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The NCAA Selection Process

Publication Date: July 23, 2002


We have met the enemy, and he is us. -- Walt Kelly, Pogo

I got a note back during the season from Dave Yeast, the NCAA National Coordinator of Baseball Umpires. It was a nice note, and he volunteered to answer any questions I might have, an offer I'll probably take him up on some time during this offseason (anybody remember the Saturday Night Live sketch with John Goodman as a football ref holding a postgame press conference? This won't be anything like that). He did have one complaint, though; he quite validly pointed out that my habit of referring to NCAA decisions as "Indianapolis", a verbal shorthand I've tried to cut out since then, painted a misleading picture of how the NCAA actually works. He's right, and that actually explains a lot of the way that college sports work in this country.

The NCAA is run largely as a volunteer organization. I mean that not just in the sense that membership is voluntary; it is, I suppose, but only in the sense that major college sports are voluntary. I mean that it's run in much the same way that your local non-profit organizations are -- think of it as the United Way on steroids if you like. There's a small staff in the central office which handles support issues -- gathering statistics, scheduling and running annual events, acting as a clearinghouse for information. Almost all of the significant decisions, though, are made by the membership either in occasional large meetings or through committee work. In many ways, the NCAA is the tool that administrators use en masse to control their athletic departments. So, the next time you hear a football fan sputtering about how those Communists at the NCAA (I live in Birmingham; there are a lot of those fans about) are out to ruin the game, remember that the Infractions Committee, who has complete discretion in the matter, is made up of athletic directors and conference officials, and that the game is run that way because they want it to be.

The Baseball Selection Committee

Getting back a little closer to my topic, the group that selects the field for the NCAA baseball tournament and makes most other decisions about the game is called the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee. Here's the lineup for 2002:

Mitch Barnhart, athletic director, Oregon State
Skip Bertman, athletic director, Louisiana State
Charlie Carr, Sr., associate athletic director, Florida State
Joseph Durant, head coach, Florida A&M
Wally Groff, chair, athletic director, Texas A&M
Tom Jurich, athletic director, Louisville
Chris Monasch, commissioner, America East Conference
Bill Rowe, athletic director, Southwest Missouri State
Robert Steitz, associate commissioner, Atlantic 10 Conference
Bob Todd, head coach, Ohio State

That's six athletic department representatives, two coaches, and two conference officials, although obviously Bertman only recently crossed that line. Members serve a three-year term, in general, but can serve multiple terms. They're generally nominated by their conference and elected by the NCAA membership at large, although I would suspect that it's one of those Baptist-church-membership-type elections (all in favor, aye, all-opposed-and-of-course-there-are-none), given the number of championships that the NCAA runs. It's worth noting that Barnhart was the first West Coast representative in several years; he's recently changed jobs, so we'll see who replaces him.

Recently, I was able to speak with Wally Groff and Chris Monasch as well as NCAA Director of Statistics Jim Wright, who is responsible for providing information to the committee and for running the pressbox in Omaha and who has been involved in the process for 28 years now. Rather than the usual questions they get around selection time about specific teams, I wanted to try to get a feel for the actual process and how it works. I'm grateful to these gentlemen for the time they took to talk with me -- they were all quite gracious in taking as much time as it took and all seem to love talking about the game. For today, I want to describe the process as objectively as possible. After some time to digest all of this, I may make some suggestions later in the year.

The Schedule

The 2003 baseball committee work has already started -- it began last week in Indianapolis when the committee held what is called their annual meeting. Because summer is a slower time for most of these men, they try to get as much done as possible in this first meeting on the structural issues of the championship. There's a separate rules committee which also meets in the summer -- this year they changed the rulebook definition of the strike zone and began investigating steroids -- so the baseball committee focuses on things like the length of the season and the schedule for the CWS. This year's big item was to be the new three-game championship round. Assuming that ESPN signed off on it, the revised CWS schedule will be the same through Monday, the two loser's bracket championship games on Tuesday, two games on Wednesday, the two if-necessary games on Thursday, Friday off, and then the championship series on Saturday night, Sunday afternoon, and Monday night. I've written about the CWS schedule recently, so I won't comment on this for now. In addition, the committee agrees to the ground rules of the selection process for the next year, although changes relatively little from year to year.

After the annual meeting, there are two more off-season meetings, one in November and one in January, in which issues discussed during the summer meeting are finalized and new business is handled. After the season starts, the committee begins holding weekly teleconferences around the first week of April. These generally start off lasting about an hour and then grow longer as the season progresses. The final meeting of the year is the actual selection meeting held in Indianapolis the weekend before the regionals begin -- they fly in on Friday night, begin on Saturday morning, and work until the field is finalized on Monday morning. They generally lay most of the groundwork for placement of the superregionals during that meeting; any remaining details or surprises are handled during a teleconference after the regionals.

During the season, each conference has an official representative from the conference and a committee member assigned to be responsible for monitoring the conference. The number of conferences assigned to each committee member varies with geography -- Monasch had four this year, all of them lower-RPI leagues in the Northeast, for example. The members utilize a variety of means for keeping track of the teams in their conferences, mostly the conference representatives and the conference Web sites; the best estimate is that they spend one to two hours a week tracking the game during the early season.

The Process

When the selection meeting begins, the committee members are supplied with a very large amount of information. Even though they're familiar with most of it from their efforts throughout the season, the sheer volume can be a little overwhelming. In past years, this consisted of a stack of paper three to four inches tall. This year, for the first time, all of the information was presented by computer -- they had a set of workstations with up-to-date information loaded on them which replaced the traditional stack of printouts. Included in that information are the current RPI's, which they begin getting around mid-April, full game results for every team likely to be considered, and team records sliced and diced in virtually every conceivable combination -- home-away, in and out of conference, last 25 and last 10, against RPI top 100, 50, 25, and 10, and so on.

After a period of general discussion, the voting procedure begins. To simplify the process, a list is constructed ("put on the board" is the phrase that all the participants seem to use, if that helps you visualize). The list consists of what are considered to be all the possible at large teams, and is made up of the RPI top 75, any teams that were conference regular season champions but have not yet won their conference tournament (remember that some of the tournaments are still going on at this point, a major thorn in their side), and any teams recommended by a committee member (members of that last category apparently are quite rare). Without heading into editorializing at this point, I'll point out that that means that any team that's below #75 in the RPI is quite probably out of consideration at this point before voting even starts.

For each round of voting, each member fills out a secret ballot containing a given number of teams which drops informally each round. To be selected, a team must receive at least seven of the ten votes, and no more than half of the teams left on the board can be selected in a given round. Periodically, teams which have received no votes in the last few rounds can be removed by acclamation, which clears a lot of the low-RPI conference regular-season champs or teams with bad overall won-loss records out. Between votes, members clarify their thinking on various teams and discuss those that were near the edge in the last round. In addition, the process of selecting the #1 seeds and the host sites takes place in similar fashion intermingled with the field selection. Once the field has been selected, usually some time Sunday, the process of filling the regionals begins; this process is less well-defined but is done with the twin (and often conflicting) goals of maximizing fairness and attendance.


Since Jim Wright is the keeper of the RPI, we were also able to discuss that. I've suggested before here that the NCAA just go get a Stanford grad student to create a good ranking system; it turns out that's how we got the RPI in the first place. It was created in the late '70's, by "a team of mathematicians" at Stanford and then tweaked by more mathematicians from the University of Missouri at Kansas City in the late '80's and early '90's.

Wright's basic position is that the RPI is not perfect, but that it is easy for the committee members, who have no statistical background, to understand, and that it's as accurate as any computer-generated set of ranking is likely to be. He acknowledges that many West Coast schools perceive there to be a bias in the RPI, but considers that to be a problem of scheduling and not something that can be overcome by a ranking system. He says that he is always glad to consider new suggestions for ranking systems, but a replacement would have to be clearly superior and still meet the understandability criterion. In short, the RPI probably isn't going anywhere any time soon.

The basic components of the RPI -- the 25-50-25 base formula -- are the same for all sports in which it's used, but it turns out that the bonuses are chosen by the committee in each sport and differ a bit for each one. In men's basketball, for example, there are bonuses for wins over top teams no matter where the games are played, while in baseball the bonuses are only given for road wins, a move that was taken in response to a perceived problem with top teams scheduling too many home games. In addition, the large number of good-quality programs outside Division I has led to more lenient penalties for games against them than in other sports.

Travel Issues

Even within volunteer organizations, there are hierarchies of committees. In this case, the baseball committee is very much subordinate to the decisions of the competitions and championships cabinet. The infamous travel restrictions for the 2002 tournament were handed down by the championships cabinet, and it would be putting it mildly to say that the baseball committee members I spoke to were displeased with them. There was, essentially, nothing short of open rebellion that they could do about it, though, and these are not men who lead lives of open rebellion.

The travel restrictions have already been essentially revoked for next year, so I think we'll see no particular long-term effect from them. There's been no word that I'm aware of, though, about whether the eased restrictions on intra-conference play in the regionals will remain.

Wally Pontiff

Finally, my condolences go out to the family of LSU third baseman Wally Pontiff and to the LSU baseball family. I never met Wally Pontiff away from the stadium, but he always acquitted himself well on the field and in the interview room -- a bright, open young man who will undoubtedly be sorely missed by all those who knew him.

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Boyd's World-> Breadcrumbs Back to Omaha-> The NCAA Selection Process About the author, Boyd Nation