The oral history of March Madness.

PART TWO: All about upsets

What was the greatest upset you were able to witness?

Gary Parrish: In 2013, the Florida Gulf Coast story in Philadelphia. They were a 15 seed in the NCAA tournament, and they won two games to make the Sweet Sixteen. Even though Louisville won the tournament, Florida Gulf Coast is the most memorable thing from that tournament. It just happened to be a story that developed in the pod that I chose to go to.

I only went to Philadelphia because I host a radio show Monday through Friday and decided to go to a Friday/Sunday pod. Florida Gulf Coast beat Georgetown and San Diego State, but the most memorable thing was Dunk City. Watching that become a thing, and from nobodies, like Andy Enfield being introduced as USC’s head coach in a matter of weeks. That was a neat story rooted in an upset.

Dick Vitale: I’ve been fortunate enough to see a number of great upsets over the years, both on TV seeing the scores and in person. In person, one of the greatest upsets was N.C. State and Jimmy Valvano cutting down the nets in Albuquerque in 1983, when they upset Phi Slamma Jamma in Houston. That’s probably the greatest game I’ve ever been to and one of the great moments. It was great to see my buddy Jimmy V win a national title and then later on the great things he did in battling cancer, that dreaded disease.

Len Elmore: There were two. There was number 15 Richmond beating number 2 Syracuse. That happened in the late ‘90s, and it actually happened in College Park, in Cole Field House where I played, so that was pretty interesting. Also, Mercer beating Duke, which I felt was amazing, but it told a lot of different things with regard to veteran players against a lot of one and done players. The bottom line for that was that no amount of blue-chip high school stars coming in and playing for their first year could offset the experience and the maturity of a team that was accustomed to winning.

Mike DeCourcy: Probably the single most memorable one that I covered was Mercer vs. Duke, which was a 14 over a 3. Duke had Jabari Parker who was a first team All-American, and obviously Mike [Krzyzewski] was on the bench. That was a team that wasn’t necessarily expected to win the championship, but certainly considered a contender because Jabari was so good. Every now and then you’ll see a clip of the tournament, and there’s a clip of a Mercer player doing a dance after they won. He was literally right in front of me as he was doing that dance. I don’t remember the young man’s name, but he was a star for the day.

Clark Kellogg: One of the greatest stories that I’ve been part of as a broadcaster in the tournament was the Butler story. In 2010, they almost beat Duke in dramatic last-second fashion. The story of Butler getting to the championship was even more memorable, because that first one in 2010 was in Indianapolis. That electricity around the city and in the building was really something. The energy came through the screen on the TV. I played for the Indiana Pacers and lived in Indianapolis for a number of years, so that is kind of like a second home to me.

Tim Brando:  I had a day in Tampa, Florida, in 2008, where every team that was seeded lower, the underdog team, won every one of the four games that I called. I had a buzzer beater from 30 feet, with Western Kentucky beating Drake. Western Kentucky was the clear underdog and they won it on like a 30, 35-foot shot at the buzzer. In the next game, Connecticut, coached by Jim Calhoun, played the University of San Diego. It was a No. 13 seed versus a No. 4 seed and San Diego won the game at the buzzer.  

Then the two games that night, I had Siena, a smaller school up in central New York around Albany, beat Vanderbilt, the clear favorite out of the SEC. Then that night, Clemson in the 12-5 game, was playing Villanova. Clemson had a 20-point lead at halftime, and Villanova stormed back and won the game in the second half. Never has it happened that in one day, all four underdog teams according to seeding, won at the same site, and that happened for me in 2008.

When the tournament features a lot of upsets, how does that affect your preparation?

Jay Bilas: It doesn’t. You know, you’re prepared for everything so it doesn’t really affect it. You know, there are teams that win that you’re not aware of, but yeah, it doesn’t affect it at all.

Brando: Hopefully it doesn’t affect your preparation at all because you would’ve done such a good job before you get there, that you feel like you would know these teams as well as you would know the big schools in the big conferences. In the old days, we didn’t have Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, places where you can see videos of all these teams. We really had to rely on the schools to have some of their own video. Maybe they shot with one camera at their small gym somewhere and let us see it, but we would get our hands on whatever video that they had and just do due diligence to each team and try to get as much information as we could.  

When you sit down to call all four games on that first day of the NCAA tournament, you absolutely have to sit down with the thought in mind that you’ve done every imaginable bit of homework that you could’ve done to be totally prepared for all your games.

Kellogg: I try to prepare for the tournament all season long by watching as many teams and games as I can. Therefore, I have a pretty good handle on probably 45 to 50 of the 68 teams by the time we get to March. By the time March rolls around, I lock in the smaller conference tournaments. I have a good handle on all 68 teams in terms of their strengths, weaknesses, and key players. Upsets don’t really affect my preparation because I’m preparing to know the teams that are most likely going to be in the tournament.

On some levels, you might dig a little deeper with the teams that have been surprising. In many cases, you haven’t seen them as much as you’ve seen a Duke, a North Carolina, an Ohio State, or a Michigan. A team like Florida Gulf Coast made a Sweet Sixteen run. Northern Iowa has done that in the past. It’s just a matter of continuing to highlight the unique story that those kinds of teams present when they advance and last longer than people thought they would. We do a good job of that as a network, even if the teams don’t win.

Parrish: That sort of goes with the sport. Upsets happen in other sports but seemingly more regularly in college basketball. I don’t know that it affects preparation anymore. You just understand that you don’t plan too far ahead. I don’t plan radio shows three days in advance or columns a week in advance. The storylines change. Sports have a way of screwing up your schedule if you plan too far in advance. If it were planned, it’d be boring. Sports are the best reality television.

Vitale: Well, it makes it interesting. Especially this year, this is one of the most open years I’ve seen, even the No. 1 seeds can be beat, the top teams are even vulnerable. So this could be a great, great tournament. As far as upsets go, you have to be ready for just about anything. It’s college basketball and you’ve seen it this year. Wofford beat North Carolina, you had Indiana losing to Fort Wayne, you had Notre Dame losing to Ball State. There have been so many surprises this year and that makes it fun. The little guys, the “Cinderellas” are capable of scoring an upset on any given night.

DeCourcy: I believe in taking what the tournament gives you, so you’ve got to be ready to roll with whatever happens. Like I didn’t go to Duke-Mercer expecting Mercer to win, but as it starts to become apparent that it was possible, you start to do some research. Where is Mercer? What kind of school is it? Who is out there actually playing for them? How did they get there? I guess some people will do that research ahead of time, but there’s 68 teams now, and I kind of have to be aware of all of them, so I can’t sit here and say that when Mercer starts to beat Duke that I’m like the encyclopedia of Mercer. No, I start hitting Google and looking to see who’s their coach, how’d he get here, if I don’t already know the coach.

Jim Spanarkel: It doesn’t really affect me whether it is an upset or not. If one team is the clear favorite and the other one is a clear underdog, it doesn’t really affect the way I see a game. Clearly, I know that one team is favorite over the other by a large margin, you keep that in the back of your mind, but you also try to point out the things that are most appropriate for that particular game and try to keep it as interesting as possible. You never know, anything can happen in college basketball.

PART ONE: Playing memories and first games
PART TWO: All about upsets
PART THREE: Specific standout moments and teams
PART FOUR: Changes in coverage and the one-and-done rule
PART FIVE: The enduring popularity of March Madness