In three seasons as a member of the Dartmouth basketball team, Peter Roby never threatened to play in the NCAA Tournament, with the Big Green finishing eighth, fifth, and fourth in the Ivy League.
When he became Harvard’s coach in 1985, the closest Roby got to the Dance during six seasons guiding the Crimson was a pair of third-place Ivy ties. An at-large selection? No chance.
Since being introduced as Northeastern’s athletic director on June 21, 2007, Roby has watched the Huskies knock on the NCAA Tournament door just once, with no answer: In 2010, they finished two wins short, losing in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinals.
For more than 35 years, then, Roby has been pushed to the outskirts of March Madness, never getting an up-close look as a participant.
Roby suddenly has one of the best seats in the house. He was appointed in September to the 10-person men’s NCAA Tournament selection committee that will determine this season’s field of 68. The committee’s task is primarily twofold: Decide which teams get the 37 coveted at-large bids (31 will be automatic qualifiers), and then create the bracket, seeding every team and placing them in one of four regions.
For someone who lives and loves college basketball, such as Roby, serving on the NCAA Tournament selection committee is a golden-ticket, bucket-list opportunity, like scaling Mount Everest.
“I feel like a kid in a candy store. As far as the fit is concerned for me, it couldn’t be any better,” Roby said. “I’m just so excited and thrilled by it, and in another way I’m humbled by the responsibility.
“People are so passionate and so hopeful about getting into the tournament and representing their institutions, and in some cases generating revenue for their athletic departments and awareness for their institution. Coaches feel so much pressure to get there, so you take it seriously.”
Roby was added to the committee as a replacement for Bernard Muir, the former athletic director at Delaware who left that post last July for a similar position at Stanford. Taking into consideration how they want the committee structured — some semblance of diversity regarding gender, ethnicity, geography, and a mix of representatives from power conferences and smaller conferences — it’s up to the NCAA’s administrative cabinet to select committee members, a process Roby knows all about; he’s been on the administrative cabinet for the past year.
After being nominated by the CAA, Roby recused himself, then was informed that he had been picked to fulfill Muir’s five-year term on the selection committee.
His experience, no doubt, set him apart. First as a player, then a coach, now an administrator. Prior to joining Northeastern, he was still involved with college basketball, working for Reebok as its vice president for US marketing.
“I wasn’t lobbying for it,” Roby said. “Once people knew my name was being discussed, because I had coached it and had done the things that I had done, I think that all played a role in it.”
Now that the regular season has moved past its halfway point, Roby and the other nine committee members are logging exhaustive hours, watching games in person, live on television (the NCAA provides satellite service, if desired), and through archived replays online.
With 334 Division 1 teams eligible for this season’s NCAA Tournament, the volume of work needed to pare the field to 68 can be all-consuming. In an attempt to divide the load, each committee member — save for chair Mike Bobinski — is given three conferences in which he or she will be the primary monitor, and four conferences in which they’ll be the secondary. It’s their job to know all there is about their seven conferences — perceived locks, projected bubble teams, notable injuries, and recent form — so they can help lead the discussion when the committee convenes in Indianapolis on March 12, the Tuesday before Selection Sunday.
Roby’s primary conferences are the Horizon, MEAC, and Southland; all are likely one-bid leagues, to be represented by the conference tournament champion. He’s the secondary monitor for the Big East, Patriot League, Southern Conference, and West Coast Conference.
That’s 75 schools under Roby’s umbrella; two of those, including Connecticut, are ineligible to play in the NCAA Tournament this year. Still, knowing as much as you can about 73 teams can be overwhelming, especially for a first-time committee member.
“I do remember what it was like, and in my year as chairman I’ve tried to remember back to that first year: flying a little blind, being a little unsure of what was coming,” said Bobinski, the athletic director at Xavier who will take the same job at Georgia Tech in April. “The No. 1 challenge that I remember and that Peter I’m sure is dealing with is manage the information, assimilate the information, and really organize your thoughts, so you can be coherent and contribute to the conversation when we get into the room together, because it can come at you in so many ways.”
The selection committee met recently in Dallas, the first time they’ve been together since the season started. It was an opportunity to ask questions, offer suggestions, and get a feel for what it’ll be like in six short weeks.
“I thought Peter did an excellent job, he absolutely looks to be getting off to a great start,” Bobinski said. “His insights were excellent, his reports were thorough and on target. I feel really, really good about him having figured out very early on how to do this.”
Roby has had help, professional and personal friends who have served on the committee before and given him an idea about what he can expect once they sequester themselves in an Indianapolis hotel: the discussions, the debates, the drama that comes with building the bracket.
There will be a selection orientation in mid-February — also in Indianapolis — but Roby will spend much of his time before and after that trip immersed in college basketball, watching and attending as many games as possible, observing and learning as much as he can. Not only teams from the conferences he’s responsible for, he said, but others as well. That way he can contribute to the conversation, no matter who’s being considered.
“I think the pressure’s going to mount, the stress is going to build, because of the enormity of it and the responsibility that you feel as you start to see teams getting compared,” Roby said. “It will really ramp up in terms of the amount of games to watch and be prepared for, getting your notes and your information together.”
If everything goes well, Roby and the others on the committee will unveil a bracket at 6 p.m. on March 17, starting a three-week run that captivates those who love college basketball, and millions more who don’t, but who fill out a bracket anyway. Roby’s perfect scenario would have Northeastern be among the field of 68, something that isn’t far-fetched.
Either way, it figures to be an unforgettable experience.
“Anybody that’s been interested in basketball, in March Madness and the NCAA Tournament, has always been interested in how this selection process works and what the conversations are like. This is the old proverbial ‘get to see how the sausage is made.’ Some people are fascinated by that, and I’m no different,” Roby said. “I was on the other side, trying like heck to position my team, or watching others who are friends or colleagues, or schools that I had an interest in from when I was working at Reebok, hoping that they might get a bid, sitting there on Selection Sunday and watching the chair go through the brackets with the television folks.
“Now I’ll actually be in the room having that responsibility. It’s amazing. I can’t wait.”