It’s NCAA men’s tournament time, and we’ve come a long way since the Oregon “Tall Firs” — egad, center Slim Wintermute is 6 feet 8 inches tall and forwards Laddie Gale and John Dick are 6-4! — beat Ohio State for the first NCAA basketball championship. That would be 1939.
It is also 76 years since Holy Cross, behind 18 points from George Kaftan and 16 from Dermie O’Connell (freshman Bob Cousy was a modest 0-2-2), beat Oklahoma for the crown. It is 73 years since CCNY became the only team to win the NIT and NCAA in the same year. It is 66 years since undefeated North Carolina upended Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in triple overtime. It is 57 years since UTEP (nee Texas Western) beat Kentucky with an historic all-Black first seven. It is 50 years since Bill Walton dropped 44 with 21-for-22 shooting on Memphis. It is 40 years since Jim Valvano was racing around for someone to hug after his North Carolina State Wolfpack shocked Houston. It is 38 years since Villanova stunned mighty Georgetown. And it’s 24 years since Connecticut beat favored Duke to win the first of its four crowns.
(I apologize if I left out your favorite champ.)
And it’s a long, long way since participating teams were strictly composed of four-year players at the same school, players who first had to play on freshman teams and who were considered to be unreliable as sophomores until proven otherwise. “Transfer Portal?” What’s that?
I’m not suggesting there never was a dark side of college basketball. Recruiting has always been at least somewhat cutthroat, and what has come to be known as “extra benefits” not available to the average student were hardly a secret. The concept of the no-show summer job was common knowledge at least as far back as the 1950s.
And somewhere along the way the influences of high school coaches in the recruiting shifted to AAU coaches. Generations of NBA players ranked winning a high school state title among their most cherished achievements. Nowadays, they brag about their AAU experiences.
Things began spiraling downward in the ‘70s, and by the late ‘80s Sports Illustrated writers Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian were so intrigued by the drift of a sport they both loved that they collaborated on a landmark book entitled “Raw Recruits,” subtitled “The High Stakes Game Colleges Play To Get Their Basketball Stars — And What It Costs To Win.”
Well, we all know what it has always taken to win, and that is good players. Oregon coach Howard Hobson was happy, I am sure, to have landed Slim Wintermute oh so long ago. Countless coaches of 2023 NCAA contestants are there because they won recruiting battles of some sort. But maintaining a roster is a far more complicated task these days. Hobson didn’t have to worry about Wintermute slinking off to, say, Stanford after his sophomore season. He was staying put until Oregon put the degree in his hand.
It’s fun to see some of the people who crop up in “Raw Recruits.” Ed O’Bannon, for example. The player (oops, “student-athlete”) whose lawsuit is largely responsible for today’s radically altered NCAA landscape was a highly sought-after high school star from Los Angeles who was being guided through the whole sordid recruiting process by a man named Wayne Merino, who was both his high school and AAU coach.
Though Merino swore his intentions were pure and honest, seeking to do the right thing for the young man, even O’Bannon himself was suspicious. After being told by someone that “Wayne seems to be shaking a lot of hands this week,” O’Bannon replied, “Yeah, a few too many for my taste.”
Rick Pitino gets a big mention, and his involvement with shenanigans involving boosters when he was an assistant at Hawaii cannot be ignored. Kentucky, in general, is front and center. Messrs. Wolff and Keteyian report that the basketball-only dormitory, the Wildcat Lounge, was “so opulent the NCAA forced the university to stop the cooked-to-order breakfasts and remove some $200,000 in furnishings to bring the place more in line with the facilities in which the typical undergraduate lived.”
Many a modern NCAA “student-athlete” can afford to buy his or her extravagant breakfast, now that we are living in the world of the so-called NIL, short for a “Name, Image, and Likeness” policy that enables those young men and women to profit from their, yes, names, images, and likenesses. For this they should all offer a nightly prayer of thanks to the aforementioned O’Bannon, who helped drag the NCAA into the 21st century.
“Raw Recruits” came out in 1990, at a time when coaching salaries were starting to escalate, leading to the point at which even the most obscure power conference coach is now earning seven figures, and the Coach Ks, Pitinos, Caliparis, and Selfs of the world have earned far more than that. It’s interesting to note that when John Wooden retired in 1975 he was making $32,500.
It is small wonder when the athletes became agitated, since the coaches were getting incredibly rich on their labor. The Bible’s admonition about the negative effect of money was playing out in this NCAA world. The authors quote onetime New Mexico coach Gary Colson saying, “It’s gonna get worse. If you look at the money involved, it’s like Sodom and Gomorrah. Eventually, it’ll destroy itself.”
Now it hasn’t gotten all that gloomy and doom. NIL is a reality, and Wolff says he’s OK with it, that it was an idea whose time has come.
“I am enjoying seeing the old order turned upside-down,” he says.
He also sees the transfer portal issue having a dual effect. In addition to the rich-getting-richer aspect of the Big Boys, he sees mid and low majors “keeping kids for three or four years together, and that means a real team.”
I must note there is no downplaying the scope of the transfer portal, which last year numbered an astonishing 1,800 participants. The operative phrase college people are now using to describe the current recruiting/transfer situation is “The wild, wild West.”
How we arrived at this juncture in college basketball is a long, fascinating story. But one thing has never changed, and never will change: When they throw the ball up, no one cares. Save the moaning and groaning for later.
I happened to have witnessed last week’s Big East tournament in its entirety. (OK, I did leave one rout at the half and another with four minutes left to seek a beer.) And I was reminded that at its peak the college basketball fan experience is unsurpassed.
I have spent more than 50 years monitoring NBA basketball and I respect it enormously. I am here to tell you that no NBA Game 7 — and I’ve seen some great ones (try the Larry-Dominique shootout) — matches the frenzy and excitement of a passionate college crowd at an important game, fueled by the irreplaceable pep bands (no NBA noise comes close). That is the lure. It was true, I am sure, for the followers of the Tall Firs and it remains true for each of the 68 teams participating in the 2023 men’s tournament.
I don’t call it “March Madness.” For me, it’s “March Fulfillment.”
Bob Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.