As we walk through this veil of tears we call life, it’s rare that you ever get to witness perfection. Or anything close to it. Man is an imperfect creature, so it follows that anything designed by the mind of man or built by his hand will be flawed in some way. Even a Persian rug maker will put one crooked stitch in his work because only Allah is perfect.
And yet somehow, in spite of all our faults, we imperfect beings were able to create the perfect sporting event: March Madness. And it truly is as close to the utopian ideal as any complex system ever designed by mankind. From the preseason tournaments in the fall until the end of February, I have to confess I’m not the biggest follower of college basketball in the country. There are too many other sports going on that frankly mean more to me. And to use the expression I heard Larry Lucchino use once talking about something else entirely, during the regular season of college hoops, I’m dealing with wolves a little closer to the wagon.
But that changes once the conference tournaments begin and the brackets start to take shape. Then I start the annual crash course in Bracketology, catching up on months’ worth of missed games, re-learning which schools are in NCAA violations jail, re-subscribing to Jay Bilas tweets, remembering where the carousel left the big-name coaches off last summer, and trying to get re-acclimated to speaking Dick Vitalese.
Because — Lord help me — I do love it so. I love the NCAA tourney more than Brad on “The Bachelor” loved each of the last 12 bachelorettes. At this time of the year I always remember something the great Dan Jenkins wrote once. He was talking to a friend from England who asked him, “In which month is it that you Americans become obsessed with tall, black men running around in shorts?” “That would be March,” he replied. Yes. Yes it would.
There’s something in it for everyone. The hardcore degenerate gambler has an all-you-can-eat Old Country Buffet of games to bet on. The casual gambler can get involved in a pool and maybe can throw a few bucks on a team to win it all. For nonfans, it’s easy to follow. For everyone else, it’s an orgy of buzzer-beaters, upsets, comebacks, rivalry games and story lines that write themselves.
And in some weird way, I think I enjoy it more because I live in a part of the country without a competitive team. That is to say, New England is lacking that major conference basketball factory school that draws you in because you’re dying to see that team cut down the nets. Despite what the Superfans will tell you, Boston College is plenty satisfied with its one-tournament-win-per-decade pace. Harvard has not been in it since 1946. UMass had that one flirtation with greatness. And once that was wiped from the history books like Winston Smith by the NCAA’s Ministry of Truth, their student body was only too happy to forget basketball and go back to majoring in keg stand studies. And seeing as I went to Bridgewater State (team nickname: “The Fightin’ Commuters”), I don’t have a dog in the March Madness fight. So I’m free to just enjoy it for the fun and spectacle of it. As opposed, say, to the pro sports playoffs, which are life and death and never to be enjoyed unless they end in a Duckboat parade.
Ever since the NCAA expanded to the field of 64 in the mid-'80s, the college basketball tournament has been so sublime, so without defects, that it’s hard to believe that the same organization that brought us the inexplicably stupid BCS football system could’ve devised it: 64 teams in four regionals broken down into four sub-regionals with the seeding all predetermined and everyone needing six wins to the championship. And it all fit together like a spider web. There was a Euclidean symmetry to the whole thing that was so objectively perfect that even the ass-clowns who run the NCAA couldn’t screw it up.
Not that they didn’t try. Ten years ago, they added the 65th team, which was a peculiar idea. But it added the winner of some irrelevant conference without eliminating a mid-major and by making the 65th team play the 64th for the right to get road gradered by the overall No. 1 it was no harm done. You still got to see the bracket selections on Sunday, got your office pool bracket sheets on Monday morning, had until Thursday to turn them in, and you didn’t have to even pay attention to the play-in.
But like the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by a committee. And this particular committee being part of the NCAA, it couldn’t leave well enough alone. So it concocted this bizarre scheme in which it added three more play-ins that is so utterly stupid that it makes sense only to the people who came up with the idea that a school can sell a jersey with a kid’s name on it but the kid can’t see a nickel of the profits. I could see the logic if they had the eight worst teams all have play-ins for the right to squeak in as a No. 16 seed. It would affect only those eight schools and plus be another advantage for the No. 1 teams that would be playing a team that had to play an extra game. Fine.
But to create play-ins who’ll automatically come in as an 11 (USC vs VCU in the Southwest) and as a 12 (UAB vs Clemson in the East) is nonsensical, even by college sports standards. Especially when you factor in that every single year at least one 11 or 12 advances. It’s almost as if when you’re a committee of any kind, you can’t just keep sitting around at meetings saying, “Everything is fine just the way it is so let’s not do anything harebrained to ruin it. Let’s just finish off the cheese platter and knock off for the day.” You’ve to change things just to have something to do.
So in this case, they voted to add cards to this perfectly stable house of cards they had built instead of leaving it as is. Running my office pool is plenty challenging enough without me having to spend all week explaining to every knucklehead who joins what they’re supposed to do with the four games that are already being played.
And if the notion of a collection of rich guys in suits sitting around a board room screwing up a perfectly good system by fixing something that ain’t broke sounds familiar, the same thing is happening in the NFL. Somehow in spite of themselves, the NFL owners — that collection of crazy old coots, savvy businessmen and Lucky Sperm Club members — somehow managed to get it right. Like the college basketball tournament, they had the whole league set up just right. Thirty-two teams in eight divisions playing a rotating schedule of 16 games with a bye week thrown in the middle. In each conference, two teams get byes, two host home games, and two wild cards have to go on the road. It all makes sense, like an ecosystem that’s struck a harmonious balance.
Sooo … naturally the owners want to ruin it with this preposterous 18-game schedule that no one but they and the Amalgamated Association of Third-String Quarterbacks want. They can claim that they took that proposal off the table, but they didn’t fling it out the window into the dumpster, so you and I both know it’ll be back soon. Along with the other trial balloons they’ve floated: expanded playoffs and adding a team or two.
In fairness, I suppose I shouldn’t call the NCAAs or the NFL “perfect.” But they’ve gotten it as close to perfect as any organization in sports. And I’ve seen the others screw themselves up, and it’s always due to simple, blind, thoughtless greed. The NHL and the NBA in particular, who have made entire months out of their schedule completely irrelevant and created teams that are hard to believe exist. (Has anyone actually seen the Columbus Blue Jackets play?) I think the baseball wild card system has been a wild success, despite the fact that insufferable traditionalists like Bob Costas poured gasoline over their heads and threatened to immolate themselves with their Mickey Mantle rookie cards. But MLB is talking about adding more teams to the playoffs, almost guaranteeing the first Thanksgiving World Series game. And enough is e-friggin-nough.
I’ve watched probably a hundred different shows about the making of “Jaws,” which is probably my favorite movie ever. And they always include the interview with producer Daryl Zanuck, who got worried because after the film was done and they realized they had a masterpiece on their hands, Steven Spielberg kept tinkering with it. Adding a scene, deleting some, shooting new footage. And Zanuck told him “Steven, you have to stop or you’re going to improve this thing into a failure.”
So, too, the NCAA basketball committee: On behalf of everyone who loves this tournament … not just likes it but loves it … knock off messing around with this thing until you improve it into the BCS system.
Follow Jerry on Twitter @jerrythornton1.