Making Southeastern Conference basketball more relevant nationally must be a Herculean task. But give the SEC credit, they keep giving it the old college try.
The latest try-try again came Tuesday when the league announced it had hired Mike Tranghese to be a “Special Advisor to the Commissioner for Men’s Basketball in the Southeastern Conference.”
Not so incidentally, Tranghese got the job two days after the SEC received only three bids to the NCAA Tournament. It was the third time in the last four years that only three SEC teams got bids.
“Bottom line, it’s absolutely unacceptable for a league like the SEC to have three bids,” Tranghese said later in the week.
Tranghese, who once was commissioner of the Big East Conference for 20 years, recoiled at the thought of that league getting three bids.
“We would have gone off the deep end only getting three teams in,” he said.
The SEC’s version of going off the deep end is to hire outside consultants and repeatedly pledge to do better.
The Tranghese hire comes four years after former commissioner Mike Slive hired former NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen. The league called Shaheen an “NCAA Tournament guru.” In hopes of toughening non-conference schedules, the SEC ordered coaches to submit schedules to Shaheen for approval.
All the while, Associate Commissioner for Men’s Basketball Mark Whitworth continues to promote the sport.
Now, new commissioner Greg Sankey has hired Tranghese. The two long-time friends have been informally talking about this move for almost a year.
Why has SEC basketball languished?
“The SEC is viewed as a — quote — football conference,” Tranghese said.
The many empty seats at SEC games other than those at Rupp Arena can’t be helping.
“If you start to win, people will come out,” Tranghese said. “Inherently, we’re all winners. We want winners. We don’t want to see teams that are losing. That’s the beauty of SEC football. People come out even when they’re losing. But that is a phenomenon.”
Tranghese puts great faith in coaches as the answer. The SEC needs to hire good coaches who will change the culture. Bruce Pearl at Auburn was such a hire two years ago, Tranghese said. So were Avery Johnson (Alabama), Ben Howland (Mississippi State) and Rick Barnes (Tennessee) last year.
“They ain’t there just to coach,” Tranghese said. “They are there to win.”
The SEC’s new consultant noted how Jim Larranaga and Ed Cooley made Miami and Providence winners and annual participants in the NCAA Tournament.
Tranghese also supports Kentucky Coach John Calipari’s suggestion that the SEC move its conference tournament championship game to Saturday. That would give the Selection Committee more time to consider the result of the title game when seeding and bracketing. UK is a four-seed this year and Texas A&M a three-seed even though the Cats beat the Aggies in the title game Sunday afternoon.
Sankey is “open-minded” about moving the title game to Saturday, Tranghese said.
When he led the Big East, Tranghese moved the conference tournament championship game from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night.
“One of the biggest fights I had as a commissioner,” he said. “The only way I was able to win is that our coaches like John Thompson and Jimmy Boeheim got behind it.”
Tranghese also had leverage. He had a second network (ESPN) bidding against CBS for the rights to telecast the tournament.
Tranghese, who once served on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, said the SEC can be a basketball power.
“The SEC has resources, it has facilities and it has great rivalries,” he said. “And it has its own television network. There is too much going on, in my opinion, to not be more successful.”
To play devil’s advocate, why should the SEC care? The league is raking in record revenues. Its teams are national contenders in multiple sports. So what if your peers — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12 — all had seven teams make the NCAA Tournament field?
“It’s in your juices,” Tranghese said. “You never want to be mediocre. I think being mediocre is unacceptable when you have the ability to be better.”
‘A very dull game’
With the 50th anniversary of the Kentucky-Texas Western game on Saturday, Frank Deford seemed like a good person to talk to. He covered the ground-breaking game for Sports Illustrated.
Journalism is supposed to be a first draft on history. So how aware were reporters of the significance of the game at the time?
Not very, Deford said.
“It was a very dull game,” he said. “I remember that. Texas Western got ahead and just sort of stayed ahead the whole game. It was a very run-of-the-mill game. It was very hard to write anything it. It was a dreary, dreary game.”
Our conversation hit on how radically different the perception of the game changed. In time, the game became a watershed moment in race relations.
Texas Western not only beat Kentucky, but defeated the notion that blacks were somehow less than whites.
This escaped the coverage at the time. Not because reporters failed to notice black-versus-white. But because basketball people had been watching a fully integrated NBA. The Boston Celtics started an all-black lineup.
In covering Kentucky-Texas Western, Deford said he and other sportswriters were struck by a tried-and-true storyline: David-versus-Goliath.
“It was a Cinderella story of who the hell was Texas Western playing one of the premier teams in the country,” he said. “That was it.”
Pat Riley said Rupp’s Runts were aware of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam war protests and other social causes in the turbulent 1960s.
But the players were not emotionally disturbed by the times.
“I think that’s what being an athlete does, especially at Kentucky,” he said. “It puts you in a bubble where sometimes you don’t know what’s going on outside the bubble in the real world. We would see pictures of it, but we weren’t affected by it.
“But Texas Western, if they saw pictures of it, they were affected by it because when they went to schools to play, they (were) threatened and attacked and ridiculed and insulted. We never felt that.”
Then, Riley amended that to add that road trips to the deep south brought racism home.
“We felt it,” he said,” whether you’re black or white.”
Thanks to an assist from Herald-Leader Frankfort reporter Jack Brammer, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell offered these thoughts on the UK-Texas Western title game.
“I was attending UK law school when this important game was played,” he said, “and remember it well.
“Although I was disappointed to see our team lose, I certainly appreciated the historic significance of a team starting five African-American players winning the national championship. Many SEC programs were still segregated in those days, and Kentucky was unfortunately one of them.
“Even on integrated teams, some argued you needed at least one white player to lead the team. Texas Western proved those people wrong and showed that what was important on the court was talent.
“That victory was another breakthrough of the Civil Rights era.”
Although too young to have experienced the UK-Texas Western game, former Duke star Grant Hill said he appreciated its place in history.
“The thing that is beautiful about sports is it can really bring people together,” he said.
For example, Hill said the NBA has many foreign-born players.
“As important as that (1966 championship game) was 50 years ago, it’s refreshing to see the progress,” Hill said. “To see just how basketball has been a uniter.”
In the spirit of better late than never, here’s a pronunciation guide.
David Lattin, the center on the Texas Western team, said his last name is pronounced La-TEEN. Not Latin.
Something to prove
South Carolina had reason to feel victimized by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, which did not extend a bid even though the Gamecocks set a school record for regular-season victories (24) and finished tied for third in a so-called Power 5 conference.
A widely held view is that a less-than-compelling non-conference schedule cost South Carolina a bid.
When asked whether he and his team would try to prove the Selection Committee wrong by playing well in the NIT, Coach Frank Martin said, “If you follow my career in any way, shape or form, (you’d know) I’ve been trying to prove people wrong since the day I was invented by my parents.
“That’s kind of the hand I’ve been dealt my whole career.”
That being said, Martin put a positive spin on being out to prove something in the postseason.
“I just wake up trying to please people who believe in me,” he said. “I believe in trying to prove to people who believe in you that they’re right.”
‘Contrived as hell’
UK grad and fan Morrie Bryant is from Hopkinsville. He and his wife, Virginia, now live in Johnston, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines.
When he watched the Selection Sunday show and saw that Indiana would be playing in Des Moines, he suspected his beloved Wildcats would be there, too.
“I told Virginia, ‘you watch, they’re going to put Kentucky there,’” Bryant said Wednesday. “It’s contrived as hell. It’s TV, man.”
Not that Morrie and Virginia, who met at UK’s freshman orientation in 1969, were complaining that Kentucky would be playing in Des Moines. “We were thrilled,” Virginia said.
‘Ulis is a pro’
When asked if Tyler Ulis could be an NBA player, Grant Hill likened the UK point guard to Boston Celtic Isaiah Thomas. Both are 5-foot-9.
“I can see Tyler having that kind of impact and career,” Hill said. “He’s a jet. He’s a pro.”
The basketball gods blessed Ulis with plenty of intangibles, Hill said.
“Certain qualities you can’t teach,” he said. “He sees openings, attacks, controls the game.”
To Sam Bowie. He turned 55 on Thursday. … To Patrick Sparks. He turned 33 on Thursday. …To Skal Labissiere. He turned 20 on Friday. … To Bruce Pearl. The Auburn coach turned 56 on Friday. … To Cory Sears. He turned 36 on Saturday. … To Pat Riley. He turns 71 on Sunday (today). … To Jerry Hale. He turns 63 on Sunday (today). … To Troy McKinley. He turns 53 on Monday. … To Darius Miller. He turns 26 on Monday. … To Wayne Turner. He turns 40 on Tuesday. … To EJ Floreal. He turns 23 on Wednesday.