Celebrating mediocrity

I hate the idea of a 96-team NCAA Basketball Tournament ... for precisely the same reason that I hate college football's bowl season.

I don't believe in celebrating mediocrity.

Last season 68 teams qualified for the 34 NCAA-sanctioned bowl games. That means more than half of the 119 major-college head coaches got to boast, "My team qualified for postseason play."

Yeah, great job, Coach! You finished in the top 57 percent of your class. You must be so proud. I just hope you've got an incentive clause in your contract rewarding you for achieving such elite status.

I've been characterized as "old school" and, frankly, I wear that tag proudly. Old school means I remember when you had to go 10-0, 9-1 or 8-2 to get a bid from the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Gator Bowl, the Tangerine (now Citrus) Bowl, the Liberty Bowl or the Sun Bowl. Only 16 teams got to see postseason action back in the 1960s, so receiving a bid was a meaningful achievement.

In those days a .500 season could get you fired. Now it gets you a bowl trip to Shreveport ... or El Paso ... or Boise ... or Detroit ... or Nashville.

Is being one of the top 68 teams in college football really noteworthy? No.

Is being one of the top 96 teams in college basketball noteworthy? No again.

I'm going to surprise you at this point. Even being the staunch traditionalist that I am, I was glad when the NCAA expanded its basketball field from 32 teams to 40 in 1979 and to 48 teams in 1980. I was even OK when it expanded to 52 in 1983, to 53 in 1984, to 64 in 1985 and to 65 in 2001. There were 343 NCAA Div. 1 basketball programs in 2009-10, so the 65 who got NCAA Tournament bids represented just 18.9 percent of the total membership. In other words, less than one in every five teams qualified for "The Dance." If the field is expanded to 96, however, that figure jumps to 27.9 percent.

Sadly, expansion from 65 to 96 teams appears inevitable. Essentially, this means the 32 teams who should settle for NIT bids next March will be part of the NCAA field. Ultimately, teams with 18-13 records in the so-called "power conferences" will be getting bids. So will third-place teams in the lesser conferences.

Obviously, the driving force is money. Most of last winter's 34 bowl games were boring but that was OK because they turned a profit. Likewise, expanding the NCAA Basketball Tournament to 96 teams will create some first-round mismatches that will be unwatchable. But 15 more games will be televised, and that's 15 more opportunities to sell commercials for hair-loss products, deodorant and overpriced sports shoes.

I honestly don't care how much money the NCAA and the networks make as long as they don't compromise the sport. Allowing 68 of 119 teams to play in bowl games compromises football. Allowing 96 of 343 teams to play in the NCAA Tournament compromises basketball.

I was a mediocre athlete growing up - shocking, I know - but I started for every baseball team I represented because I routinely outworked and outhustled teammates who were more gifted. I never won an MVP trophy or even a "Best Hitter" award. I did win a "100 Percent Award" as a high school senior, and it's among my most prized possessions to this day. Why? Because I EARNED it.

If I could send a message to the NCAA, it would be this: Cut the number of college bowl games in half. And keep the NCAA Tournament field at 65. Go ahead and reward successful football coaches with a bowl bid. Go ahead and reward successful basketball coaches with a Tournament bid.

But please ... make them EARN it.

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