The humility of March, broken bracketology

Posted at 12:24 PM, Mar 21, 2017

CINCINNATI -- When I was about 13 or 14, my dad brought home something I had only heard about, a football betting slip.

It was plainer than I thought. Just a series of teams and numbers on each side. A slender sheet of paper, very much like a parking ticket. But more fun. There were a handful of college games, but most were that weekend's upcoming NFL games.

My dad wasn't into sports much, but he liked to make a wager or two. And in Youngstown, it wasn't hard to find a place to do that. He knew I liked football and he asked me to fill it out.

I don't remember any particular games from that week, but to me, the winners seemed obvious. I don't even remember if point spreads were listed. I assume they were. I just circled the teams that I thought would win.

That following Monday I was sitting at the dining room table doing my homework when my dad walked over and dropped a $10 bill onto my book. "We won" he said simply. I don't know how much WE won, but I know he was in a good mood. What a feeling! I felt like I had bypassed puberty, collected $10 and went straight to manhood.

I get that same excited feeling when Selection Sunday rolls around. I like the setup, the drama and the announcement, but the fun comes in filling out the bracket. At least most of the time.

If I was a dry cleaner like my father, nobody would care what my bracket looked liked. But because I dabble in sports, people assume I actually know something about these teams.

I always looked at the bracket as a fun thing, a personal challenge. Like working to fill out the crossword puzzle in the Sunday Times. Then somebody turned it into competition. Then Bracketology was born. Like a new science. Something you'd read about in National Geographic. It got out of hand.

Over the years, we would have a station-wide bracket contest. And of course everyone expects the sports guy to get involved. We'd all throw in $5 and somebody would collect a pile at the end.

As each day of competition passed, scores would be posted showing the leaders and laggers. Inevitably I was with the latter. It was like that evil economics professor who used to post test scores for everyone to see. And then leave them up for a week.

Then came the questions, "How could you pick that team?" Or, "I thought you knew your basketball." Or, "That's embarrassing, isn't it?" Yes it was.

I heard it all. And of course the capper was that some guy or gal from the newsroom who couldn't tell a basketball from a grapefruit would win the entire poll. His or her research was based entirely on nicknames, uniform colors or cute point guards.

For a few years, I just skipped the bracket altogether, but this year, I thought I'd give it a try again. Nobody posts station-wide scores anymore. All those fellow workers who knew my picks were laughable have long since gone away.

It didn't look like a particularly tough field. If there was a conflict, I'd just go to the better seed. If I didn't know where the team was from, I just figured it would lose.

The first round wasn't a disaster. I had SMU to win. But so did everyone else. They didn't. The problem was that I had the Mustangs advancing through two more rounds. They wouldn't. Neither did Creighton or Seton Hall. I had been deceived by the Big East.

The beauty comes from those picks that go against the norm. Those picks separate you from the pack. Middle Tennessee State came through like a champ and so did Wichita State. Hated to pick against Dayton, but in March, you need to be heartless.

I went with UC, but I stumbled badly when I picked for Maryland to beat Xavier. What stupidity.

After spending a few days in Indy, I came home and took my wife out to dinner. Up on the big screen was the Villanova-Wisconsin game. Squirm alert! Villanova was destined for my Final 4 not to mention my Final 2. I tried to be good company. I explained to her the significance of the game as if she cared. Damn! I had Villanova penciled in to get to the title game. They didn't even make it through Saturday dinner.

We all know a thing about college basketball, but it doesn't matter much when it comes to the tournament. Surprises spring out of nowhere. And it seems like one upset begets another. Duke fell as well. 

My first boss Al Schottelkotte used to take a red sharpie to our news scripts like an exacting English teacher. That's how my brackets look again. It's a yearly helping of humble pie.  But it's part of the fun. I still have Kansas to win. 

Oh by the way, after our big win a half century ago, my dad kept bringing home football betting slips for the next several weeks. I started to take time to study them a little closer. I'd read what the experts were thinking. I started to do a little homework.

To my knowledge we never won another cent.