John Feinstein

John Feinstein

America is ready to get their brackets out and watch all the madness unfold on CBS. John Feinstein’s book Last Dance is now out in a paperback edition and takes us behind the scenes of the Final Four and the tournament as a whole. The sports author stopped by again to talk about the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s politics, the new rule that requires players to go to college for at least a year, and remembering his friend Red Auerbach.

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John Feinstein's Last Dance
John Feinstein's Last Dance

CY: The paperback edition of Last Dance is now available and has an extra bonus from the original hardcover as you have included a new 16 page afterword that recaps the 2006 Final Four and tributes George Mason’s efforts. Are we finally getting to the point where mid majors are catching up with the big conferences as far as competition and winning on the floor?

John Feinstein: “Well, Chris I would say yes they are catching up with everybody but the basketball committee which on Sunday pretty much dissed the mid majors. A team like Drexel in the same league as George Mason went out and won games at Syracuse and at Villanova and at Creighton and at St. Josephs and won 14 road games altogether and gets left out of the tournament. Schools like Illinois and Purdue didn’t beat anybody good, but they are out of the Big Ten and made the tournament. To me that is disappointing. I would’ve hoped after what George Mason did last year, after what Bradley and Wichita State did out of the Missouri Valley, after what Bucknell has done the last two years that the committee would recognize what I think you recognize is that the mid majors are a lot closer to the power conferences than they use to and reward them with a few more bids. Instead the committee went the other way and gave them two less at large bids than they had last year.”

CY: Is there any reason in particular why you think that happened?

JF: “I think it’s politics. The committee would like to tell you that politics never enters that room, but these are ten human beings. They all have agendas one way or the other. They all have to take care of their own. They all have to go back and answer questions from their coaches whether they be an athletic director or conference commissioner. I think when push comes to shove, more often than not the committee doesn’t have the guts to do what it did last year when it took George Mason, Wichita State, and Bradley, and left teams like Florida State, Maryland, and Indiana out of the field which the way it played out was clearly the right thing to do for college basketball.”

CY: Where does George Mason rank as far as huge underdog stories in sports history?

JF: “I think everyone always starts with the US Olympic team at Lake Placid. I was there for that and that was one of the most exciting things I have ever seen in my life. They only had to pull one big upset when they beat the Soviet Union. They won some games against other good teams along the way, but what we remember is that game against the Soviet Union. George Mason pulled three remarkable upsets. They beat Michigan State without their point guard Tony Skin. Then they beat the defending national champions in North Carolina. They beat a good Wichita State team and then they beat Connecticut, which everybody thought was going to win the national championship. What they did to get to that Final Four is as a remarkable a story we’ve seen in college basketball since Texas Western won the national championship in 1966.”

CY: What I find amazing is you note that the day of 2006 NCAA Selection Sunday that even Jim Nantz singled out George Mason as the team that didn’t deserve an at large bid. Is the reason we in the media like Jim Nantz are so quick to write off a team like George Mason because they are in a small conference and we don’t think they play anybody or is it something else?

JF: “I think it’s more unfamiliarity than anything else. I think Jim is a good man and a great broadcaster and a friend like Billy Packer is, but they never see George Mason play during the season. They are doing Big Ten games, ACC games, they are doing Big East games. Their notion is these are the best teams. That’s why we are televising these games. That’s why they are on CBS. There is a tendency to forget that there is some very good basketball being played in leagues that aren’t recognized. CBS loves it because it gives them a storyline to attach themselves to. I can tell you Jim never saw George Mason play before the tournament so how would he know one way or another if they are very good or not. He’s just saying well they lost to Hofstra in a CAA semifinal so how good could they be. Well, the fact is that Hofstra was a pretty good basketball team last year.”

CY: What do you feel this year’s storyline can be or would be?

JF: “That’s a great thing about this tournament, you never know what the storyline is going to be. None of us were talking about George Mason. None of us were really talking about Florida as a serious threat to win the national championship. They were a three seed and playing pretty well, but we were talking about teams last year like Duke, UCLA, Texas, Kansas, teams like that. Florida wasn’t even in the conversation. When you look at it this year, the easy thing to say is look at the number one seeds Florida, North Carolina, Kansas, and Ohio Ste and say one of those four teams is going to win the national championship. The storyline with Florida trying to be the first team to defend a title since Duke did it in 1992 we’ll all be following as long as Florida is in the tournament. Is this Greg Oden’s only NCAA Tournament? Probably. Is this Brandon Wright’s only NCAA tournament from North Carolina? Probably. I am not gonna say there is a George Mason out there because that’s a once in a lifetime story.”

CY: Florida won the 2006 NCAA Basketball Championship and then went on to win the 2007 NCAA National Championship Football Championship. How special is this accomplishment to NCAA Sports history?

JF: “I think that nowadays it’s so difficult to repeat because look two years ago at North Carolina when they won the national championship. They only had one senior on that team. They had four underclassmen in their starting lineup. The problem is the way basketball works today, none of those underclassmen came back. They all went to the NBA. For Florida to win the National Championship with five non seniors in the starting lineup and have them all come back when Joakim Noah probably would have been the first player in the draft had he come out and he turned it down.

He is an unusual story. His dad was a very successful tennis player so it’s not like he needs the money. They all came back and that puts Billy Donovan in a position that not many coaches are going to be in the coming years having five returning starters from a national championship team.”

CY: Bob Knight has been very vocal regarding the rule that prevents players from going to the NBA because they have to spend one year in college. It is noted that freshman basketball players only have to be eligible for the first half of the year and they can play the rest of the season without going to class. What are your thoughts on this?

JF: “Well, Chris that’s been true for a long time. I don’t think Stephon Marbury ever stepped foot in a classroom at Georgia Tech. Carmelo Anthony was only a year at Syracuse. I am sure he is not close to a degree. All they have done in essence is they are now sanctioning academic fraud. They are making it official that yes it’s ok to go for a year and not pay any attention to class, but people have been doing that for years. They have been going for a year or two years. It affects very few players. It might be a half dozen freshman at most who will come out at the end of this season. I’d venture to say it will be more like three or four.

Lets say it’s six, so it affects six players out of how many? I understand what David Stern is trying to do, keeping his league from being a developmental league with 18 and 19 year olds trying to learn to play the game. I understand the concern of academic people saying that we are sanctioning academic fraud, but in the real world it is going to go on whether you sanction it or not.”

CY: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant have taken advantage of that one year in college, but many young players seem to go to the NBA not seasoned enough. How much do you think that one year in college is really helping them and do you feel the NBA should have tried for two years?

JF: “Well, they probably should’ve or three years which is the NFL rule. I think David Stern believed the best he would get out of the union was the one year. It wouldn’t shock me at all if they tried for two years and they came back and said we’ll try it with one but not with two. I think a year does make a difference. The difference between 18 and 22 is huge and the difference between 18 and 19 is maybe 25 percent of that. You are living away from home and dealing with a group of people. You are dealing with the pressures of being a star on a national level as opposed to being a star on the local level as you are for the most part in high school. I think it’s a little bit of help, but certainly we are going to see cases just as we have in the past of guys coming out of college after a year and flaming out.”

CY: Is there any other way to solve this problem or do you suggest any other way to help with the problem?

JF: “Again you get into legalities there. What would the courts hold up? What would the courts not hold up? What would the union go for? One thing I have suggested for years in terms of getting more players to graduate whether they be superstars or non-superstars but particularly the non superstars because the stars are going to go the league and make a lot of money. I worry about that mid level player who thinks he might be a pro who maybe is deceiving himself into being pro and thinking he is a pro and doesn’t do anything academically. Then he leaves college with no degree and doesn’t make it in the NBA and he is left with nothing.

I have always said that a percentage of this huge money that the universities make off the NCAA Tournament should be put into a trust fund and the day you graduate you get a chunk of that money whether it’s 25,000 or 30,000, 40,000, or whatever it turns out to be. For a 21, 22 year old that is a nice chunk of change to have in your pocket plus you got the degree. I think if you incentivize the degree that way especially in a sport where these players are making millions of dollars for the schools that would be a positive step.”

CY: You wrote the book Let Me Tell You A Story, which is a huge collection of stories on the life of Red Auerbach. What was it like spending four years with him and hearing all these amazing stories weekly and how sad were you when you heard he passed away?

JF: “Obviously it was devastating for me when Red passed away because we had become very close. He was very close to my 12 year old son. He was sort of Danny’s jock grandfather because neither of his grandfathers are particularly into sports. Danny went to particularly a lot of George Washington games with Red through the years so it was devastating. It’s hard to say it’s a shock when someone is 89 and they’ve been ill, but it was still a shock because Red was just one of those guys who was such a force of nature. There is actually part of me that thought he would never die. Doing that book, I have often said I should’ve paid somebody to do it rather than have somebody pay to do it because it was just so much. Imagine sitting and listening to Red Auerbach tell all these stories and somebody is actually paying you to do it. I felt like I was stealing.”

CY: Finally, Last Dance profiles all the events and ongoings of the 2005 NCAA Final Four. What would you like readers to take away from it?

JF: “A better understanding of what makes the Final Four in college basketball unique, that there is more to it than just the superstar players and power teams. There are stories about kids who you may never have heard of or heard briefly of or stories about the referees, broadcasters, or some of the older coaches. You will have a more complete feel for what makes the Final Four the Final Four and the NCAA Tournament the NCAA Tournament.”

Listen to the First interview with John Feinstein:

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First Interview Conducted February 15, 2006

His insider books are remembered well by many sports fans. His latest book Last Dance Behind the Scenes of the Final Four takes an inside look at the second greatest event in sports. John Feinstein takes us places and tells us stories most sports fans don’t ever see or hear about and most of them are worth reading about.

CY: First off how are you?

JF: “Good Chris.”

CY: I find it interesting how NCAA coaches are responsible for not letting their NCAA Final Four tickets fall into the hands of scalpers and if they do the coach is put on the bad list. Why do you think the NCAA is so worried about who sits in those seats that every NCAA coach gets annually?

JF: “A lot of it Chris has to do with image. Jim Haney, who is the head of the association for college basketball coaches said to me it had gotten to the point when you got to the Final Four City that the first story in the local newspaper would be about scalpers and a lot of focus on coaches scalping their tickets. I have had coaches tell me before they made big money that was how they funded their summer vacations. That looked bad for coaches. That’s why the NABC and NCAA got together and said we really need to crack down on this. If the coach finds out that he gave the tickets to his brother and they ended up in Chris’s hands the coach is gonna lose his tickets for the next five years.”

CY: Early in the book you talk about how NCAA basketball coaches are graded only on how they do in the NCAA tournament even if they have a great regular season. Would you say this is more for the major schools in conferences with bigger expectations more than the coaches at the smaller mid major schools where it’s a dream to just get into the NCAA tournament and maybe win one game?

JF: “That’s a good question. It is different. When Mike Brey was the coach at Delaware he once said to me for us and teams at our level, getting to the tournament or as they now call it the dance is getting to the Final Four for us. If you somehow win a game like Vermont did over Syracuse or Bucknell over Kansas last year it’s like winning the National Championship. The last team from a non power conference to get to the Final Four was Penn who came out of the Ivy League. If somehow the mid majors win a game or Wisconsin Milwaukee, Valparaiso, or Butler get to the sweet sixteen that’s borderline miraculous.”

CY: You talk about it a lot, but how fascinating do you find the relationship and links between Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, and Mike Krzyweski and how they all won national championships and are a big part of NCAA Final Four history?

JF: “Well, I have been intimately connected to all of those relationships. I have known all three of them and written about them in books. Mike Krzyweski played for Army in the 1960s. It was Bob Knight who gave him his first coaching job as an assistant at Indiana in 1974 and helped him get the Army job the next year. When Mike became Duke’s coach obviously Dean Smith down the road at North Carolina was the dominant program and is always Duke’s arch rival. That was the bar for Mike Krzyweski. He just had to look ten miles down the road and there was where he was trying to get. The three of them have been an interesting triangle personally. There was a period when Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyweski weren’t speaking to each other from 1992 to 2001 mostly because of Knight acting like a baby to be honest. During that period Knight and Dean got closer because they were both trying to compete against Mike Krzyweski with not a lot of success. There is a fascinating triangle among three Hall of Fame coaches and eight National Championships among them and 26 Final Fours.”

CY: How do you think college basketball would have been different if Mike Krzyweski went to Iowa State instead of Duke?

JF: “That’s a great question. Certainly his life would have been different. I think he would have been a very successful coach at Iowa State because he is a great basketball coach. He wouldn’t have had that rivalry with Dean Smith. He would have been out there in the Mid West where you don’t get as much attention and where you are not on national TV all the time. I wonder if ultimately that would have been the place he coached for 25 years or if there would have been another move for him to an ACC or Big East school. Bob Knight almost took the Wisconsin job a few years before he went to Indiana. How would basketball have been different if he ended up at Wisconsin instead of Indiana? Of course we will never know the answers to those questions.”

CY: Why do you think the rivalry between Dean Smith and Mike Krzyweski became so historical for them and their schools?

JF: “Well, partly because they are both Hall of Fame coaches. I think that’s a big part of it. Also because they coach at schools that have been arch rivals for as long as they have played basketball. They are ten miles apart and are recruiting a lot of the same kids. Other thing Chris is that they have different personalities. Krzyweski is sort of out there in your face and this is who I am. If you like me that’s great and if you don’t like me that’s fine. Dean is very political and tries to be careful about everything he says. They are just such opposites in every way combined with great coaches, players, and schools that made a great rivalry.”

CY: You say in the book the Final Four Week is full of nonsense including a salute dinner for the NCAA to salute themselves. On top of it the NCAA makes it a mandatory thing for the coaches. Why do you think the NCAA is so controlling the week of the Final Four for the teams involved?

JF: “I think because they can be, to be honest. This is their big event. It’s their moneymaker and important to their image that things be carried out exactly as they want. When the teams are given their pre game schedules, one of the things it says is when the coaches are introduced they will walk to the scorers table and shake hands with one another. In other words we have to have this big show of sportsmanship. Coaches hate that because they think it’s phony because at the moment all you want to do is kill the other guy. You aren’t thinking I am going to wish him good luck, but that’s what the NCAA says you must so they go ahead and do it.”

CY: There is a whole chapter in the book about referees working the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four and in some situations having police escorts. Was this as shocking to find out when you did the research on this?

JF: “I will tell you the truth that I was surprised. I had been told several years ago that the basketball committee members got special escorts to the arena. I knew about that. I didn’t know that the referees got police escorts to and from the arena. You can understand in the sense too that you want to make sure they’re in the building on time and you don’t get stuck in traffic. Why they need a police escort getting out of the building I am not sure. I guess they do it out of courtesy and because they can.”

CY: Part of the book goes into college kids who walk on at programs like Duke and enjoy their Final Four and college experience. Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are a few of a bunch of guys who came out of high school and did well in the NBA. Do you ever think this group of future high school kids will ever appreciate the college tradition and actually try to go to a college and improve their game?

JF: “Well, probably not. Of course the NBA has passed this rule that says you have to go to college for at least one year. That will change things. You will see a kid like Greg Oden go to Ohio State next year when he would have been the first player chosen in the draft this year. I think the holy grail for players has changed. I talked to Bill Bradley for example. When he was in high school all he wanted to do was go somewhere where he thought he could go to the Final Four. He honestly believed Princeton could and they did go to the Final Four. The holy grail is not the Final Four or NBA. It’s a sneaker contract. You haven’t made it as a basketball player until you are up there on a billboard holding a sneaker. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is.”

CY: What do you think about the NCAA’s attack on gambling and do you think they are blowing it out of proportion?

JF: “Well, yes and no. I think gambling is a danger. All of these people out there think they can get to someone. The stars have so much money waiting at the end of the rainbow for them if they don’t screw up. I am impressed and shocked that there has never been a big scandal involving referees. They don’t make a lot of money. It’s absolutely a danger, but in the other sense the genie is out of the bottle. Gambling is legal in a lot of places in this country. There are plenty of ways to gamble legally. Illegal gambling has gone on for longer than you and I have been alive. It’s not going to stop anytime soon.”

CY: One of your books A Good Walk Spoiled gets behind the scenes of the PGA. Whose the nicest guy on the PGA Tour and who would you consider not so friendly?

JF: “When I think of star players for guys who were really nice, Nick Price comes to mind right away. Davis Love comes to mind right away. To me they define the word gentleman. They are big stars. There are a lot of other guys who aren’t as big stars like Jeff Sluman, Paul Goydos, Bill Andrade, and Joe Ogilvie who are guys I like, but aren’t stars at the level of Nick Price and Davis Love who has been in the top ten in the world most of the last fifteen years. I don’t think Tiger Woods is particularly a nice guy. He’s a great player, but Tiger doesn’t particularly like to sign autographs and he doesn’t like to particularly deal with the media. He doesn’t like to particularly deal with the public. He does think he is a great player. If you are asking me to list nice guys he certainly wouldn’t be at the top of the list. That probably is one of the reasons why he is so great as he is.”

CY: Describe tennis players vs. golfers.

JF: “Well, that’s actually a good question. Golfers struggle for the most part to reach stardom. Tiger Woods is the exception. Most golfers have to go through Q-School and they fail or go to the nation wide tour. They stay in the Hampton Inn. Most golfers don’t become rich and famous until their late 20s early 30s. Tennis players are treated as stars as teenagers. We have seen a lot of examples on that especially on the women’s side and even on the men’s side. Pete Sampras was a high school drop out. Jim Courier never went to college. There hasn’t been a great tennis player who went to college since John McEnroe and there hasn’t been a great tennis player who graduated from college since Arthur Ashe. That’s how far back it goes. Golfers tend to be a little more grown up, little more mature, and less spoiled than tennis players. My point of view as a reporter is they are much easier to deal with.”

CY: Finally, what else would you like to write a book on sports wise?

JF: “Well, I am working on a book about the PGA Tours Qualifying School. There are three stages and the difficulty of it. There are players trying to get on tour or get back on to the tour. It’s a fascinating process to chronicle.”

For more information on Last Dance you can check out the link below

http://www.twbookmark.com/books/83/031616030X/index.html