Pat O’Brien Breaks Down the NCAA Tournament
The former CBS Sports host analyzes the field of 65—and talks about Bill Clinton letting his inner fan run wild at the Final Four.
More bad economic news! March Madness is here. With virtually everybody becoming an instant college basketball fan from now until April 6, it is estimated by those who actually keep track of these things that, in economic terms, the United States of America will lose $1.7 billion in productivity during the tournament. In non-economic terms, that means just too many of us will ignore our jobs and watch game after game on television—or stop playing Deal or No Deal on the computer and watch the live, free streaming video on cbssports.com. (To give you an idea, in 2005, CBS estimated $250,000 in online revenue; this year, they are projecting $21 million.)
I walked into Clinton’s suite to say hello and he pulled me into a corner and said, “Can we talk freely? Do you think we can get a [bleepin’] call every now and then?”
So what do we have here? To begin with, there are 65 teams chosen out of the nearly 350 Division I men’s college basketball squads. If that's not elite enough, the national champion has to dogfight its way through six games. Doesn’t sound like much? You try meeting a Rick Pitino or Jim Boeheim squad four wins in! The tourney is spread out all over the country so that if you live in the Midwest, East, West, or South (that might cover it), somewhere near you is a tournament game. The Final Four and championship game and all its money spending fans are in Detroit. It's basketball's version of an economic bailout.
The great thing about the tournament is that this year, once again, the television will be on often and late in the White House. President Barack Obama is a huge basketball fan who not only keeps track of the games, but also has a pretty decent crossover move.
He’s got some big executive basketball shoes to fill. In 1992, when William Jefferson Clinton was running for that office, I got a call from my boss at CBS Sports, where I was hosting the tournament from New York. He said, “Bill Clinton is in the building and wants to come up and watch Arkansas play for a while.” I was up to my ears in scores and brackets and highlights, and I said, “This is kind of a bad time.” He said: “It’s not a request.” So up came candidate Clinton and sat down and watched his beloved Razorbacks, flashing his commanding knowledge of the game.
In 1995, with their poll numbers coasting all over the place, the president and first lady were in Seattle for the Final Four, where Arkansas was about to play for the national championship. Just before halftime, a Secret Service guy announced to me, “The president will see you after halftime.” So I walked into his suite to say hello and he pulled me into a corner and said, “Can we talk freely?” I said we could. “Do you think we can get a _____ call every now and then?” I said that he should be patient, that the game was 40 minutes long, and told him to remember Nolan Richardson’s mantra about the team he coached—“Forty Minutes of Hell.” Arkansas did not win the national championship that year, and I’m sure to this day Bill thinks the refs might have had something to do with it. And I say…of course they did. Right?
Some things to know about the Road to the Final Four:
1. Unless your uncle is the Big East commissioner, there are no tickets available. However, should you want some great ones, the early prices are in the thousands of dollars per seat. It's not a game for a family of four casually wanting to go watch guys in shorts put a ball through a net. In fact, one of the Internet ticket sites is offering a Level 6 suite-side court for $65,884.00! High rollers just off big bonuses usually sweep up these prices. Maybe not so much this year.
2. Starting today, your office copy machine will be in overtime mode making blank brackets. You might be asked for a “donation” to join in the fun. Then, you will torch your productivity trying to figure out if a No. 3 seed can make it to the Final Four. Or who will win those crucial (and well-matched) No. 8 vs. 9 games. In all honesty, sometimes guessing is the best way to go. And remember, outside of Indian casinos and Las Vegas, gambling is traditionally against the law.
3. It’s different this year. There are a lot of teams that are really good. That’s called parity. So don’t be fooled by past performances. Also, while you can catch Dick Vitale (who already seems to have lost his voice by screaming “diaper dandy” over and over) on ESPN’s SportsCenter and various commercials for places like Hooters, this is the first year since, I think, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House that Billy Packer is nowhere to be found. Which is good news for many fans who always thought Billy was the Jim Cramer of college hoops. (I'm confident Packer won't read this because, he says, he still doesn't own a computer.)
4. Clichés you will hear: The Big Dance. (Spare me.) Cinderella team. (Would have been St. Mary’s, but they didn’t make it. Arizona did!) Knocks it down. (The new favorite of sportscasters when a basket is made.) Protect the basketball. (With 401(K)s slamdunked and savings accounts left only to Cinderella investors, what else is there to protect?) Ohhhh, that’s close! (That’s when the announcers can’t tell us if it was a good call or not a good call. Or don’t want to tell us: See Jim Cramer)
5. The way this thing usually works out: in two weeks, there will be new household names. People who come out of nowhere and suddenly find themselves with fan clubs all over the Internet. Remember these names: Toney Douglas of Florida State…Blake Griffin of Oklahoma…and, of course, Jonny Flynn of Syracuse.
6. Sleepers: Last year, all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four. Nobody broke through. If anybody is going to break through this time, it’s gonna be Memphis or Syracuse or Missouri or Michigan State or Kansas. But the real sleepers are teams like Mississippi State, Gonzaga, Washington, West Virginia, Clemson, Villanova and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) USC. So we’re off and running. Don’t be overwhelmed; it’s only a game. A whole bunch of games. A whole bunch of “oh my’s.” A whole bunch of tattoos. A whole bunch of players saying “hi, mom” (because moms were the ones who always made sure they made it to their games in fourth grade). A whole bunch of versions of “Louie Louie” at halftime. A whole bunch of coaches, whose ties get brighter and eyes get darker as the tournament progresses.
And speaking of coaches, maybe this time you really get involved and actually learn how to spell Krzyzewski. That’s always a good thing to know this time of year.
Check back tomorrow for my NCAA Tournament bracket.
Pat O'Brien has been a broadcaster for more than three decades, including many years as the co-host of Access Hollywood and The Insider. A former anchor for CBS Sports, he is also the author of Talkin' Sports: A B.S.-er's Guide. He divides his time among Los Angeles, New York, and Nantucket.