Wayne Duke, the first staffer hired when Walter Byers opened the NCAA for business over a Kansas City saloon in 1952, breathed a sigh of relief when he learned the NCAA Tournament would expand to 68 teams next season. He was relieved because widespread expectation had the NCAA Tournament expanding to 96 teams.
"Cosmetically, I'm not for it," he said of an expansion to 96 teams. "... I thought we were coming off one of the greatest tournaments ever. And it seemed we were confronted with a wholesale change of the whole structure."
Duke, 82, is not opposed to change. As a member of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee from 1976 through 1981 (chairman from 1978 through 1981), he played a part in two expansions: From 32 to 40 teams in 1979 and from 40 to 48 teams in 1980. He literally wrote the manual on how to run an NCAA Tournament, and he's attended all but two of the past 57 tournaments.
"I felt very proud of what we were doing, and still do," he said of his time on the Selection Committee.
To gradually expand the tournament in the past sparked little opposition. Not that those expansions were universally applauded. Duke recalled UCLA Coach John Wooden and Athletic Director J.D. Morgan opposing expansion in the 1970s, perhaps because a larger field would make it more difficult for the Bruins — or any dynasty — to win championships.
As a committee member (and commissioner of the Big Eight and later the Big Ten conferences), Duke also heard the argument that expanding the tournament would weaken the field.
Duke disagreed and lobbied to extend automatic qualifying bids to more conferences. He recalled the year the Ohio Valley Conference learned it would have a team in every NCAA Tournament.
"I saw this guy lurking in the bushes when I walked out (of the committee meeting room)," Duke said.
That guy, Tennessee Tech President Arliss Roaden, extended a hand as Duke neared.
"Wayne, I want you to know how appreciative we all are for getting the Ohio Valley in the tournament," Roaden said. "An automatic qualifier is just like academic accreditation. It's our athletic accreditation. We belong."
This year's move to radically change the nature of a cultural phenomenon known as March Madness was difficult for many to accept.
One of his longtime friends, NCAA Executive Vice President Tom Jernstedt, explained to Duke why such a large expansion was needed. The NCAA needed a large increase in revenue to help college athletic programs remain financially viable.
"Tom has convinced me it transcends the tournament itself and the NCAA itself," Duke said of that need for revenue.
Then the NCAA decided to expand to 68 teams, causing Duke to muse, "Either the necessity (for revenue) was alleviated or it wasn't as great as he painted."
Whichever, the expansion to 68 teams eased Duke's anxiety about what a 96-team field might mean for one of the country's most popular sporting events.
Long since retired, Duke worries about the increasing attention paid to revenue and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots in college athletics.
"I probably wouldn't have a place in college athletics today," he said, "because I was brought up in a different era. It was an era of romanticism about competing. You didn't have the influence of the pros. You didn't have the one-and-dones.
"But I'm 82. One of the privileges of retirement is you can pontificate without any accountability. The trade-off is few people listen to you."
Chris Holtmann, the 6-foot point guard who led Jessamine County High to its first Sweet Sixteen berth in 1990, has been hired as coach of Gardner-Webb.
With Gardner-Webb scheduled to play at Louisville next season, Holtmann will have a chance to show his coaching prowess in front of the home folks.
"I don't know what will give me a bigger thrill," he said, "coaching as a head coach at Louisville or rolling into the old Freedom Hall (in the 1990 Sweet Sixteen) having just beaten Paducah Tilghman and playing Covington Holmes next. Both are unbelievable thrills."
Speaking of unbelievable thrills, Holtmann experienced one in Rupp Arena three years ago when he was associate head coach for Gardner-Webb. That's the night Gardner-Webb beat Kentucky in a stunning upset that simultaneously excited those close to Holtmann and alarmed UK fans.
"I give a lot of the credit to Rick Scruggs," said Holtmann of the man he's replacing as Gardner-Webb coach three years later. "He gave the players the belief we could attack. He felt (UK's) transition defense had some real limitations."
That game is ancient history now. Armed with a five-year contract, Holtmann said he expected to need a few years to rebuild.
Holtmann's basketball career has had several successes. He averaged 16 points, five rebounds and five assists for Jessamine County's Sweet Sixteen team. The Colts finished 25-6 that season.
As an assistant for Ohio U. this past season, Holtmann gets credit for helping the Bobcats win the Mid-American Conference Tournament and then upset No. 3 seed Georgetown in the opening round of this year's NCAA Tournament. That victory was Ohio's first in the NCAA Tournament since 1983.
"We hope to build a culture around a real competitive program," he said of taking charge of Gardner-Webb basketball. "We want people to know they'll be in a fistfight when they come to our place."
Former Jessamine County star Chris Holtmann noted how his mother, Patty, is a rabid Kentucky fan. In that role, she fretted about UK's chances this past season.
"She would say, 'I don't know if we shoot the ball well enough, Chris,' " Holtmann said. "She told me before the West Virginia game that she thought we could have trouble with the 1-3-1 (zone)."
When Kentucky cleaned up its basketball program after rule-breaking in the 1980s, then-president David Roselle suggested schools with UK's tradition should be able to limit recruiting to true student-athletes.
But noted NCAA observer Murray Sperber, visiting professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, said it would be difficult for a school like Kentucky to rely solely on prospects who are highly capable in the classroom as well as on the court.
"That demographic pool of Duke players is really small, and it's also spread out," said Sperber, who saluted Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski for being able to "position himself to get a high percentage of those players. So Duke does graduate 92 percent of its players."
'B.S.' from TV?
One critic of college athletics, Murray Sperber, scoffed at the notion that the $10.8 billion paid by CBS and Turner Broadcasting to televise the NCAA Tournament reflected the television networks' support of academics. "In America, we like it higher, faster, better," Sperber said. "Therefore, the very best basketball product that can be turned out by schools like Kentucky is what's going to be on TV. CBS just renegotiated for better Kentucky teams. They didn't say, 'We're going to show some Georgetown-Centre games.'
"CBS can have all the (B.S.) it wants about 'Oh, we really support the academic mission of these schools.' But what it wants is the most competitive product for TV and pretty much as close to the pros as possible, but with the rah-rah of the college game."
Stop the charade
Stories about UK's reliance on so-called one-and-done players and UK President Lee Todd's misgivings moved reader Sam Penn to send an e-mail message.
"I feel that it is high time the NCAA stops the charade of characterizing itself as anything besides a farm system for the NBA," he wrote. "I know Lee Todd from our days at Calvary Baptist Church and know that he is sincere in his concern about this dilemma.
"I have a proposal for Lee to suggest to the NCAA Division I Board of Directors when he joins that body. ... It is ridiculous to penalize the school for players leaving early because it is impossible to know what a teenage kid is thinking. From what I understand, a school can possibly lose scholarships if a certain percentage of players don't graduate. My idea would be to go back to allowing a player to go straight to the NBA out of high school. I doubt if the NCAA could ever adopt similar rules for basketball that it has for baseball or football simply because of the number of players that have already left early in the past.
"I think the next best thing would be this: Allow a player to leave after his first year if the following two criteria are met: the player has not hired an agent and he finishes the entire second semester and is in good academic standing at the end of the semester. If he is not in good academic standing, then he has to wait a year before being eligible for the NBA Draft. If a student-athlete has to sit out a year just because he wants to transfer, then I think it is only fair to punish a student-athlete if he quits going to class just as soon as basketball season is over. Why try to penalize the school when the kid is the problem?"
Penn, 58, has lived in Lexington his entire life. He graduated from Georgetown College and has rooted for UK since the late 1950s.
Penn noted how he enjoyed watching Butler play in this year's NCAA Tournament.
"The sound fundamental basketball stressed by Brad Stevens (good defense, the value of each possession, very few turnovers, team above individual, etc.) reminded me of the type of basketball played by UK teams of the past," he wrote.
Players help school
Sara Chaffin, a math teacher and volleyball coach at Lexington's Jessie Clark Middle School, wanted to share her recent experience with UK players.
One of the physical education teachers called UK and asked if a player could make an appearance at the school's testing pep rally on April 23.
UK said a few players would be there but made sure the Jessie Clark teachers knew a conflict might arise. "We were told that they were college boys and it is a Friday afternoon, so don't get your hopes up," Chaffin wrote.
"Well, to our surprise, not only did they show up, but they participated in our skit!"
Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller and Jon Hood participated in the school's pep rally.
"Josh pushed our associate principal out in a wheelbarrow, and Jon rode a bike!" Chaffin wrote. "Josh got on the microphone and told our 900 students to do their best on the test!
"Then, they stuck around and came back out at the end of our skit during a song and threw beach balls to the crowd.
"Then, they stuck around and high-fived and/or hugged almost all 900 students as they exited the gym.
"THEN, they stuck around in the front parking lot and signed autographs and posed for pictures with students until every last car was gone!"
Needless to say, the UK players were a big hit.
"Our school is SO very appreciative ...," Chaffin wrote. "Our students were thrilled and so were our teachers! It says a lot for them to be here and to give back to their community like that!"
To former UK point guard Anthony Epps. He turns 35 on Tuesday.
Epps played a central role in the coaching move that pointed Kentucky toward the 1996 national championship. After a 92-82 loss to John Calipari's UMass team in the season's second game, then-UK Coach Rick Pitino pulled the plug on the annual attempt to make Tony Delk a point guard. Instead, Delk returned to his natural position as shooting guard, and Epps became floor leader.
"I was the calming voice the team needed," Epps said.
On Friday, his alma mater, Marion County High, named Epps its new boys' basketball coach. "The best birthday present I could receive," he said.
Athletics Director Stacey Hall noted how Epps had won the 1993 state championship as a player for Marion County and an NCAA Tournament championship for UK in 1996.
"He's a proven winner," Hall said.