March Madness stirs reflections

Are you all fired up and into March madness? It’s my favorite sports time of year. Now I understand you may disagree, but I’ll take the college basketball tournament over any other sporting event, even the Super Bowl. The college basketball playoffs run through the month of March culminating in the championship game on April 8th in Glendale, Arizona. There are 67 total games in the tournament, and I’ll be watching a good number of them.
I don’t follow college basketball as a diehard fan. The all-time winningest basketball coach, who won two national championships, was a guy named Dean Smith who coached the North Carolina Tar Heels. Would you believe that the first guy Coach Smith ever offered a scholarship to was me? That’s right! I did not amount to that much of a college player, but I did have the irrefutable honor of being Coach Smith’s first recruit.
Now I realize that college basketball plays second fiddle to football here in Louisiana and throughout the entire south. But basketball has made giant leaps in popularity and competitiveness in recent years. LSU’s legendary coach Dale Brown brought basketball into the mainstream here in the Bayou state, where he won numerous Southeast Conference championships and took the Fighten’ Tigers to the final four on two different occasions.
LSU did not make the tournament during the past two years under new coach Matt McMahon. They had unceremoniously fired their previous coach, Will Wade, who presently is one of the hottest college coaches in America. Wade was caught on tape saying that he had made a “strong ass offer” to a recruit. The NCAA, the governing body, for college basketball, assumed it was a financial payoff. So just what does a “strong ass offer” mean?
When I was recruited to come to North Carolina, I was offered a scholarship referred to as a full ride. It included my college tuition, along with room and board at the college dormitory. I asked for more. Instead of living in the dormitory, I wanted a monthly check to cover an off-campus apartment as well as meal money. I also asked for a laundry allowance as well as unlimited purchases at the campus bookstore. I suppose I was asking for a “strong ass offer,” and I got it. And this is legal under the rules both then and now. So what Coach Wade said about “a strong ass offer” is open to interpretation.
Even if there were charges of unscrupulous, recruiting by Wade, everything the NCAA and other investigators alleged is perfectly legal today. College athletes are pulling in big bucks, with a number of players pulling in over a million dollars a season. There’s no loyalty to a recruit’s alma mater. It’s all about pulling down the big bucks.
After being the ceremoniously, fired by LSU, without a hearing of the full story, Wade took a job at McNeese University in Lake Charles. The year before he was hired, McNeese had lost 23 games. In his introductory press conference, he said he would reverse this number, and win 23 games in his current year. He did not win 23 games. He won 30.
Wade has become a real sports hero in Lake Charles. When he comes on the basketball court before a home game, the loudspeakers blare Johnny Cash’s song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down. LSU did not make the NCAA tournament this year. Will Wade’s team did, making it the first time since 2002.
There are lots of stories like this from colleges playing in this NCAA tournament. It’s one of the reasons why post season basketball has become the leading cash cow for the NCAA, earning over one billion dollars a year.
Major college sports have become farm teams for the pros. Number of players end up as many as three different colleges in their athletic careers. I don’t like it, and I yearn for the good old days. But that’s life in the new college sports world we are living in today.

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Thomas FieldsThomas “Tuffy” Fields is an author and regular contributor to The Gazette. He can …

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