A March to Madness
by John Feinstein
Little, Brown and Company, $24.95
College basketball is so like a drug, it ought to come with a warning label. It's every bit as intoxicating as booze (probably causes as many headaches, too) and as addictive as nicotine. Be warned then, this book is intended for the happily hooked. John Feinstein spent the 1996-97 season in a basketball junkie's nirvana, behind the scenes of the ACC. Seven of the conference's nine coaches gave him access to their practices, locker rooms and emotional detonations. (The two who declined were N.C. State's Herb Sendek and North Carolina's Dean Smith, who told Feinstein, "I wouldn't let my mother do that.") Though the coaches in A March to Madness give off nothing like the shower of sparks emitted by Indiana's Bobby Knight in Feinstein's best-selling A Season on the Brink, each one is a fascinating character study.
For the most part, they are a sympathetic bunch. Clemson's Rick Barnes describes the constant "thumping noises" an ACC coach hears over the course of any season: "It's the sound of people jumping on the bandwagon, then jumping off, then jumping back on." Win a few—thump! You're being offered a contract for half a million a year. Lose a few—thump! The alumni suddenly remember you recently got a divorce and therefore might not be a very moral person. It's "not even what have you done for me lately," says Virginia's Jeff Jones, the controversial divorce, "but what are you doing now."
This is a world in which winning is the only thing. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski tells his team, "When I was a kid I got into all sorts of trouble because I had such a bad temper when I lost at something. I'd go crazy." Sadly, he concludes, "I don't think any of you [are] like that." Meanwhile, Maryland's Gary Williams bawls out an assistant for insufficient perspiration: "If you really cared," he screams, "you'd be sweating!"
On and on it goes, 456 pages stuffed with details. There are bizarre pregame rituals. Clemson coaches watch the blood-and-guts scenes from Braveheart, the Virginia Cavaliers pass around a ball of masking tape the size of a softball (they call it "the orb"), and, for some reason, Wake Forest coach Dave Odom irons a shirt. The book contains minutiae not even the most rabid ACC fanatic could care about. Do we need to know that the new Hampton Inn at Clemson doesn't have a restaurant and that Smith prefers Coke over Pepsi?
But there's a tension in A March to Madness that keeps the pages turning—the tension in each coach's mind. On the one hand, he feels he'll die if he doesn't win, and on the other...it's only a game. Every coach has his own method of keeping things more or less in perspective. For Barnes, everything fell into place on the day he met South Carolina's nonagenarian senator, Strom Thurmond. "So happy to see you," said Thurmond, gripping his hand. "So proud of what you've done. So proud."
Then, turning to an aide, the senator pointed to Barnes and asked, "Who is this?"