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March 23, 2013

Gettin' back in the game

I blame USC.

Although I'll give the Trojans program I concentrate on a little credit for an academic calendar that has spring break and spring football break this week so it's been possible to reconnect, really reconnect, with an NCAA Basketball Tournament I grew up with.

For a kid growing up in Cincinnati, Ground Zero, I thought, of the college basketball world, there was no better time than March. Kentucky and Lousville were a 100 miles south, Cincinnati and Xavier right in town, Ohio State 100 miles north, Indiana 150 miles west, Notre Dame, Purdue, West Virginia and in those days, Western Kentucky, not all that much farther away.

From then on, no matter where sports took me, my own personal NCAA basketball GPS went with me, even if it seems a bit removed these days looking at it through a USC lens.

But it came back a bit for me when the CBS intro for the tournament opened with five historic game highlights, maybe the best five -- at least for modern TV's treatment of March Madness. Four of them I was a part of.

UK-Duke in 1993, the best college basketball game of all time, in Philadelphia. I was there. First row. First seat. Typing like crazy way past deadline in overtime. Then the improbable upset by Jimmy Valvano's North Carolina State of Houston's Phi Slama Jama in Albuquerque a decade earlier on Lorenzo Charles' catch and dunk at the horn.

Bryce Drew's perfect buzzer-beater for Valpo over Ole Miss in Oklahoma City came for me as a new Chicago-area sports editor/columnist following that Valpo team and the Drew family, Homer, Bryce and Scott. Michael Jordan also hit a game-winning jumper, not quite as dramatic but just as effective, at the end to beat Georgetown in the Superdome for North Carolina. Only one I missed was Butler-Duke a couple of years back which probably doesn't belong in the intro anyway.

And you realize as you sit here all day watching and seeing folks you've known for decades still in the huddles or on the sidelines or on press row, the coaches, trainers, sportswriters and broadcasters, heck even some of the fans, that you're starting to miss them.

Jim Nantz was doing the lead-in for Iowa State-Notre Dame Friday -- and I miss Jim. Used to always figure out a way to catch up with him since the first time I saw him at a Final Four when I was a columnist for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.

"Asbury Park Press," Nantz called out looking at my credential. "I used to deliver the Asbury Park Press when I was a kid." That's all it took. But if the truth were told, the reason I was hanging out with Nantz and his buds was one of his buds who never missed a Final Four -- that famous former University of Cincinnati basketball player from Brooklyn's Lafayette High School, Sandy Koufax.

As reticent as the reclusive Koufax has always been, and as hesitant as he was to talk about himself or baseball, that wasn't the case when it came to talking college hoops. Knowing that the man who brought him to Cincinnati, Ed Jucker, had also taken the Bearcats to two straight NCAA titles while missing the third by a second, didn't hurt.

As always, you could connect to people at the NCAA tournament -- although maybe you might not bring up that NC State upset too much to Houston-alum Nantz.

Cawood Ledford, for years the voice of Kentucky basketball, the Kentucky Derby and the Final Four on radio, used to remind us that it wasn't until the mid-1960s and the Cincinnati-Ohio State back-to-back championship games that you could watch the national championship live on something that even looked like a national network of sorts.

Far and away the best college sports announcer of all time, and my boss for a while at his Kentucky sports weekly, Cawood's final call came on that Kentucky-Duke game and that Christian Laettner shot. Never a big Mike Krzyzewski fan but I'll give him all the props in the world for acknowledging Cawood's retirement in the post-game chaos that night.

That's how college basketball was if you were lucky -- a personal experience. And one USC fans should get to experience. I mean if Florida Gulf Coast fans can feel it, so should people who bleed Cardinal and Gold.

Although here's how this works. Found myself rooting like crazy for the FGCU kids Friday and not just because they were 15th seeds playing their hearts out. They'd won the Atlantic Sun Conference as a newcomer to Division I. That conference is where the school I'd help start the athletic program at, Northern Kentucky University, has just joined in its first Division I season.

You can almost always find a reason to root and somebody to root for -- or against. Unless you're locked into Trojans World. Which is why this coaching selection means so much for a USC program that really could take off. It's happened before. I was there at Xavier as SID and assistant AD when a few of us convinced the administration that it could turn around for my Musketeers. And we had a 3-23 season, worse than KO's 6-26, to come back from.

But the "I was there" moments are what you wish that all of you, and USC, could have. The NCAA tournament offers so many of them.

The guys in Westwood even gave me a few as the beat guy there and the only reporter to get to Final Fours covering the two winningest college basketball programs of all time -- UK and UCLA.

Was there for the biggest championship game of all time according to the TV numbers, Magic vs. Bird, in 1979 at Salt Lake City. We'd found the guy to turn Xavier basketball around there, Penn's Bob Staak from the last Ivy League team to get to a Final Four, and it got me to the game where I accidentally ran over Donnie Osmond, who I didn't see stopping to sign autographs in an exit at halftime.

Was there another time in Salt Lake City when Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall, USC O-line coach Mike Summers' father-n-law, was left behind after a TV interview and became Joe B's chauffeur for the rest of the day. Didn't realize just a week later, he'd retire.

But the best thing that week in Salt Lake City was the chance to spend a day hanging out and talking basketball with Jerry Tarkanian. Might have been my first clear insight into the NCAA, the organization not the tournament. Tark was a hoot, not a shark.

That same week at the only Final Four ever in Lexington, just happened to park at the coaches' convention hotel next to the leading candidate for the Kentucky job, Gene Bartow, a sweet, decent man then coaching at UAB. Had to ask him about the talk: Would he consider UK? He looked at his wife and smiled: "I've already done that at UCLA," he said. "Not sure I'm up for that again."

He wasn't. And I had my little scoop. Eddie Sutton would be the unlucky guy to come to Kentucky at the absolutely worst possible time.

Saw the greatest Final Four practice ever when Louisville tried to match Houston in a high-flying Friday dunkoff in the high altitude of Albuquerque in front of 15,000 or so when teams did more than walk-throughs at the arena.

And was there in Dayton just a few seats down on press row in 1984 for the first-ever instant replay when it wasn't even a rule and the three officials -- Mickey Crowley, Jim Burr and Tim Higgins -- made college basketball history by just doing it. Morehead State would beat North Carolina A&T in that play-in game and there was a dispute as to the correct foul shooter.

So they came over and asked the TV broadcasters if they could borrow their monitor. And there was a hush in the arena. What's going on here? So I got out of my seat and went down to listen in and it seemed to make sense. They didn't know for sure who the shooter was. And there was a way to be sure. So why not look at the TV. Made sense to me. And to the rules committee, who OK'ed it for the next season.

Just like that.

You should have been there. Glad I was. Hope we all get the chance to be there again soon.

Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at weber@uscfootball.com.



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