Roy Kramer has had a lot of difficult jobs in his life. As athletic director at Vanderbilt, he tried to revive the sagging fortunes of the Commodores' football and basketball teams. And, in his current position as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, he has overseen the league's expansion into the largest and most complex in the nation.
But those jobs are a lot less stressful than being chairman of the selection committee for the NCAA Division I basketball tournament. Dave Gavitt, who held the position for several years while he was commissioner of the Big East Conference, once said, "It's the kind of job where you can make enemies a lot faster than you can make friends."
And Kramer, who took over the job for the second time when Dayton athletic director Tom Frericks died in January, said recently: "I told my wife that I'd never say that this is the most difficult year for selecting teams, but this is the most difficult year. The parity around the country has driven me to get out a thesaurus to find a new definition for the word 'tough.' "
As they say, when the going gets tough, the tough look for a thesaurus. Or, look for a way to squeeze about 75 teams into 64 slots, as Kramer and the other eight committee members have tried to do the past few days in preparation for tonight's announcement of this year's NCAA tournament field. The tournament begins Thursday, and the final is April 6 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
The NCAA selection committee, made up of athletic directors and conference commissioners, will have to place 34 at-large teams. The rest of the field will be 30 conference champions, representing the haves (Big East, ACC, Pacific 10, Southeastern, Big Eight) as well as the have-nots (Mid-Eastern Athletic, Patriot, Big South).
"I think it's going to be a wide-open tournament," Kramer said during a national teleconference last week. "There may be a Duke or Kansas or a few teams of that caliber, but we don't have that one team that we did last year like UNLV. We have potentially the most exciting tournament we've ever had."
And, perhaps, the most scrutinized selection process since the field was expanded to 64 in 1984. Several factors are involved, not the least of which was the elimination of automatic bids for the newly formed Great Midwest Conference and the realigned Metro Conference. (The soon-to-be disbanding East Coast Conference also lost its automatic bid, leaving Towson State out of the tournament).
Because of the possibility of multiple bids to the Great Midwest and Metro, larger leagues like the ACC and Big East might see their fifth- and sixth-place teams left without an invitation. Some less-prestigious conferences, like the Colonial and Atlantic 10, might receive only one bid, when, in the recent past, they might have placed at least two teams.
"This is the first time that the big guys might get shut out as much, or more, than the little guys," the athletic director at a small Division I school said recently.
It seems that, because of criticism of the process in past years, the selection committee has become more sensitive to the plight of the little guys. There are no play-in games for those representing leagues with low power ratings, such as the MEAC.
"I defend those people being in the tournament because it gives us a true national representation," said Kramer, who was chairman from 1987 to 1988. "It sets the stage for some of those David-vs.-Goliath games that would come about. We also know that some of those games have been among the most exciting, like Princeton-Georgetown was a few years ago."
Princeton coach Pete Carril, whose Tigers will be making their fourth straight tournament appearance, has long been a critic of the selection process, in particular the fact that teams finishing with sub-.500 conference records in prime-time leagues often have received preferential treatment over teams finishing second in less-publicized conferences.
"I don't think any team that finishes below fourth in their league should be invited," Carril said. "But things have a way or working out. And if they don't, they crumble."
How does the selection committee decide who belongs? A dozen factors -- everything from non-conference records against top 50 teams vs. weak teams to injuries to key players -- are fed into a computer.
It then takes six of the nine committee members to put teams under consideration into the field of 64. Depending on the outcome of conference tournaments decided today, the field and seedings can change up until the announcement is made at 6:30 p.m. on CBS.
"I do not believe that there has been a team overlooked by the committee," said Kramer. "Every team has been scrutinized, analyzed and picked apart."
Examined, too. You can look it up -- in a thesaurus.
The nine members of the selection committee for the NCAA Division I basketball tournament:
Roy Kramer.. .. ..SEC
Ken Free.. .. .. .MEAC
Jake Crouthamel.. Syracuse
Tom Butters.. .. .Duke
Bob Frederick.. ..Kansas
Charles Harris.. .Arizona State
Rudy Davalos.. .. Houston
C.M. Newton.. .. .Kentucky
Gary Cunningham.. Fresno State