Not so long ago the college basketball fan was considered a pariah among athletic patrons. And the game itself had none of the status, glamour or pugnacity needed to attract special attention. The President never phoned the locker room in college ball; the blimp never hovered over the arena; the freak with the rainbow hair never mugged behind the baseline. College basketball? We're talking Nowheresville. In a national feast fairly burgeoning with the tastes and aromas of sports of all sorts, particularly on the professional level, college basketball was a soggy bologna sandwich—amateur, regional, a fringe sideshow knocking them dead only in the sticks.
The hick college fan was ahead of his time, of course. But as prescient—and, it turns outs, as secretly numerous—as he was, he might never have been found were it not for the efforts of a short and round little independent television producer named Eddie Einhorn, who put together a telecast on Jan. 20, 1968 in the Astrodome between unbeaten No. 1 UCLA and unbeaten No. 2 Houston. That game not only attracted 52,693 in-person customers, still the largest basketball crowd in history, but also, through the miracle of TV, it literally discovered the college fan.
The ratings for that telecast—a 23 share of the audience—showed that folks all across the country were fascinated with the game even if it didn't involve their own cherished teams. The game was the thing. The game.
The next season NBC began televising the NCAA basketball tournament. In 1973 the network moved the championship game to prime time on Monday night, and by 1975 it was showing regular-season games on both Saturday and Sunday. As television coverage increased, the NCAA began expanding its tournament field, from 32 teams to 40 to 48, and the financial returns soared, too. Each Final Four team in New Orleans next March can expect to make as much as $500,000. A decade after the first tournament telecasts—a package of seven games—attracted a total audience of 26 million homes, the 1979 title game between Michigan State and Indiana State, that one game, was seen in 25.6 million homes. That is a passel of pariahs.
November 30, 1981
Last March a different kind of championship was decided. This time a second network, CBS, pulled off a shocking victory by wresting the NCAA tournament rights away from NBC and by establishing a regular-season schedule of its own. NBC countered by calling in its markers from most of the college conferences, setting up dates, times and matchups and locking the leagues into another new season with the old peacock. Now NCAA basketball will be nationally televised not only on two days a weekend but on two separate networks, a milestone yet to be attained by NCAA football. Additional coverage is provided by ESPN, USA, Metrosports and other cable-TV outlets. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith says that this season his father in Kansas will be able to see all but four of the Tar Heels' 26 games.
The upshot of all this is that schedules, those dangerous, make-or-break lists of games that are rivaled only by flesh and blood recruits in determining a coach's success, have gone absolutely haywire.
A quick perusal of the SI preseason Top 10 teams' dance cards indicates that no longer are the powers-that-be roasting marshmallows in the early going. No. 1 North Carolina, for example, begins the season with games against Kansas, Southern Cal, Tulsa, South Florida, Rutgers and Kentucky before relaxing. In a nine-game stretch No. 4 Kentucky will face Ohio State, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Georgia. Even No. 2 UCLA, which used to draft its opponents off the playground of the American Kennel Club and would venture out of Pauley Pavilion only for bomb scares, meets Brigham Young, Rutgers, Notre Dame, DePaul, LSU and Maryland before January. Three of those games will be played on the road.
Check your television listings, and you'll see that Louisville will play DePaul, St. John's and Marquette on CBS, and Missouri and Virginia on NBC. DePaul will play UCLA, Marquette and Notre Dame on NBC, and UAB (Alabama-Birmingham) on CBS. Georgetown will play UNLV on CBS, and Missouri on NBC. Michigan at Arkansas and Georgia at San Francisco open the season for CBS this Saturday. It is safe to say that most of these matchups would not have occurred in the pre-TV-war years. And if a better than average team becomes bigger than life because of repeated exposure, so be it.
The expansion of the NCAA tournament is partly responsible for teams seeking real, live competition rather than whipping up on a series of Campbells, Prairie View A&M's and Simon Frasers. It's no small factor, either, that the officials who select the NCAA field realize how much more important it is for a UNLV to go off and lose to a Georgetown by seven than to stay safely home on the Las Vegas Strip and beat a Western New Mexico by 43.
"The upper-echelon teams are moving out from their comfy roosts to go on the road and challenge each other," says Billy Packer, the TV announcer who has switched from NBC to CBS and who, through his personal contacts, created some of the CBS games for this season. "The bigger NCAA field means you don't have to win 20 games to get in the tournament anymore, so coaches aren't afraid to play the other honchos. The TV money, exposure and recruiting benefits are icing on the cake. The old days, when coaches stocked up with non-conference patsies or followed the UCLA formula of playing 19 home games, are over."
Well, not quite. Kansas State will take on Northern Iowa, South Dakota, Auburn-Montgomery and Wisconsin-Parkside. UAB will face Roosevelt, Chico (Calif.) State, Utica (N.Y.) College, and Mississippi Valley State. Even Blazer Coach Gene Bartow admits, "We do have some dogs."
Though Notre Dame plays all the usual famous suspects, what about the others, Digger Phelps? Northern Illinois, Valparaiso, Idaho, Maine, Northern Iowa? "Hey, Idaho was third in shooting percentage last year and has three starters back," Phelps says. "I want 14 power games, 11 got-to-win games and two others that can go either way but aren't considered power games. If you win 50% of your power games and all the rest, you have a 20-victory season. It's called marketing." It's also called power-mongering.
Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino speaks for most coaches when he defines the happy medium of scheduling. "I think as a means of trying to get wins, people do schedule wins," he says. "Either by giving big money guarantees to get a certain number of built-in home-court wins or by playing small schools. But you can't play 26 top teams. Either you'd be exhausted or you wouldn't have a chance to qualify for the tournament."
Massimino likes his teams to play in big cities, in warm weather, where his athletes can get "educational exposure." Huh? "I call it the Wheel of Fortune," he says. "You need wins. How do you get wins? You've got to have the players. How do you get players? You've got to get exposure. How do you get exposure? You play on television. You appear on television, you make money. You make money, you can recruit. You recruit well, you win. It's the Wheel of Fortune.' Massimino will prepare the Wildcats for their Dec. 4 clash against Boston College by playing Merrimack and St. Francis. And people criticize Larry Holmes?
"My ideal schedule would be 15 home games with a split on the road between league and non-league games," says West Virginia Coach Gale Catlett. "At least three of those road games should be against 'quality' opponents. But you have to prepare for your league opponents, so 'breathers' have to be fitted into the schedule. This year's schedule is more difficult than the ones I had in my first three years here." With the terrifying likes of St. Leo's, Robert Morris, Wisconsin-Superior, Youngstown State and Stetson currently on the West Virginia log, it is mind-boggling to consider the decrepitude of the Mountaineers' schedule last season when Dr. Gordon Wise, the marketing and hoops expert from Wright State in Dayton, rated Catlett's schedule the 214th strongest in the land.
Louisville Coach Denny Crum says he schedules the toughest teams he can find. "You've got to get the kinds of teams you'll meet in the NCAA tournament," Crum says. North Carolina's Smith says he schedules a "difficult December," the better to learn what his team must work on before the wrenching ACC season begins. Yet here again, a fine line. Kentucky Athletic Director Cliff Hagan points out, "You need one or two teams you can beat at home without even having to return the game. For teams like that we'll pay a little extra money. Coach [Joe B. Hall] needs to catch his breath by not having to play a top-five team every game."
This is known as buying a victory. Washington State Coach George Raveling once called up Ben Jobe of the University of Denver to ask Jobe to play in Pullman, Wash. Jobe said sure, but he wanted a $10,000 guarantee. "If we're going to sell a win," Jobe said, "we want to be well paid for it." The game never made the schedule.
"There are always ambitious teams that want to play you at your place to break into the national spotlight," says Raveling. "U.S. International in California [San Diego] will play four games a week on the road. That team puts on more miles than United Airlines. I guarantee they know the names of a lot of skycaps. People probably call them and ask when the next flight is leaving for Kansas.
"There's an art to scheduling," continues the Rave. "My usual rule is only one road game per season against non-conference schools. That way you never schedule yourself out of a job. What you should do is win 18 or 19 games a season. That allows the fans to get excited about what might happen if you win 20. Once you hit that 20 plateau, though, they start to expect too much and you can be gone. [In his last six seasons Raveling has averaged 18 victories.] There are a lot of guys working for McDonald's now who played the top teams in the country. The name of the game is survival. A good schedule lets you survive."
Another rule is: Any team can find any excuse to play anywhere. Last season South Carolina and Florida State switched their game to Miami so they could watch the Seminole football team play in the Orange Bowl. The Gamecocks also saw the Orange Bowl parade. "How many times does a basketball coach get to see a bowl game?" says South Carolina's Bill Foster. "That's what I consider good scheduling."
On the other hand, last December Virginia crossed over the Blue Ridge Mountains for a harmless "Welcome Back, Ralph" game against then unknown James Madison in Ralph Sampson's hometown of Harrisonburg, Va. The Cavaliers came back gasping with a 53-52 victory as Sampson scored 11 points in his worst performance as a collegian.
Clearly, it's not just who a team plays, but where. Some places are the pits, to be avoided at all costs. Unless, of course, the game is on television.