INDIANAPOLIS, Apr. 2
-- There are huge signs all over town -- on airport walls, strung over streetlights, over the main gate to the RCA Dome. They all read, "The Road Ends Here."
There's also a giant logo on the side of the 45,000-seat venue, a green and gold star with zag-zigging trailers that has never been reproduced in this size in the two years of its use, much less the nearly four decades the school it represents has existed. It's the mark of George Mason University, the surprise mid-major school among the humdrum Other Three.
I've been on the same road as the Patriots for the past three weeks, mostly by chance. As it so happened, I was assigned to the Dayton pod that served as the site of their first- and second-round wins over 2005 Final Four participants Michigan State and North Carolina. Then I was forwarded to Washington, where they defeated Wichita State in the "Mid-Major Super Bowl" for an Elite Eight spot, and topped Connecticut in the regional final to clinch their berth here. My road reaches back to the beginning of the 2005-06 season, winding through the Mid-South, Deep South, West Coast, East Coast and Midwest. There were 28 games over the 10 days of Extended Championship Week in early March, and 93 in total (seven short of ).
|Sat 2005.11.19||Boston, MA||Game 101: Vermont at Harvard|
|Mon 2005.11.21||Providence, RI||Game 102: Vermont at Providence|
|Tue 2005.11.22||Boston, MA||Game 103: Michigan at Boston University|
|Wed 2005.11.23||Burlington, VT||Game 104: Nevada at Vermont|
|Sat 2005.11.26||Lewisburg, PA||Game 105: Yale at Bucknell|
|Sun 2005.12.04||Worcester, MA||Game 106: Fordham at Holy Cross|
|Tue 2005.12.06||Lewisburg, PA||Game 107: Villanova at Bucknell|
|Wed 2005.12.07||New Rochelle, NY||Game 108: Rider at Iona|
|Thu 2005.12.08||Boston, MA||Game 109: New Hampshire at Boston University|
|Sat 2005.12.10||Kingston, RI||Game 110: Ohio at Rhode Island|
|Tue 2005.12.18||Boston, MA||Game 111: Texas Southern at Boston College|
|Thu 2005.12.20||Providence, RI||Game 112: Maryland-Eastern Shore at Brown|
|Thu 2005.12.22||New Britain, CT||Game 113: Binghamton at Central Connecticut State|
|Wed 2005.12.23||Bronx, NY||Game 114: Fordham at Manhattan|
|Wed 2005.12.29||Princeton, NJ||Game 115: Carnegie Mellon [D3] at Princeton|
|Thu 2005.12.30||Newark, DE||Game 116: Central Connecticut State at Delaware|
|Mon 2006.01.02||Boston, MA||Game 117: George Mason at Northeastern|
|Tue 2006.01.03||Providence, RI||Game 118: Loyola (Md.) at Providence|
|Wed 2006.01.04||Albany, NY||Game 119: Hartford at Albany|
|Thu 2006.01.05||Bridgeport, CT||Game 120: Siena at Fairfield|
|Fri 2006.01.06||New Rochelle, NY||Game 121: Manhattan at Iona|
|Sat 2006.01.07||New Haven, CT||Game 122: Brown at Quinnipiac|
|Sat 2006.01.07||Fairfield, CT||Game 123: Wagner at Sacred Heart|
|Mon 2006.01.09||High Point, NC||Game 124: Coastal Carolina at High Point|
|Tue 2006.01.10||Lynchburg, VA||Game 125: Marist at Liberty|
|Wed 2006.01.11||Rock Hill, SC||Game 126: UNC Asheville at Winthrop|
|Thu 2006.01.12||Kennesaw, GA||Game 127: East Tennessee State at Kennesaw State|
|Fri 2006.01.13||Boiling Springs, NC||Game 128: Campbell at Gardner-Webb|
|Sat 2006.01.14||Murfreesboro, TN||Game 129: Arkansas-Little Rock at Middle Tennessee|
|Wed 2006.01.18||Omaha, NE||Game 130: Bradley at Creighton|
|Thu 2006.01.19||Springfield, MO||Game 131: Southern Illinois at Missouri State|
|Sat 2006.01.21||Peoria, IL||Game 132: Indiana State at Bradley|
|Sun 2006.01.22||Carbondale, IL||Game 133: Illinois State at Southern Illinois|
|Wed 2006.01.25||Hammond, LA||Game 134: Sam Houston State at Southeastern Louisiana|
|Sat 2006.01.26||Nicholls, LA||Game 135: Lamar at Nicholls State|
|Sat 2006.01.28||Natchitoches, LA||Game 136: Texas State at Northwestern State|
|Mon 2006.01.30||Montgomery, AL||Game 137: Prairie View A&M at Alabama State|
|Thu 2006.02.02||New Britain, CT||Game 138: St. Francis (NY) at Central Connecticut State|
|Fri 2006.02.03||Philadelphia, PA||Game 139: Brown at Pennsylvania|
|Sat 2006.02.04||Philadelphia, PA||Game 140: Temple at LaSalle|
|Sat 2006.02.04||Philadelphia, PA||Game 141: Yale at Pennsylvania|
|Thu 2006.02.09||Athens, OH||Game 142: Northern Illinois at Ohio|
|Fri 2006.02.10||Pittsburgh, PA||Game 143: Central Connecticut State at Robert Morris|
|Sat 2006.02.11||Dayton, OH||Game 144: Saint Louis at Dayton|
|Sat 2006.02.11||Dayton, OH||Game 145: Butler at Wright State|
|Sun 2006.02.12||Kent, OH||Game 146: Northern Illinois at Kent State|
|Sun 2006.02.12||Loretto, PA||Game 147: Central Connecticut at St. Francis (Pa.)|
|Wed 2006.02.15||Worcester, MA||Game 148: Navy at Holy Cross|
|Sat 2006.02.18||Cedar Falls, IA||Game 149: Bucknell at Northern Iowa|
|Sat 2006.02.18||Omaha, NE||Game 150: Fresno State at Creighton|
|Wed 2006.02.22||Stockton, CA||Game 151: Cal State Northridge at Pacific|
|Thu 2006.02.23||San Jose, CA||Game 152: Fresno State at San Jose State|
|Sat 2006.02.25||Davis, CA||Game 153: Long Beach State at California-Davis|
|Mon 2006.02.27||Moraga, CA||Game 154: Loyola Marymount at St. Mary's|
|Thu 2006.03.02||Johnson City, TN||Atlantic Sun Quarterfinals|
Game 155: Lipscomb vs. Mercer
|Game 156: Belmont vs. Campbell|
|Game 157: Gardner-Webb vs. East Tennessee State|
|Game 158: Stetson vs. Florida Atlantic|
|Fri 2006.03.03||Richmond, VA||Colonial First Round|
Game 159: Delaware vs. Drexel
|Game 160: Northeastern vs. James Madison|
|Game 161: Georgia State vs. Towson|
|Game 162: Virginia Commonwealth vs. William & Mary|
|Sat 2006.03.04||Richmond, VA||Colonial Quarterfinals|
Game 163: UNC Wilmington vs. Delaware
|Game 164: Northeastern vs. Old Dominion|
|Game 165: George Mason vs. Georgia State|
|Game 166: Hofstra vs. Virginia Commonwealth|
|Sun 2006.03.05||Vestal, NY||America East Semifinals|
Game 167: Vermont vs. Binghamton
|Game 168: Albany vs. New Hampshire|
|Sun 2006.03.05||Albany, NY||MAAC Semifinals|
Game 169: Iona vs. Marist
|Game 170: St. Peter's vs. Manhattan|
|Tue 2006.03.07||Murfreesboro, TN||Sun Belt Championship|
Game 171: South Alabama vs. Western Kentucky
|Wed 2006.03.08||Cincinnati, OH||Atlantic 10 First Round|
Game 172: Temple vs. Rhode Island
|Game 173: St. Joseph's vs. Dayton|
|Game 174: Xavier vs. Masachusetts|
|Game 175: Fordham vs. Richmond|
|Thu 2006.03.09||Cleveland, OH||Mid-American First Round|
Game 176: Toledo vs. Northern Illinois
|Game 177: Akron vs. Western Michigan|
|Game 178: Kent State vs. Buffalo|
|Game 179: Ohio vs. Miami|
|Fri 2006.03.10||Cleveland, OH||Mid-American Semifinals|
Game 180: Kent State vs. Ohio
|Game 181: Toledo vs. Akron|
|Sat 2006.03.11||Cleveland, OH||Mid-American Championship|
Game 182: Kent State vs. Toledo
|Tue 2006.03.14||Dayton, OH||NCAA Play-In Game|
Game 183: Monmouth vs. Hampton
|Fri 2006.03.17||Dayton, OH||NCAA First Round|
Game 184: Ohio State vs. Davidson
|Game 185: Georgetown vs. Northern Iowa|
|Game 186: George Mason vs. Michigan State|
|Game 187: North Carolina vs. Murray State|
|Sun 2006.03.19||Dayton, OH||NCAA Second Round|
Game 188: Georgetown vs. Ohio State
|Game 189: George Mason vs. North Carolina|
|Thu 2006.03.24||Washington, DC||NCAA Regional Semifinals|
Game 190: George Mason vs. Wichita State
|Game 191: Connecticut vs. Washington|
|Sat 2006.04.01||Indianapolis, IN||NCAA Final Four|
Game 192: Florida vs. George Mason
|Mon 2006.04.03||Indianapolis, IN||NCAA Championship|
Game 193: Florida vs. UCLA
GMU's road ended last night in a slump-shooting loss
, and for all intents and purposes, so did mine. They're the only reason I'm here, the mid-major basketball reporter covering the sublime oddity of a Final Four mid-major for ESPN.com. All that's left to do is wrap things up, opine on what it all means, stare blankly at a national title game I care nothing about, and then disappear once again (poof!) until November.
My presence here in Indy is as unlikely as theirs. It's strange enough to see a mid-major at the Final Four, but my previous two years make just about as much sense as a school in the Final Four from a conference that isn't all about money or television. In late 2004 I was clinging to the raft of a failing software company, I started a basketball website to pass the lazy hours, and now (a year after I doubted I'd continue it
) I'm an accredited journalist at the Final Four, here on the Worldwide Leader In Sports' dime.
There's no question that this GMU team -- a squad that uses equal parts fun, teamwork and discipline to slay clumsy giants -- crystallized my focus, validated all my mad manifestos and given me a huge amount of career leverage to boot.
But there isn't any time to think about all that, right now I just need to take a break.
PAWTUCKET, R.I., Apr. 9
-- I never wanted to be a basketball blogger, and I certainly didn't want to be a part of any so-called revolution. I went through my blogging period years ago, when I gazed at my digital navel for 18 months and lived off the anonymous praise and complaints from invisible "friends" and "enemies." It's a painful phase most of us go through, like Pabst Blue Ribbon beer or the Dave Matthews Band.
I started The Mid-Majority out of frustration in November 2004, back when there was no reliable source of schedules and scores for the over 225 schools that don't play in the power conferences with the Chosen 105. I'd gone to 83 games over the 2003-04 season, and often shown up at the wrong time or was surprised to find that the opponent was different than the one listed on the mainstream sports websites. The title was a reminder that even though leagues like the Atlantic Sun and Southland often receive the same level of coverage as Florida rookie league baseball, there are more schools out in the cold than there are in the warm glow of TV coverage... all with the same theoretical shot at the national championship that the big boys enjoy.
I'd intended to do a daily roundup of mid-major news
all along and post the occasional thought-provoking essay (so that people would show up on a regular basis), but it was the gimmick of trying to get to 100 games over 2004-05 and write 1,000 words about each one that gave me the most material. People seemed to like it, and daily site traffic often surged into the thousands of hits. I thought that was pretty nifty.
Then last spring, after I completed my goal, I was approached by several news outlets, asking me if I'd like to write professionally. ESPN.com was the only one that wanted me to treat these schools with the respect they deserve, instead of focusing on the silliness of it all, assuring power-conference fans that nothing outside their knowledge-zone really mattered. I agreed, took a modest weekly stipend, and went to work.
What I didn't figure is that I'd be spilling 8,000 words per week for the WWLIS (not including the weekly Friday afternoon chat, in which I'd sort through hundreds of questions about multiple bids for the MAC, the Six-Bid Valley and why UMPFN
isn't a mid-major). All of that quickly put an end to my plans of covering each game for TMM in parallel, using the same style as I did for the 100 Games Project. Over New Year's, I had to scrap that grand idea in mid-stream.
Another ambitious plan that didn't work out so well was the podcast. Once I hit the road in December, I found that my three-year-old iBook processor wasn't capable of mixing down complex audio with background music, fade-outs and sweetening. It's a shame, because some of the interviews that didn't make it to air were truly awesome (Ken Pomeroy giving the clearest and most concise lecture on tempo-free stats ever, and Loyola (Md.)
coach Jimmy Patsos discussing his favorite Grateful Dead shows). But then, after iTunes refused to distribute it -- The Mid-Majority Report
was apparently too close to content partner Air America's liberal chat-fest The Majority Report
-- I knew that I had to cut bait, try again next year.
The largest failure this year, however, had to do with TMM's self-victimizing success. When daily visitors surged into the tens of thousands, the site just couldn't keep up. The darkest moment occurred in late February, when the previous host "inadvertently" sabotaged the site whilst attemtping to limit traffic -- that me out host-shopping and resulted in two all-nighters moving everything over. Then came the real surge -- in March, when everyone wanted to know what a mid-major was, they came here. During the NCAA Tournament, a lot of people ended up seeing a "Too many connections" message instead of actual content. When I did talk-show appearances, I begged the hosts not to mention the name of my site. "It can't handle the traffic," I'd say.
I've said it before (most notably during the forced one-day shutdown, a donation drive that netted TMM $328... thanks again, donors!), but ESPN doesn't pay me enough to live on, cover my travel expenses, and run a hugely popular basketball website. I also don't have the time to take advertisements or manage an outside ad service (like Blue Ribbon, I'm absolutely adamant about filtering out any gambling ads), and I simply don't have the time to do the customer service necessary for a subscription-based site. This site literally costs hundreds of dollars a month to run during the season, and the $25/month in T-shirt commissions
just doesn't cover it. Please, please, please donate...
for the third time in less than a year, I have to find a new, better and more expensive (and more competent) webhost. If you can't give 'til it hurts, give 'til it's mildly uncomfortable.
But the one thing that worked the best this season has to do with the primary reason why the site became so popular. Thanks to all the work Ken Pomeroy
and I did last summer, The Mid-Majority is without a doubt the home of the most comprehensive college basketball information on the Web. This site has A HREF=http://www.bbstate.com/schools/NWSU>elaborate team pages, player pages
(the only ones with tempo-free stats), stats
, leaders, cool map-mashup scoreboards
, one-stop cheat sheets
, team news
, even individual
performance breakdowns. (And with all the .edu traffic I've been getting, I know how much all you assistant coaches and sports information directors love it!) No other site has all of this, and there's going to be even more next season.
If anything, my ESPN.com gig and the 99% reliability of the stats system (we'll work on achieving that other 1% this summer) has allowed TMM to become what I'd originally planned it to be: a place for information. The stats, scores and schedules will go here, and the bulk of the reportage will go over there. The move from Baller Of The Week in 04-05 to Baller Of The Day
in 05-06, and the more interactive Game! Of! The! Night!
gave people an excuse to come back every day, and I always get a kick over e-mail lobbying campaigns and TMM-inspired press releases
Speaking of e-mail and the press, I made a brief mention last year during last February's Red State Basketball Goodwill Tour
that I slept in the car at a rest stop just outside Chattanooga. The next day, I received at least 20 messages inquiring as to my safety. I never wrote anything about that kind of thing again.
But the story bled out again this spring. Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl interviewed me for a story about the success of mid-majors in the first and second rounds of the Tournament -- he made a passing mention that I drive thousands of miles per week, often sleep in the car and like to steal hotel wifi. He called me "the Jack Kerouac of college basketball."
Ever since the article was published, I've been fielding questions about it. "You're such a fascinating story," some say. "You should really play that up."
I really have no interest in doing that. As I've found, people's initial reaction is generally unwanted and misplaced sympathy. But yes, I sleep in the car; yes, I shower at truck stops (we prefer "travel centers"); yes, I park near hotels and file my ESPN.com stories using their free internet before heading back out onto the Interstate. If you've received an e-mail from me at 3:00 am, it was probably written in a Holiday Inn parking lot.
Part of all this has to do with my modern American financial ordinariness (tens of thousands in crushing debt, ongoing legal issues, no credit cards), but it's more a concern of time constraints. Most mid-major cities (like Itta Bena
) don't have airports, and most are spaced hundreds of miles apart. It pays to stay close to the ground at all times.
As long as I'm doing this, no matter how much money I make, I'll do it this way. Mid-major teams don't travel in luxury, and neither should I. My potential TV fame has already taken a hit: I was scheduled to appear on ESPN2's "Cold Pizza"
on March 24 -- the eve of the Washington regional -- with my colleague Pat Forde. But once the producers found out about my living arrangements on the road, they called my editors at ESPN.com and asked if I was "presentable for television, considering the circumstances." I was told later by phone that I "wasn't what [they] were looking for." (It's official: I'm too ugly for TV!)
The biggest reason I don't talk about the way I travel is an unwillingness to place myself in the story. If you go back over my ESPN school profiles and travelogues this year, you'll find only three slips into first person. Each time, I've been uncomfortable with it, and one time and "I" was inserted by my editor despite my protestations. My point is this: these teams have waited years and sometimes decades for national coverage, and they deserve to be covered straight with no chaser. UC Davis
and Alabama State
don't want or need to be upstaged by dusty road tales.
But if these stories don't get told, they'll die when I do. Like the one about how I drove from Albany, NY
to Murfreesboro, TN
(over 1,200 miles) in one day... or how all the windows in my rental car were smashed in during the CAA tourney first-round late games in Richmond, and how I slept in the airport terminal (my feet constantly being run over by rolling baggage) until the Hertz kiosk opened at 7 a.m.
Or the ones that don't involve Olympian feats of deprivation, like how I finally (finally!)
met my hero, John Feinstein. Not suprisingly, he didn't know who I was, but long-time readers will note the significance of the final paragraph of my final ESPN column of the season
So what I've come to realize is that these two sites -- TMM and ESPN -- provide a welcome modicum of separation. Next year, in addition to the BOTD and G!O!T!N! (and all the stats), this site will include a separate road diary. The line of separation that divides weblog and traditional reportage is that blogging consists of events seen through the obscuring filter of a opinionated "personality," and like I said, I'm not interested in doing that any more than I have to (and considering that ESPN's blogs are censored and edited, they're "blogs" in name only). And so the Charles Kuralt-style coverage will go over there; if you want Jack Kerouac-style journaling, it'll be over here. No blogging.
So that's it for Season 2 of The Mid-Majority. There were a few steps backwards, a few steps forwards, a lot more of the latter than of the former and a lot of lessons learned. The biggest lesson of the year had to do with sudden success and how to handle it: as history has shown, the folks who survive this sort of thing do so by not being overwhelmed by it, by refraining from any sudden lurching decisions, and by not listening to those with deeply-vested interests (in my case, the yip-yappers who call me a "genius" when I say nice things about their school and an "idiot" when I criticize it). For anybody who recognizes the "mid-major aesthetic" that I attempt to capture, or for anyone who was with me for the initial 100-game ride, my door and inbox will always be open.
If my story is a story at all, it's the tale of a boy who just wanted to go to basketball games and write about them. Now he's on his way towards being able to do it for a living. And he, The Official Wife (and Bally) will probably end up living happily ever after.
Happiness, more or less...
It's just a change in me,
Something in my liberty
Oh, my, my...
Happiness, coming and going,
I watch you look at me,
Watch my fever growing,
I know just where I am.
But how many corners do I have to turn?
How many times do I have to learn,
All the love I have is in my mind?
Well, I'm a lucky man
With fire in my hands.