A PROPOSED OPEN NCAA TOURNAMENT WOULD OPEN A BIG BASKET OF WORMS

December 06, 1982

At a recent meeting, the National Association of Basketball Coaches approved a radical proposal. Of the 116 Division I coaches present, 79 voted to open the NCAA Tournament to all 277 Division I teams, excluding only those on probation. If approved next year by the NCAA Basketball and Executive committees, the stampede of teams into the tournament will begin in the 1983-84 season.

The coaches took their cue from an editorial by Bob Hammel, a sportswriter for the Bloomington, Ind. Herald-Times. Under Hammel's plan, teams would play in sectional and regional games within their own geographic areas until the Final Four. There would be no seeding of teams; first-round matchups within each area would be determined by a blind drawing. All teams would get roughly equal shares of the tournament's overall TV revenues and gate receipts.

Hammel presented his plan as a cure-all. "One more week of play could make more money than the entire tournament that the NCAA puts on now," he wrote. The money would be "dealt out more reasonably," would underwrite many basketball programs and would remove the pressure on coaches to cheat. Not shuttling teams around the country would save "money, travel time and class time." The subjective selection of tournament teams would end, and teams on probation "would be singled out more distinctly" for public embarrassment.

Tex Winter of Cal State-Long Beach, president of the coaches' association, agrees wholeheartedly. "The plan is a solution to a lot of the problems in basketball today," he says. "If we don't do something, the rich will simply get richer, and more coaches will be tempted to violate the rules for a share of that great financial bonanza, that NCAA pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

But is the Hammel plan really a panacea? Hardly. It is a misleading fantasy that, like radioactive waste, should be buried in a deep hole. Here's why:

•The "NCAA pot of gold" is already divided dozens of ways, with both participants and non-participants receiving shares. And while the teams that advance farthest in the tournament get the biggest shares, almost no one winds up reaping a "great financial bonanza."

Last season 40% of the tournament gross—or $7.1 million—was designated to fund championships in all NCAA divisions. The remaining $10.7 million was split among the 48 participants, with Final Four teams earning slightly more than half a million dollars each. But the participants' shares weren't pure profit.

For example, champion North Carolina, as would most any team that plays in a league, had to give a big cut of its winnings to its conference (ACC) brethren. Subtract $230,000. And though the NCAA paid the tournament expenses of the Tar Heel team, the school paid for its band, cheerleaders and officials to travel. Subtract $170,000. The bottom line is that Carolina kept about $100,000.

For the Tar Heels, that wasn't a case of the rich getting richer; it was the rich making pocket money. Last season Carolina made almost nine times that much profit from regular season and conference tournament TV and gate receipts. And its alumni and fans donated $27 million over a two-year period toward a new gym complex, a sum 50% higher than the total NCAA Tournament gross. Have-not teams that hope to match those numbers will need more than increased shares of NCAA Tournament money; they'll need to develop their own armies of rabid, free-spending supporters.

•An expanded tournament won't make an extra nickel in profit, because a sprawling slate of games that includes losers and mediocrities won't draw fans or television money. "Even last season, with 48 teams, the first two rounds of the tournament weren't easy sells," says David Cawood, NCAA Director of Public Relations. "And if television wasn't eager to put on good matchups like Boston College vs. San Francisco, they surely won't be attracted by all the inferior teams in a field five times as large."

Holding down expenses by not flying teams out of their own regions until the Final Four would help profits somewhat. But the NCAA can institute that money-saving change without necessarily adding a single team to the field.

•The Hammel plan would render all regular-season and conference-tournament games irrelevant, because teams would no longer need a winning record to get an NCAA Tournament berth, and they wouldn't be competing for either a home-court advantage or a seeding. The games preceding the national tournament would be so meaningless that they might just as well be played by pickup teams in playgrounds. And if games were to become this meaningless, attendance and TV ratings would inevitably slip.

•An open tournament won't reduce the pressure on coaches to cheat, because it won't give coaches any added job security. "Getting into the tournament is now a criterion of success for coaches," says Georgetown Athletic Director Frank Rienzo, "but once every team gets in, coaches will no longer get any credit for it. So they will have done nothing to help their job security."

Perhaps many a coach dreams that he'll be able to salvage a lackluster season, and his job, by getting lucky in the early rounds of the tournament. But it wouldn't prove so easy to trick administrators and alumni into mistaking a lousy team for a good one. People with college degrees recognize ineptitude when they see it.

•It would be blatantly unfair to allow a horde of also-rans into the tournament alongside truly deserving teams. Consider, for instance, the merit of letting in last season's seven worst Division I teams: Virginia Miltary, which triumphed exactly once and averaged 22 fewer points than its opponents; Prairie View, which won twice and averaged 17 fewer points than its rivals; Loyola Marymount, which won three games; and Georgia State, Utah State, Utica and Wagner, winners of four games apiece. Together the sad seven lost 162 games and won 22. They don't belong on a tournament draw sheet; they belong in the Book of Job.

Admittedly, the present size of the field excludes many teams more worthy than these. But as Dave Gavitt, chairman of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee, says, "For a high-quality tournament, you should invite only those teams with a legitimate chance of winning the championship. That's what we've tried to do, and I think we've done a creditable job."

Gavitt may be blowing his own horn, but he's playing the right tune. The Division I tournament has long been a model of fair athletic competition, and the NCAA will be well-advised to leave it alone. As before, teams should have to qualify for the tournament the old-fashioned way. They should earn it.

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