As national office staffers say again and again, they do not want to enforce so many rules, they are sometimes embarrassed to have to defend the rules publicly, and they cannot catch a majority of the violators. Which leads to the public's second association with the Association: that it's home to a stable of nearsighted and impetuous investigators. Former staffer Chuck Neinas has noted a striking resemblance between NCAA gumshoes and the inspector in Les Misérables who spent 20 years pursuing Jean Valjean for breaking parole after his imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread.
"When I'm on an airplane, and I happen to be sitting next to someone who wants to chat about my job," says Tricia Bork, whose duties include overseeing the women's basketball Final Four, "I'll do anything to keep from telling him that I work for the NCAA. Because more often than not, he'll start talking about the enforcement staff and how we whacked his favorite team."
"Getting whacked" by "enforcement staff" from "the Association." It is not surprising, given these gangsterly perceptions, that an electronic security pass is required to gain access to the national office's 5½ floors. Alas, no such high-tech bouncer regulates the phone lines. Steve Mallonee helps run a staff of 18 that fields 2,000 calls a week from parents and universities seeking rule interpretations and from lawyers looking to sue someone, anyone, at the NCAA. "It's human nature to scream at the person giving you bad news," says Mallonee, who spends 80% of his workday on the telephone. "You have to learn not to take it too personally."
On a Selection Sunday night in 1993 when the women's basketball tournament brackets were announced, Bork's office telephone rang continuously, much the way her ears would the next morning: An on-the-bubble team had been left out of the tournament, and fans, congressmen and lawyers from that state were calling with threats of injunctions, emergency federal legislation and death, often in combination. Though Bork did not (and does not) select the tournament field, her home telephone number was published in a newspaper, and the death threats duly followed her home. "It was this...siege of wrath," she says. "It's a little scary that people take sports so seriously."
Just the other day a hoop-crazed rabbi phoned Hancock. The holy man has tickets to this year's Final Four at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis but cannot ride in a car on Saturday before sundown. Would the NCAA find him a hotel room within walking distance of the dome? Never mind that there are no unbooked rooms within Patriot missile range of the dome that weekend or that Hancock could not readily verify the man's vocation. (The Association has no Talmudic scholars on staff, though the folks in rules interpretation come very close.) Still, trying to make just one friend for the Association, Hancock promised to try to help the rabbi run.
Why fight it? Even the electronic building passes are mere speed bumps to the most irrepressible petitioners to the NCAA. "I heard that somebody once showed up downstairs claiming to be a schizophrenic," says Hancock. "He had played four years of college athletics, and he wanted four more years of eligibility. You know, for his other personality."
Two personalities are two more than the NCAA will ever be accused of having. Dempsey calls the office "a nice corporate setting"—it looks like a prosperous suburban bank—"but not very...informal."
That's because the NCAA is the unmistakable creature of Walter Byers, who served as its executive director for 36 years, from 1951 to 1987, during which time the brilliant but eccentric Kansan conceived and implemented a series of picayune rules for his office staff. He insisted that every employee's thermal drapes be drawn and desktop cleared at the end of each day, that each day not end a nanosecond before 5 p.m. (at which time one could begin clearing one's desk), and that employees work every other Saturday. Employees not in by 8:30 a.m. were marked down as tardy. Byers enforced a strict dress code and a beverage ban: Drinks were forbidden at desks. There was no coffee break. The drinks of courtside sportswriters at the Final Four had to be decanted into official NCAA-logo cups. Byers's rule booklet, titled NCAA Office Policies and Procedures and often revised, eventually ran to more than 100 pages and was entirely consistent with the Association's image as an anal-retentocracy.
And yet under Byers the NCAA grew from a single administrator (himself) working out of the Big Ten office in Chicago's LaSalle Hotel to its present 250 employees. The Association's annual budget is $240 million, of which 78%—or $188 million—is supplied by CBS in exchange for the right to broadcast the men's Division I basketball tournament, which many fans believe to be sport's greatest spectacle. Like so much else created by the NCAA, March Madness has become a familiar patch in the national quilt.
The NCAA invented the hyphenate student-athlete to describe its subjects, and that odd construction has also gained national currency. "[The phrase] reflects the uneasy coexistence of academics and athletics in our schools, a distinctly American phenomenon," notes Tom McMillen, the former U.S. congressman and Maryland and NBA center, in his book Out of Bounds. "We do not hear equivalent terms such as student-artist or student-musician because art and music do not rival athletics for control of our institutions of learning."