When the NCAA tournament selection committee convenes next week in Indianapolis to do its work, there will be one vital player missing from the proceedings.
His name is Greg Shaheen, and he was the NCAA’s Mr. Bracket for the previous 12 tournaments. The 2012 Big Dance was the last waltz for the association’s former vice president of championships and alliances – essentially the man who made the tournament run and helped make it staggeringly rich via its TV deal with CBS and Turner. The NCAA forced his resignation last year, intent on moving its showcase event in a more modern (read: corporate and soulless) direction.
(Yes, the NCAA tournament can get more corporate and soulless. Just watch.)
Today, Shaheen is leading what he dryly described to Yahoo! Sports as "a nice and peaceful existence." He is doing consulting work with a variety of college conferences wanting to maximize their exposure, and with advertisers wanting to work the college market.
But even in his new existence, Shaheen’s bracket acumen remains in demand – he will be the guest star on a one-hour Big Ten Network production Monday night. Shaheen will drop selection science – both from national and Big Ten perspectives – on hosts Dave Revsine and Mike Hall on "Inside the Selection Process" at 9 p.m. ET.
So, Shaheen has work. And certainly, this is not a bad time to be a former NCAA employee, as the governing body of college athletics is buffeted by self-inflicted enforcement wounds, unparalleled criticism and even calls for a change in presidential leadership. Pining away for a job at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis right now is like sitting in a lifeboat and wishing you were back aboard the Titanic.
But this also is March, the most wonderful time of the year for those associated with college basketball. And March will be a bit mirthless without the droll, idiosyncratic, nerdy-but-passionate Shaheen in the middle of it all. The 45-year-old lifelong bachelor was essentially married to the Madness, until it jilted him.
He will undoubtedly feel a palpable pang of sadness as the selection process begins without him for the first time since 2000. Shaheen was involved in virtually every element of the tourney’s planning and operation: Spearheading TV contract negotiations, guiding the selection committee through the process, and then overseeing the action that unfolded in the following three weeks.
On Monday night he will re-enter Bracketville for an hour to pass along some of that insider knowledge to Big Ten Network viewers.
"I’m a sucker for this," he admitted.
He is also a sucker for that one thing the NCAA historically has struggled most with: transparency. The infamously secretive organization was cajoled into opening its doors at least a crack by Shaheen in recent years.
He improved relationships between the national office and both college coaches and the media. Shaheen was the idea guy behind the media mock selection experience, a PR grand slam for the NCAA. The intent was to strip away some of the mythology and misconception surrounding what the selection committee does every March, and it led to a widespread educating of the media and thus the public about the process.
"I think what has happened in doing the selection transparency has, in the smallest of ways, benefitted the association and created greater empathy and understanding for what it does," Shaheen said. "And the ironic thing is that the mock selections helped the staff and committee more than the media. We needed more minds to show us things we hadn’t thought of before. I was never more proud to have been a part of that stuff."
The lessons learned from mock selections could be applied on a bigger, more serious and much more urgent scale right now, Shaheen believes. He’d like to see Mark Emmert and his minions respond to the torrent of current criticism with an educational approach rather than a defensive posture.
"I’m hopeful that in time, they can find ways to help people understand what they do and how they do it, and the challenges that come with it," Shaheen said. "This is about people not understanding each other."
Despite being forced out at the NCAA, and despite the current travails, Shaheen believes in the institution itself.
"I think that a centralized entity that is mindful of various dynamics of a diverse membership, that tries to keep everything steady, can be a very positive thing," he said.
The NCAA could use something – anything – positive right about now. But what it lost in forcing out Greg Shaheen may be harder to replace than the association knows.
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