We are about to embark on one of the great weekends in all of sports with the tipoff of the NCAA tournament. Each year my loyalties fluctuate. Unlike in professional sports, where my loyalties are firmly based in Boston, my college sports loyalties fluctuate. I grew up in a state without any real Division I presence in football or basketball (though UNH hockey is a perennial contender, albeit one that has yet to scale the top of the NCAA mountain). By default I have always been a Boston College fan as a result.
Going to college did not make a lot of difference on this front. I bleed purple and gold for Williams athletics, but Williams is a Division III athletic program, and while we have the greatest athletic program in all of DIII, it is simply not the same as the spectacle of major-level DI sports. I pursued my MA work at UNC-Charlotte (which now goes simply by "Charlotte" for athletic branding purposes). Charlotte has a respectable basketball program, once made a Final Four, and had a run in the period from the mid 90s to the middle of the decade just past when an NCAA run was the norm. Nonetheless, Charlotte straddles that line between major and midmajor-level program. For my PhD I attended Ohio University in the Mid-America Conference, for which the term "mid-major" was pretty much coined.
Otherwise my loyalties come and go. I have been a fellow at both Virginia and South Carolina, so I have tried with middling levels of success to appropriate those schools. I teach in the UT system and my paycheck (and tenure decision) come from Austin, so I gravitate toward the Horns. Duke was the most prominent and persistent college to recruit me for track out of high school, so I am not only not a Duke hater, I actually like to see them do well. Despite the appeal of being a free agent, it's a lousy way to go through life as a college fan, and I have always said that if I were to get a job at a college with big-time sports I would engage in full immersion and would write a book called "Becoming a Fan" based on that first year of overcompensation.
In any case, as usual, my alma maters are experiencing various levels of involvement with the Madness of March. Williams is ranked second in the country and has made the DIII Final Four, which is played every year in Salem. Williams has been there before, having won once, and has a good shot again this year. The Ephs will take on Guilford College on Friday for the right to play for the national championship. Guilford was the alma mater of one of my (late) college track coaches and is a Quaker school in North Carolina which will come into the national semifinal with a 30-2 record (Williams is 29-1) and that made the national semis last year as well.
Ohio University made an improbable run through the MAC tournament, its only shot at going to the Big Dance. Their prize? A trip to Providence (freakin' sweet!) and a meeting with historical powerhouse and #3 seed Georgetown. OU took a really good Florida team to the wire a few years back, though, and while far from a national power, OU has been to a dozen NCAA tournaments and will hopefully give the Hoyas a game. I'll proudly wear my OU green and am looking forward to the game on Thursday.
The news is not so good in Charlotte. The university inexplicably (to my mind) fired Bobby Lutz, the winningest coach in program history. In a dozen seasons Lutz compiled a 218-158 record. The team had its worst record in a long time last season, but was in a position for an NCAA berth this year until a collapse toward the end of the year and in the first game of the A-10 tournament scuttled any hope to make the field of 65. I have no idea what AD Judy Rose, the university administration, and the trustees want from the basketball program, but if the next dozen years look anything like the dozen just passed, it seems to me that it will be a rousing success and Lutz should have categroically been part of the program going forward. Lutz has been at least arguably the best coach in the history of the program, is a Charlotte alum, is one of the truly good guys in the profession and the community, and had weathered the toughest storm he was likely to face after last season. He had some of his best recruits on campus and had in the past turned down opportunities to move up in order to remain at his alma mater. I will continue to root for Charlotte to do well, but this is a lousy, knee-jerk decision no matter what rationalization comes from the athletic department.
In the meantime: Go Bobcats! And, above all, Go Ephs!!!