With the notable exception of our friends in the Ivy League
, very few choose to be mid-major people.
It usually starts with a stumble: a spate of bad grades during a streak of teenage rebellion, or a bad night of sleep before SAT Saturday (for whatever reason). All of a sudden, there's a reclassification - it'll be the Big West instead of the Pac 10, the Southland instead of the Big 12, or the Atlantic Sun instead of the SEC.
Or perhaps it's just a lack of ambition, an absence of wanderlust. It's not common for someone to willingly select a university with a compass indication to the left of the state name, or a satellite city to the right of it. Many who populate those schools are locals, folks who make up the overwhelming majority of Americans who don't move more than an hour's drive away from their birthplaces.
Even the young men and women who choose a regionally prestigious private college don't realize how much they've hemmed themselves in. Despite all the late nights they've spent poring over admissions brochures, most don't have the years in them to see the real big picture - the power of talismans and symbols like fight songs, research dollars and nationwide prestige usually don't register at that age. Go 250 miles in any direction from campus, and prospective employers likely have never heard of the place. What's a Bucknell
Many mid-major people spend their entire lives as underdogs, while others enjoy life on the left side of the line. Very little is given to them, and they have to fight for whatever respect they are offered. Mid-major people don't have secret handshakes, or well-attended alumni mixers on the other side of the country, or spider-like national networks that assure that degree-holders always have a foot in the door somewhere. Membership has very few privileges.
But Division I college basketball is the great leveller. Not football (not enough schools play), not lacrosse or field hockey (not enough people care). Our game is popular everywhere because of its inherent low barriers to entry. Any gym will do; and if you can get 12 guys, a coach, and two sets of uniforms, you can join the party. Division I college basketball is the only arena where ambassadors wearing Central Michigan's
colors can meet those from Michigan
on equal terms, where all 326 schools of different shapes and sizes are given equal opportunity to earn a universally recognized title. The National Championship.
Any mid-major person who's shed money and tears and blood for their school knows that the Tournament is about far more than basketball. Only those who have had the opportunity to cheer their team to a first-round upset can appreciate the true meaning of such an event, how powerful that struck blow really is. And this year, mid-major people from places like Bucknell, Wisconsin-Milwaukee
have had the opportunity to enjoy that feeling.
Now, those power-conference people know exactly where they came from.***
I often refer to March Madness as a severe, temporary and bizarre personality disorder - much like schizophrenia. Victims can choose to align themselves with traditional power, and consummate their allegiance with a $60 replica jersey or sweatshirt (many have done just that - Duke
and North Carolina
merchandise is available in stores nationwide). Or they can experience that rush from low self-esteem to self-fulfillment in two hours along with a Tournament Cinderella, no strings attached. Or, if the mania is advanced enough, they can do both at the same time.
I watched the early games on first round Thursday at my usual haunts, a sports bar on the western outskirts of Philadelphia's University City. It was, of course, St. Patrick's Day as well - for some reason, I hadn't figured that space would be at a premium all afternoon. I wedged into a spot at the bar, and kept the laptop and the Blue Ribbon annual safely stashed in the bookbag.
The gentleman seated to my left was a scruffy young fellow in an untucked white dress shirt, keeping tabs on the Tournament games on the four overhead screens, smack-texting his friends on a tiny silver phone. As Wisconsin-Milwaukee unleashed the early run that deposited Alabama into a deep hole, he gave each three-point basket a firm and pointed "yeah."
"UWM shouldn't be a 12-seed or a five-point dog," he explained to me in a very unsolicited fashion. "They're a real good team."
"Do tell," I said half-heartedly, eyes fixed straight ahead as I took a swig of green-colored lite beer.
"They're a real strong mid-major," he replied with swaggering confidence. "They led the Missouri Valley in almost every statistical category."
"Horizon," I muttered.
I turned to my right. "Wisconsin-Milwaukee won the Horizon League," I said to Mr. Scruffy's bewildered face. "And if it wasn't for a couple free throws, Detroit Mercy
It would be our final exchange of the afternoon. I guess that some folks are less about talking hoops, and more about attempting to pass off three days' worth of ESPN.com bracket research as basketball expertise.
By one o'clock, there was a thick ring of standees behind the bar, vultures waiting to pounce on empty stools. One, a thin and olive-complected Asian gentleman in a deep black pinstripe suit, was clapping for every Kentucky
Wildcats basket. His hands were hard and taut, so that with each two points came three cracking peals of thunder. Fifteen-seeded Eastern Kentucky
sank into a deep first-half hole, but he cheered just as loudly when UK was up by five as he did when UK was up by 15.
"That's it, Patrick," he'd say. "Way to go, Kelenna."
"You go to UK?" asked Mr. Scruffy.
"Class of '99," the Asian gent proclaimed proudly. "Gatton School. Did you?"
"No," came the reply. "I've just loved the Cats since '92. They really played their hearts out against Duke in that Laettner game down at the Spectrum."
Gatton '99's eyes widened. "Were you there?"
"I wish," Mr. Scruffy lamented. "I was just a kid watching on TV."
"That's good enough for me," and one hard palm slapped against the back of his new friend. "What're you drinking?"
I've never mentioned this here before, but it's time for a full disclosure. During the winter of my senior year, my first of six college acceptance letters came from the University of Kentucky's school of journalism. Attached was a highly generous scholarship offer. Maybe it was because they liked my essay (about my experiences hitchhiking across the country during the previous summer), or the upward swoop of my grades, or because I had a decent SAT mark with good placement scores, or because they had to fill their quota of New Englanders. To this day, I don't know why they wanted me.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if I'd gone to Lexington, how different my life would be. I turned them down because I thought I'd get a better deal (I didn't). I ended up out west, accumulated whopping amounts of debt, made horrible mistakes, and wobbled back east with my tail between my legs. Perhaps my existence would have been easier if I'd been another blue-clad Wildcat fan with Tubby Smith's picture on my mantlepiece, spending my summers dreaming of Rupp Arena, thinking of devastating put-downs to use on Louisville
fans. One thing is for sure: I wouldn't have become a mid-major person.
But on one Thursday afternoon in March 2005, I would have received as many free glasses of green beer as I wanted. "Go Cats."***
More disclosures: after attending 100 college basketball games, I didn't experience much of any of the greatest weekend in college basketball history
During the Sweet Sixteen round, I kept up with the women's Division II championships on the new ESPNU channel. On Saturday, as Louisville and Illinois
punched their tickets to St. Louis, the Official Wife Of The Mid-Majority™ was getting her nails done at the mall while I read a baseball preview magazine in the waiting room. On Sunday, we laughed at a made-for-Lifetime movie about called Crossing The Line
(a/k/a "the female Hoosiers
") and ate Easter dinner. For all intents and purposes, hoops season is over in this household.
But I did sneak in the second overtime between Kentucky and the hideously preening, jersey-popping Michigan State
squad that provided the slamming door on Game 100
. While Billy Packer blabbed on about UK's exposed weaknesses, I watched as a young and unsure bunch of white-clads stumbled into a season-ending loss.
It made me sad, but not because of any coulda-been allegiances. It made me realize how much I already miss college basketball - not the stuff that's being telecast on CBS, but my
college basketball. I miss dimly-lit and half-full gymnasiums, and I miss driving through snowstorms to see January games that everyone else thinks are meaningless. I miss basketball where strengths are exposed instead of weaknesses, where teams are measured by their relative distances from the ground instead of their closeness to perfection, where coaches are given second chances instead of short leashes. I miss Western Kentucky
and Weber State
. I miss Vermont and Bucknell, teams that found national recognition and glory the right
way - without compromising their integrity, or giving in to the Urge
It's so easy to pick a team and buy in, tap into the rich veins of traditional basketball power, jump on a bandwagon. But I can't relate to any of what's going on in St. Louis this week, and will simply watch something else instead. I'm a proud, stubborn and steadfast mid-major person, and will be until I die. Mid-major basketball is in my blood so much that it is
my blood, and you'll have to drain it all out and replace it if you ever expect me to care about Louisville, North Carolina, Michigan State or Illinois.
After the National Championship is awarded on April 4, this site will be mothballed - the front page will be converted into a dynamic and cross-referenced index of the 100 Games Project
and the daily updates that served as The Mid-Majority's bassline.
I want to thank all those who've written with kind words of congratulations and thanks - I finally have the time to broach my inbox now, and will try my best to return serve on a one-to-one basis. The future of this site is still hazy, we're still waiting for an angel to subsidize the travel expenses necessary to do this again next winter.
I do hope I'm able to do this again, because I already miss it.