March Madness recalls local legends

IMG_0096As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 19, 2017.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship, better known as March Madness, kicked off last Tuesday, with 52 games scheduled through the weekend. Is your bracket busted yet?

“March Madness” entered the American sports lexicon in 1939, but in reference to the state high school basketball championship in Illinois, not the national collegiate tourney. The name only became associated with the NCAA in the 1980s, thanks to sportscaster Brent Musburger, who was familiar with it from his work in Chicago before joining CBS.

The 68-team tournament has given us other memorable terms, including Bracketology, which refers to the science of predicting the field and each round’s winners. In theory, every squad has a chance to run the table at the Big Dance, and I’m always rooting for a Cinderella or two to emerge.

According to the American Gaming Association, more than 40 million people filled out March Madness brackets this year. Beyond office-pool wagers, however, it’s easy to understand why college basketball’s annual extravaganza is so riveting.

While the NBA Finals have given us just 19 Game 7s in 70 years, the NCAA men’s tournament offers the drama of 67 such games – do or die for both teams – in three weeks. Having local quintets in the mix – the University of Rhode Island and Providence College both earned berths this year – makes the nationwide event even more compelling.

Brown University was the first Rhode Island school to receive an NCAA bid, in the tournament’s inaugural year. Brown was one of eight entrants, losing to Villanova 42-30 in the opening round.

The Bears returned to the tourney 47 years later, in 1986, and faced powerhouse Syracuse in its own Carrier Dome. Legend has it – or perhaps it was just my father’s whimsical musing as an alumnus – that Brown’s coach, Mike Cingiser, advised his players to grab the ball and run out of the Dome should they happen to score first. To their credit, the Ivy Leaguers were actually up by one midway through the first half before losing in a blowout.

URI has been to the tournament nine times, making a terrific run in 1998 that included knocking off top-seeded Kansas. The Rams came tantalizingly close to reaching the Final Four that year, but a late-game meltdown against Stanford resulted in a heartbreaking 79-77 loss in the quarterfinals.

Of all Rhode Island teams, Providence College has danced the most, with 19 tournament appearances and two thrilling advances to the Final Four. In 1987, a young Rick Pitino all but willed a group of overachievers, led by Billy Donovan, to the national semifinals, where they faced Syracuse – the same team that had obliterated Brown the previous year. The Friars’ three-point shooting, instrumental to their success all season long, finally betrayed them, and they lost to the Orange by 14. Meanwhile, Pitino and Donovan had been launched into basketball greatness.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1973, Providence made its first trip to the Final Four, squaring off against Memphis State in St. Louis. After Ernie DiGregorio whipped a did-you-see-that, 30-foot behind-the-back pass to Kevin Stacom for a lay-up on the game’s second play, PC seemed destined for the finals. Then Marvin Barnes, the team’s star center, twisted his right knee and March Madness turned into March Sadness for Friar fans. A 49-40 halftime lead evaporated as Memphis State exploited Barnes’s injury to win going away, 98-85.

Every March, I hear myself wistfully telling anyone who will listen – my kids, their friends, total strangers – that PC would have played undefeated UCLA for the national title in 1973 had Marvin not gone down. It’s as sure a marker of spring as chirping birds and blooming crocuses.

This year, the tournament’s famous nickname will become a misnomer by the last three games, with the semifinals and championship straddling the first weekend in April. Coincidentally, on the same day the NCAA men’s tourney wraps up in Phoenix, a different kind of madness will get underway in Boston.

Go Red Sox!

My Op-Ed draws Syracuse grad’s wisdom


After my Op-Ed, “Choosing college more art than science,” appeared in the Providence Journal on April 19, 2015, I received the following email from Bob Benchley, an alumnus of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. I’m grateful to Bob for allowing me to share his wisdom with you.


It was nearly 50 years ago that I decided to go to Syracuse. I had grown up in a Boston suburb (Wellesley), was on the school paper, loved writing stories, and I wanted to be a journalist. Kids are so much smarter now about schools than I was back then, and the admissions engines run so much hotter and faster. I just had a guidance counselor, a few catalogs, modest grades and some attitudes that were mostly instilled by others. I flew out to Syracuse for a weekend with an older friend who had gone there after working with me on the high school paper. I stayed in his dorm, drank beer (18 was legal then in New York), went to a concert, had an interview and figured it might be cool to go there.

So Syracuse it was. Newhouse was just one building then, print was everything, and you did your assignments on manual typewriters, on which you also had to pass a speed and accuracy test to graduate. I was a magazine major, and the guy running the department was fairly fresh out of Newsweek. When he talked to us in class, it was always “when” you go to New York, not “if.” And I did, working there 15 years before heading back to Boston for another 10 years, then here to Miami in 2000.

In retrospect, I should have gone someplace farther away and very different from Boston. It would have exposed me to so much that was new culturally, geographically, yet I don’t know what my life would be without Syracuse. It’s sort of like what if you hadn’t had one of your kids, but a different one instead. You can’t imagine the tradeoff.

I wish your daughter well. Tell her that her degree will always stand her in good stead. They say that your college degree gets you your first job, and your first job gets you your second job. That’s true; at some point you’re a professional, not a former student. But if she picks and stays with a career in some form of communications, there will be dozens or hundreds of times that someone also in the biz will ask where you went. When you say “Newhouse,” there will be a quiet little nod of recognition, and you will be elevated a notch in the respect of the person you are speaking with.

You have “adv” in your email address, so I suppose the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. This stranger from far away sends best wishes to both of you. It is a joy to be able to turn information and ideas into consumable visual imagery (that doesn’t sound very sexy, but you know what I mean); to spend a life being paid for it is even better.

Bob Benchley

Choosing college more art than science


As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, April 19, 2015.

My daughter and I arrived at the University of Miami winter-weary and sun-deprived. It was mid-April – two weeks before Julie had to decide which college she would attend. Coral Gables blew us a tropical kiss – palm trees swayed and skateboarders in shorts breezed by. We strode past the double Olympic-size outdoor pool in the middle of the campus, and Julie said, “I could get used to this.”

The University of Miami gets high marks for its School of Communication, and that is why we were there. Julie already knew she wanted to study graphic design. From an early age, she regarded just about everything as a canvas for artistic expression – the walls of her bedroom, the pages of her assignment books, the rubber toes of her Chuck Taylors. Now she was ready to sharpen her creative skills in college, and that had put us in the crosshairs of higher education’s potent marketing machine.

Schools lure families with rankings from U.S. News & World Report and amenities worthy of exclusive resorts, while burying astronomical tuition fees deep in their web content. And people get hooked. They travel to campuses in search of the “right” school – an academic silver bullet that will guarantee success. Teens submit applications by the dozen and wait to hear back, fingers crossed.

Our trip was living proof of all that.

In his New York Times bestseller, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni writes that there are many educational paths to success and personal fulfillment – private schools, public schools, schools you’ve never heard of. More important, Bruni believes that the student is at the center of his or her success, not the school. He suggests that, for some, college may not even be part of the success equation: “Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.”

Thank you, Frank. I recall the mounting pressure Julie felt as she filled out applications in our kitchen. To counter the frenzy, I told her she would become a graphic designer no matter which college she attended. “The school doesn’t make you,” I said. “You make you, with the school’s help.” Julie remained glued to her laptop, typing at a feverish pace.

My own experience of education informed my view of what college could and couldn’t deliver. I went to Brown and my degree, along with a spec portfolio and the kindness of a family friend who headed up a well-known Rhode Island ad agency, helped me land my first job as a copywriter – though initially, it was more an audition than a job. The firm agreed to pay me “enough to live” for three months, at which point the creative director would decide whether or not I was hired.

I majored in English and American literature at Brown. Studying advertising hadn’t even been an option. On my first day at the agency, I felt badly outmatched by the writers and designers around me. I watched Tony, the associate creative director, present one clever headline after another with an assuredness I could only wish for. I had twelve weeks to learn how to produce good copy – or else.

For Julie, the decision came down to Miami or a school at the opposite end of the thermometer. When we visited Syracuse University, my daughter quickly warmed to the campus vibe, weather notwithstanding. Following an information session at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, she announced, “This is the place for me.”

I don’t know that Miami was the wrong place for Julie. And the same goes for the other schools she applied to. What I do know is she’s thriving at Syracuse – and has never looked back. I suspect the anxieties she felt during the admissions process are mere footnotes in her story now, if they’re part of it at all.

Choosing a college is more art than science. There’s no single right answer. While a school may mold our kids, it won’t make them. That’s in their hands, no matter where they go.

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