For the new czar of the NCAA tournament, March Madness is a family thing. Dan Gavitt's late father, Dave, was a driving force behind bracket-expansion and the boom in tourney-TV exposure in the 1980s, when he chaired the selection committee while also serving as commissioner of the newly formed Big East. In mid-August, Dan left his post as associate commissioner of Big East men's basketball to become the NCAA's new vice president for men's basketball championships. Dan steps into the post in the 75th year of the NCAA tournament's existence, and, before his first round of meetings with basketball-committee members in Dallas, he did a phone Q&A with SI.com. The following is an edited transcript.
SI.com: What are the first 100 days of an NCAA tournament director's life like, and what have you done thus far?
Dan Gavitt: This week will be three months on the job, and it's been very busy. The monthly, local organization planning committee meetings for the Final Four started in July, and I've been a part of several of them already. It's amazing how much planning goes into this massive event. Maybe even more this year because of the tournament's 75th anniversary celebration -- that the Division II and III championship games will be held in Atlanta on Sunday at Phillips Arena. There's even more than normal to plan at this Final Four.
SI.com: Am I correct in saying that your first Final Four, was the historic 1979, Indiana State-Michigan State, Larry-Magic Final Four in Salt Lake City?
DG: One of the all-time most famous Final Fours. And when I first got the job, I went out to catch the end of the men's basketball committee meeting in Park City, Utah, and was thinking as I flew out there that this is where it all began for me, in terms of love and affinity for the NCAA tournament. Ironic that I ended up back there in my first week.
SI.com: And you were at that 1979 Final Four because your father was finishing his tenure as coach at Providence, and about to become the commissioner of the new Big East.
DG: Yeah, I was what, 12 years old? And he took me along.
SI.com: I imagine you had good seats.
DG: It was at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus, which is not a huge facility, and we did have good seats, maybe within 10 rows of the court. I never was a ball boy at the Final Four, but I feel like I got close.
SI.com: Having seen that Final Four in the Huntsman Center, do you prefer something intimate like that to the large-scale, raised-court-in-a-dome setup we have now?
DG: I'm at some level a basketball purist, so I think the game is probably best played in a more intimate arena. But fact of the matter is -- and it's a good challenge for the college basketball community to have -- that the NCAA tournament is now so popular that 80,000 people want to be there, even if the seats are not that great at the top of the building. .. And in that setup, in order for everyone to see the court, we have to stick with the raised format.
Mark Lewis, my boss at the NCAA, raised the issue over the summer of whether we should consider taking the Final Four back to a traditional basketball arena, and I think the men's basketball committee will have that discussion. Of course it's fraught will all sorts of logistical issues, but I think it's a conversation worth having, in order to protect the game, as the committee is charged with doing.
SI.com: Do you have any venues in mind that would properly celebrate the sport's tradition?
DG: Well, I wouldn't want to go there because if I mention two or three, I'm going to leave four or five out. The game is played in exciting atmospheres on college campuses and metropolitan arenas, and I don't think there would be a lack of those who would be incredibly interested to host an event like that if it were ever to come to pass.
SI.com: This is something that gets thrown around among sportswriters and fans more than officials, but what about the idea of using all classic campus venues for early rounds, as long as the home teams weren't allowed to play?
DG: I think this men's basketball committee is full of talented, creative, interesting minds who will consider anything that will enhance the tournament and the college game. So sure.
And I look at our regional rounds as opportunities where we could grow the tournament and the game as well. There are 13 sites before you get to the Final Four, and they're not all sold out every year. We get great crowds in some places, but not all of them. This year we're going to be in the Staples Center in Los Angeles and in the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., two places we haven't had regionals in either forever or a really long time. And there are other locations that the NCAA tournament hasn't been to in quite some time, or ever, that we need to seriously consider.
SI.com: Madison Square Garden, I suspect, is one.
DG: That would be one.
SI.com: It seems logical. I'm anti-dome for the regionals. I know the NCAA has that "test-run" process where it uses the next season's Final Four dome as a regional site, but the atmosphere in those places tends to be lacking.
DG: I don't disagree with you. It makes sound sense from an event-planning standpoint to go into a dome to do a dry run the year before it's going to host the Final Four. But if we've been there for one or more Final Fours, and the setup hasn't really changed, is it still that important? I would challenge that contention. I'm not an expert yet, like some of our staff is, in running this massive event, but if you've been to Lucas Oil Stadium two or three times between Final Fours and regionals, do you really need to keep going back the year before the Final Four, to do a dry run, when things really haven't changed? That's a conversation that we need to have -- maybe not immediately, but at some point in the future.
SI.com: Your father's signature achievement during his tenure as tournament-committee chair (1982-84) was pushing for the expansion to 64 teams that went into effect in 1985. At that time, he said that a 64-team bracket "took care of everybody." Does 64 or 68, as we have now, still take care of everybody?
DG: He was right back in the mid-'80s. Hard to believe, though, that the mid-'80s are now 30 years ago. The game has grown since then, as has the number of institutions that have invested significantly in growing competitive basketball programs at every level. I use Butler and VCU as examples, aside from just your major-conference programs. So while that number may have been able to take care of everybody in the mid-'80s, it may not be able to now. The committee certainly didn't think it was enough when it expanded the tournament a few years ago to 68.
Would it be time at some point to expand beyond that? It's a loaded question, and I don't know the answer to it, but I think we need to be vigilant in considering it. I wouldn't be opposed to that discussion.
SI.com: To what degree would you consider expansion?
DG: My personal opinion is that the proposed jump to 96 did not make any sense at all. I said that back before I was in this position to have a strong opinion about it. [Gavitt formerly was associate commissioner of Big East men's basketball.] And any expansion is going to be the committee and membership's decision, not mine. But is there a better number in between 68 and 96, and a structure that could accommodate it? Obviously the committee and others did an enormous amount of work back then to consider that, and 68 was the decision, and until I have a chance with the committee and others to study that, I think we're at the right place right now.
SI.com: Is there any kind of expansion timetable?
DG: There is none. I don't want to mislead anyone: It has not been discussed in the three months that I've been at the NCAA, not once, and I'm not aware that the committee has discussed it recently. It's not an active topic. But if you frame it as, "Was what was right in 1985 still right now?," and the expansion from 65 to 68 was just a few years ago, so sometime in the future should it be considered again? I would say yes.
SI.com: In the bracket-selection process, the RPI formula has been the target of a lot of criticism. I know that it's just one tool that the committee uses to evaluate teams, but many statistically-minded people have brought its flaws to light -- or at least in my mind they have. I was curious if you feel that RPI has any value at all in the selection process.
DG: At all? I think it has some value. There's a healthy debate as to how much. I think it's critical in the evaluation/selection/seeding process that there's some quantifiable way to determine what are great teams, good teams, average teams, poor teams, terrible teams. And I don't think you can do it based on record alone, because strength of schedule is so different from one team or conference to another. So I think the RPI has value like any other quantifiable metric, and I think maybe there are some that are better, or not as good, of framing where your quality wins are, where your bad losses are. It has some value in that it provides a skeleton with which them the body can be built and evaluated. Without some quantifiable measure you're truly at a point where, because people's opinions can be so vastly different, depending on where their experience comes from, that you can't compare apples to apples.
SI.com: I'm a guy who's obsessed with efficiency numbers, which are on the other end of the spectrum. RPI doesn't take into account margin of victory or quality of play, it's just wins and losses. Could you envision a selection process more friendly to those things? It's not like they're excluded entirely, but they're not a mainstream element -- and I guess I feel like a metric that was introduced in 1981 could be ditched in favor of something that uses richer data.
DG: The process of evaluating teams has evolved a lot over the last 25-30 years and will continue to. And I think the committee will consider anything that will assist in their ability to best get it right. I think the committee does consider an enormous amount of factors, efficiency being part of it. But at end of the day it's still a win-and-loss game, and a win-and-loss business, and I think regardless of how you get there, in the culture of American sport, it's easiest to justify things based on how many wins and losses you have and what the quality of those wins and losses are. And I think it's served the tournament extremely well, but the process should always be under review, in hopes of making it as best as it can possibly be.
SI.com: This being the 75th anniversary of the tournament, can you reflect a bit on how it's grown? Does it still have ties to its roots or is it an entirely different animal than what you saw in your first one, in 1979?
DG: From the student-athlete and coach perspective, I don't think their experience has changed as much as you might think it has. All the things around them have changed. It's bigger and more visible, and that's for the better. But I've been with teams, been on the bench with three different teams as a coach that went to the NCAA tournament, been a conference-office official for about seven years and traveled with teams. When it gets down to their experience in the locker room and on the court, it's not a huge departure.
But one thing, as we're just coming out of the election, that I've been thinking about is how democratic, with a small d, that this event has become. In what other sporting event can you talk about the royalty -- the John Woodens, all the great UCLA teams and Carolina teams, you name it -- in the same breath with schools like Butler, VCU and Norfolk State, or players like Bryce Drew?
It's truly a democratic event from that perspective, in that it keeps getting bigger and bigger, from one coast to the other, from big schools to small. Fans in almost every area of the country, over the past 75 years, have been able to celebrate the magic of a March Madness run. It's an event where just a few great weekends can turn someone into a legend.