Bubble, Toil, Trouble

03.16.14

Meet the Man to Hate on Selection Sunday

Ron Wellman is the most important man in selecting who goes to the NCAA Tournament. College basketball fans should get to know the man they’ll be cursing next week.

The most-hated man in America next week will probably be Ron Wellman, chairman of the NCAA tournament who will explain why a slew of college basketball teams didn’t make the cut on Selection Sunday.

Like chairs of years past, Wellman has steadily worked his way up the NCAA food chain through various selection and planning committees and developed a reputation for coalition-building, sound decision-making, and blah blah blah.

College basketball fans don’t care about any of that. They just know that later today, they’ll be praising or damning Wellman’s nationally televised talking points, depending on what he has to say about their team.

But they’ll mostly be damning him.

While the selection committee is supposed to be fair and impartial, those rules don’t apply to the chair. Wellman didn’t sit on all those boring committees for years on end to NOT abuse power now. It’s the American way.

But who is Ron Wellman? What makes him tick? Most importantly, what does his history mean for predicting Selection Sunday?

As a Wake Forest grad who’s familiar with Wellman’s professional successes and failures, I’ve taken it upon myself to fill this critical gap of knowledge. Here are four things every college basketball fan needs to know about Ron Wellman before he tells the world why their team did or did not make the NCAA Tournament.

1) The man loves himself some O-H-I-O.

Rookie Selection Show zealots will see Ron Wellman’s position at Wake Forest and worry the Demon Deacons will sneak into the tourney. (Not a concern. We’re so bad not even nefarious cronyism will get us in.) True Wellman scholars know the conspiracy theories for this year’s March Madness were planted and nurtured in the Buckeye State. It’s not that Wellman was born there, in a small town whose Wikipedia description reads suspiciously like a Sherwood Anderson novel. It’s not that back in the day, Wellman pitched for the Bowling Green State baseball team, or that he still speaks with a subtle Midwestern twang that can best be described as “Homey.” And it’s not that when stressed, Wellman demands his underlings feed him peanut butter candies dipped in Wendy’s Frosty mix while wearing a sexy Brutus Buckeye costume. It’s all of them, together.

Yes, I made up that last one, but that doesn’t change the fact that Wellman hooks up his people whenever he can, consistently populating the Wake athletic department with Ohioans. New football coach Dave Clawson (last coached Wellman’s alma mater) is the latest evidence of such; Jim Grobe (Ohio U) and the late Skip Prosser (Xavier) are two other prominent examples.

What does this all mean? Other than Ohio State and University of Cincinnati being seeded one or two spots higher than they should, probably nothing. I’m just going to see what Vegas has to say about the bubble odds for Dayton/Xavier/Cleveland State for completely unrelated reasons.

Don’t blame the messenger. Blame Sexy Brutus.

2) The man handles crisis well.

God forbid anything actually serious happen during this year’s Tournament, but if it does, Wellman won’t be overwhelmed by the moment.

In July 2007, Prosser, the head coach of Wake’s basketball team, suffered a fatal heart attack in his campus office. He was 56. A beloved fixture in the Wake community who enjoyed a high-flying brand of ball and quoting Shakespeare, Prosser left a void no man could fill. To his credit, Wellman didn’t try. He simply emerged from the background and quietly ensured the program and team didn’t implode after losing their charismatic leader.

Decisions like naming Prosser assistant Dino Gaudio head coach, unveiling a Prosser banner in the rafters of Joel Memorial Coliseum and keeping the young players shielded from the media may seem obvious in hindsight, but they were all crucial to the healing process. 2007 and 2008 was an emotional time in Winston-Salem, and Wellman handled it with grace and vision.

3) The man can work a room (and crushes TV interviews).

Wellman can blarney with the best of them. While fans of snubbed teams will be furious, or dispirited, or both, Wellman will crush in the aftermath of Tourney selection. He’s got the total interview package – good posture, an innocuous wit and that oh so rare ability to make it sound like he’s answering the question at hand while really saying whatever he wants.

I have firsthand experience with this. Last April, the Wake athletic department took their show on the road for fundraising, including a stop at the Harvard Club in New York City. Wellman worked the room like a politician on the campaign trail, both during the cocktail hour and the formal presentation. I’d shown up wrathful about the fate of the Deacs, but even I found myself nodding along to his talking points about “foundation,” “the right way,” “STUDENT-athletes,” et cetera.

It was only hours later, back in the safety of my apartment, that I realized he’d shaken empty all our pockets and told us nothing of substance. I’ve never been prouder to call that man my school’s athletic director.

A sample exchange of what awaits on Sunday:

Gumbel: “The Baylor Bears snuck in there. What stood out about them, compared to other squads that remained on the bubble?”

Wellman: “Why go to college when you can go to (Arizona) State, right Greg?”

Gumbel: “Har har har!”

Wellman: “Har har har!”

Gumbel: “Thanks for joining us, Ron.”

Wellman: “Thank YOU, Greg.”

4) The man is a bathroom-talker.

As this is a piece of serious journalistic import, I’ll report the facts and the facts alone: at the same fundraising event mentioned above, after the cocktail hour but before the formal presentation, Wellman walked into the bathroom as I was finishing up at the urinal. He said something like, “We run into one another yet again!” Then he tried to make - and hold - eye contact through the reflecting mirrors. I just nodded and laughed uncomfortably.

He didn’t slap me on the back as we rotated, for which I remain thankful. For some reason, this means George Washington will be seeded well. They strike me as a school and fan base of bathroom-talkers, as was their namesake.

(Note: I’m unable to confirm at this time if our first president made other men uncomfortable in public bathrooms.)

***

Get ready for Ron Wellman, America, because he’s ready for you. Sometimes the moment makes the man, but other times the man makes the moment. Here’s betting Wellman is the latter later today.