Last week was just a reminder for someone who grew up at the intersection of Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana -- basketball country we liked to think, where we were so much a part of the NCAA Tournament in every way every year -- how much that was just the way things worked.
We didn't even think about it. That's just the way it was.
Spring Break and five straight days of this year's NCAA basketball tournament -- with USC a part of all five of those days -- reminded us of how much fun it was to be to be connected again. Connected the way it was for us growing up when Adolph Rupp and then later with Bob Knight and Denny Crum and Rick Pitino ruled the roost for a time right before the arrival of spring.
That was basketball time. Our time. And as winter receded and we were looking forward to the thoroughbreds arriving from California and Florida at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, there was college basketball.
Sure, there was that little interlude when the West Coast, thanks to Pete Newell and John Wooden, took the NCAA away for a decade or so. But this was our sport. And we wanted it back. And so, how long has it been since the last FInal Four happened out here in the West? That would be 22 years, since 1995 in Seattle before they tip off in a couple of weeks in Phoenix. That's some serious disconnection.
And as much as we thought that growing up where the Big Ten met the SEC, and in easy driving distance of so many college programs -- Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Kentucky, Louisville, Indiana, Purdue, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, not to mention Xavier and Cincinnati, we were absolutely connected when it came to March Madness.
Not so much, maybe, when it came to several of USC's foundational sports like baseball and track & field. You could drive to Knoxville and Bloomington to see the NCAA T&F Championships, which we did but we had no idea what the Coliseum Relays must have been like. Or you could get someone to drive you up to Oxford, Ohio and see prospects like Ohio U.'s Mike Schmidt come in for the weekend at Miami. What USC did with Rod Dedeaux and Dean Cromwell as the original superpower in both of those sports was foreign to us a bit.
But when it came to football and basketball, we thought we were there. And then in 1989, as director of the Traveling College Football Hall of Fame, we met the Pellerin Brothers -- Giles and either Oliver or Max, not sure which other Pellerin it was -- at Notre Dame as they toured our display outside the stadium in the thawing snow. And our connected consciousness was raised more than we could imagine.
Another USC fan whispered in my ear that this was USC's "Superfan" -- then 83 -- on his way to attending a record 797 straight USC games over 73 years doing what he did best. It hit me immediately that GIles should have been hosting the fans, not me. And so I was asking the questions and Giles was answering them with all the recollections about all the players we were honoring and all the games he'd seen in person and what it was like.
And he did it all from LA. Back in the day -- even though he hated to fly. But starting at the Rose Bowl in 1925, this man they called "Bud" was connected. Which for me, is the best part of college sports. You get to connect to so many people, so many places, so much history if you're lucky to be around long enough.
Which is why we have to hope USC's basketball run is much more than five days this March. And let's be clear, we're not talking about just getting into the tournament, but being part of the story -- becoming a player, creating memories, competing.
Which is why it has been something of a black hole for Trojan fans over the years. Despite USC producing early Hall of Famers like Tex Winter and Bill Sharman, the great Celtic and Lakers coach I was lucky enough as a kid to sit down next to at the counter of a Jerry's Restaurant late at night in downtown Louisville at a Final Four and get to talk to him as one of my great NCAA experiences, USC fans haven't had much of that.
Thanks to the play-in game and Friday's SMU win, USC fans got a five-day concentration of what that can be like. First you connect, then you compete.
Sure, that's asking a lot. Almost no one is doing it -- competing at the very top level -- in both football and basketball any more. And we know it has to be football first here. But where the likes of Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and others made a run at times, it hasn't been easy to do both.
But if you can do it, it's the kind of fun USC fans found the last five days. And as a classic college football power located on a dynamic campus in the center of the nation's top high school basketball recruiting hotbed, just a mile-and-a-half from the home of two NBA franchises, USC has a chance.
If only the Trojans can be half as lucky as I've been, being there for three of the most famous buzzer-beaters in college basketball history -- Lorenzo Charles' dunk to upset Houston in Albuquerque, Christian Laettner's jumper against Kentucky in maybe the greatest NCAA game ever and Valpo's Bryce Drew on that final shot against Ole Miss that is always included when they play that "One Shining Moment" theme.
And USC fans could be right there in the middle of things making it more than just fun. The tourney started at one of my old college basketball haunts at Dayton. But then along came the Kentucky-Northern Kentucky game Friday where a Wildcat program I'd covered for a dozen years played a Norse team whose program I'd helped start between classes as a high school coach and teacher way back when.
And then as the weekend unfolded, you reminded yourself of all the ways you were connected to what was going on in just a few of these games: to Louisville, having covered two of the Cardinals' NCAA championship runs; to Villanova, having covered the Wildcats as a columnist and by proxy with my wife as the Villanova beat writer for a number of years; Got to see the Wildcats win their previous NCAA title in Lexington over Georgetown in Rollie Massimino's "perfect" game.
For North Carolina and Duke, I covered Dean Smith passing Adolph Rupp for most wins in college basketball history -- in an NCAA tournament game. And for the current record-holder, Mike Kryzezwski, I was fortunate to be in a three-way conversation at Coach Wooden's bleacher seat at Pauley Pavilion that started with me talking to Coach Wooden about his first coaching job at Northern Kentucky's Dayton High, only to have Coach K stop by to say "Hi" before a UCLA-Duke game.
My alma mater Xavier, where as SID I was fortunate enough along with our faculty athletic rep to convince the president that if we did basketball right, which Xavier had not, the program could be very good. He listened. And now I can be connected to the Sweet 16 with my Musketeers.
But to get there, Xavier had to beat an old buddy, Florida State's Leonard Hamilton, who was the top assistant at Kentucky when I covered them. Lovely man. But somebody had to lose.
Then on Sunday there was a connection to all four of the last teams playing -- in one way or the other.
*** UCLA: Got to cover Bruin hoops the same years we covered USC football to start and in three of those, UCLA got to the Final Four. Lucky to be the only person to cover Kentucky and UCLA, college basketball's top two historic programs. And after covering Steve Alford some as a player at Indiana, we also gave him his first-ever paid gig as the speaker for our Northern Kentucky restaurant sponsor's annual high school banquet succeeding the likes of Marquette's Al McGuire, who we are also lucky enough to get to know along the way before his NCAA championship and TV career.
*** Baylor: Working out of Chicago, we got to cover Valparaiso and the Drew family -- Homer, Scott and Bryce as we noted -- starting the year Bryce hit the famous NCAA buzzer-beater and had many long conversations about basketball with Scott before his amazing 14-year run as Baylor head coach.
*** Cincinnati: Not only were the Bearcats a half-century ago one of college basketball's dynasties at a school from which my dad, brother and sister graduated, but the coach -- Mick Cronin -- is someone I watched grow up when I was assistant coach to his dad, Hep, one of the great high school coaches I've ever been around.
*** USC: And of course, there are the Trojans. They've come a long way with talent that now we see, as we've been saying, can compete with anybody if not quite yet with its own potential to do so. If they stay together, as unlikely as that may be, and with what is coming in, these Trojans have a chance to make the USC name one that belongs on the lips of the national college basketball pundits -- which it certainly was this week.
Keeping USC there, and keeping his staff and these players moving forward in terms of teaching fundamentals and coaching confidence, is the next step for Andy Enfield, who has been showing more of that in-game confidence himself, this week. Now the building up of bodies in the offseason and working on fundamentals like defensive rebounding and understanding the game and the ability to play tough and smart and focused for 40 minutes and run their halfcourt offense and defense effectively for as long as it takes is the next step.
USC may not have all that much history here. But it has a chance. Last week made that clear.
USC is close to making the connection. But all that means is that everybody, from AD Lynn Swann to the newest manager, has to step up and do it.
And if they do, when January comes along, you won't have to ask yourself when does spring football start -- or at least ask also when does the NCAA tournament start -- and where.
Although if you want to take a March break from hoops for spring practice, that will be OK. But stay connected. This could be some kind of fun.