be camped in front of the TV again, ready to raise heck when UK is stuck playing Kansas in St. Louis and feeling bad for the players who learn their NCAA Tournament dreams are gone in front of a TV camera. And no matter what happens, I am unlikely to get fired.