Statistician Jim Tharp, a veteran of 25 Final Four tournaments, has been second-guessed only once—19 years ago—but the mere mention of the incident still makes him break into a sweat. The lone question mark popped up at the 1973 tournament directly after UCLA's Bill Walton nailed 21 of 22 shots in the final against Memphis State. As Tharp walked down a hallway in The Arena in St. Louis, he overheard a reporter say to Bruin coach John Wooden, "I don't remember Walton missing a shot. Do you?" Tharp teetered near cardiac arrest as Wooden paused briefly to consider. The Wizard, of course, recalled the misfire precisely. "It was a follow shot," Wooden told the reporter.
"Thank god Wooden remembered the miss," says Tharp, still relieved.
This sort of protracted pressure is all part of what Tharp and his six colleagues—who make up the University of Louisville's stats crew—consider "a labor of love," which they will again perform when they take their positions at the 1992 tournament in Minneapolis next month. Certainly, recording every statistical particular of a game and churning out shot charts, box scores and sheets of play-by-play is a chore only true basketball junkies could embrace. And these fellows qualify on that score.
Tharp and crew chief Al Benninger, two hoop heads of long standing, have been recording the fortunes of Louisville's basketball and football teams for more than 30 years. Benninger, a retired life insurance executive, and Tharp, a retired GE foreman, were there in the early '60s when Louisville was host for back-to-back Final Fours—Cincinnati's successful defense of the title in '62 and the Bearcats' heartstopping loss of it to Loyola a year later. When the 1969 Final Four was scheduled again for Louisville, this time with Kentucky serving as the host, Benninger wrote a letter to the NCAA volunteering his Louisville crew for the tournament stats job. After seeing samples of their work for the Cardinals, the NCAA began what has been a long and harmonious alliance. The NCAA picks up all expenses, but the crew doesn't get paid for their Final Four work.
"We think they do a great job," says Dave Cawood, assistant executive director of the NCAA. "The fact that we've continued to use them for more than 20 years says as much. These guys work very well together."
Since 1980 David Isaacs, a high school math teacher, has held the conspicuous title of official scorer, which requires him to sit at the scorer's table in a zebra suit, within spitting distance of the coaches. "In 1981, I was told there'd be some volatile coaches [Bob Knight of Indiana, Dale Brown of LSU] who would try to confuse me, but that didn't happen," he says, a trifle amazed. "Believe it or not, no one has ever yelled at me."
On the other hand, Ed Peterman and John Cecil, who both work as managers for an insurance company, get yelled at all the time. The two men alternate sitting at a keyboard several rows back and keying in every basket, rebound, assist, steal, turnover, substitution and foul—in the order in which Benninger and Tharp shout them out. Best game Peterman never saw? "That would be the 1989 final, between Seton Hall and Michigan," he says of the only overtime final since 1963.
The game from hell, at least from Peterman's viewpoint, was last year's semifinal between North Carolina and Kansas in which the two teams combined for 152 substitutions, not counting assistant coach Bill Guthridge's taking over for Dean Smith, who was ejected for straying outside the coaches' box. "It got hectic," says Peterman. "We sometimes need the announcer to tell us who is going in for whom, and at one point I don't think even he knew who was coming or going."
"Dean Smith has to be the leading substituting coach," says Benninger with authority. "And it didn't help having one of his former assistants, Roy Williams, on the other bench."
In 1985 the crew started using a computer program devised by Kenny Klein, the Louisville sports information director, that can instantly tally the result of such Deanesque dithering and create all sorts of other stats—like points from turnovers and second-chance points. There is even a stat comparing one five-player group's scoring with another's.
Benninger can recall a time when the tournament was not the media convention that it is today, when the words Final Four were actually in lower case. In '72, says Benninger, "you hardly knew the event was in town. There was very little interest, no outside functions. It wasn't much fun, really, except for the games. There is no question that this event has changed for the better."