Sports Outside the Beltway

Cinderella’s Dirty Secret

Jacob Leibenluft argues that the purity myth surrounding the Cinderella stories in the NCAA tourney each year are just that: Myths.

Much of the little guys’ appeal comes from the fact that the players don’t turn pro after their sophomore year and the coaches don’t get paid big bucks. But that has less to do with morals than opportunity. Mid-major players don’t emerge fully formed from a magical peach-basket-laden gym in rural Indiana, ready to hoop it up and hit the books with equal enthusiasm. They come from the same shady prep schools and junior colleges as the major-conference studs—they’re just not quite good enough to get recruited by the top-tier teams. (Sometimes they even come from the major-conference schools. Wichita State has players who once suited up for Illinois and Marquette.) And there’s no more mercenary figure in sports than the mid-major coach. Every year, a small-time coach or three—Kent State’s Stan Heath, Nevada’s Trent Johnson, Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Bruce Pearl, the Tulsa coach du jour—happily parlays a tournament run into an opportunity with a big fish.

What separates the mid-majors from college basketball royalty isn’t scholar-athlete purity. It’s two more tangible things: history and money. Mostly money. What happens when a mid-major gets flush with dough? It morphs into Gonzaga, a school that quickly and eagerly adopted the same skewed priorities as its big-time brethren. Constant hype on ESPN? Check. A recruiting scandal in the recent past? Check. A coach that gets paid more than twice as much as the university president? Check.

Quite right.

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