March Madness has been filled with great moments down through the years. Who among us can forget watching N.C.State's miracle championship of 1983 when Lorenzo Charles slam-dunked home Derek Whittenburg's desperation miss as the buzzer sounded? And who could not have been moved one year earlier when former North Carolina legend Dean Smith won his first crown after six fruitless trips to the Final Four? Yet these moments and all others that transpired prior to 1994 had a bit of B.S. to them-they were Before Skylark.
1994 was a historic year in ways both good and bad. Major league baseball suffered a strike that resulted in a canceled World Series and a public relations beating that takes its toll to this day. The Republican Party swept into control of Congress for the first time in 52 years. Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne won his first national championship. But the defining event of that year was the transformation of an NCAA Tournament pool from an event in which a few guys that had way too much time on their hands played in, to a extravaganza that today reaches upwards to the century mark and whose "Multiplex" scoring system is revolutionizing the way fans perceive their tournament brackets.
With the advent of the Skylark the great moments of March Madness suddenly took on a whole new meaning. Failure by a top seed to play well in the second round meant not only embarrassment for that particular program-it could now wreak havoc on the lives of a Middle American family if Mommy had UConn picked for the Final Four. Upset wins by teams like Valparaiso, Princeton and UW-Green Bay could make the office secretary who hadn't watched basketball all year suddenly look like a genius because she picked them without knowing any better. The past ten years have had more than their share of great tournament moments-and this article will bring out those heretofore hidden souls who are not too proud to let their lives be shattered or uplifted based entirely on whether a 20-year old can hit a free-throw with all the money on the table.
A Long Hike Cut Short
In the inaugural '94 campaign, 18-year old William Flaherty wanted nothing more than a pair of hiking boots for his trip to Colorado. As the tournament progressed, the possibility that his endorsement of Duke (only a #2 seed that year and entering the tourney on a minor slump) for the national title might finance his footwear became a real possibility. Only one individual stood in his way on Monday night when the Blue Devils faced Arkansas for the crown-that being his own mother, Donna Flaherty, who was campaigning on the Razorback ticket. And when forward Scotty Thurman hit a rainbow trey to break a 70-70 tie late in the game and send Arkansas to victory, what was gracious Donna's response in the presence of her crestfallen son? She danced about the living room.1 Tom Hoffman pulled in second place-a fact that would not seem historically significant until five years later...
The 1999 Final Four was held in St. Petersburg-the very state where a bitter counting of presidential votes would divide the nation twenty months later. Duke and Connecticut were slated to play for the national title. These were the only two teams that held the #1 ranking throughout the course of the season and it remains one of the juiciest title-game battles of recent memory.
Tom Hoffman was quietly building a life that would be the envy of many Americans. A nice house in the suburbs, a good career, a charming wife and three lovely daughters. Yet underneath it all something important was missing-the keys to the Skylark that eluded him five years earlier. Victory was now in his grasp-Tom had picked Duke to win it all-and though the Devils were easily the consensus favorite of the pool, he masterfully eliminated his opposition in the early rounds and was the candidate poised to claim victory if the heavily favored Dookies delivered. But there was Donna…holding the Connecticut card in her hand.
And the Huskies came out to play the game of their lives. A nip-and-tuck battle went down to the wire and won 77-74. Donna was the first (and still only) person to win the pool twice and holds the nickname "Skylark Queen Donna." Tom, to his credit, has carried on with his life amidst the bitterness of this heartbreaking Florida defeat. And unlike other prominent figures, he graciously accepted a close loss in Florida rather than whining and carping about it years after the fact. He remains the Roy Williams of this pool-the one seasoned observers hope finally gets over the top.
Though Tom might have missed the brass ring thus far, others in his family have picked up the slack. In 1996, Rick Pitino's Kentucky squad was easily the most dominant in the field. Very few pool entrants found it worthwhile to even take a flyer on anyone else-picking the 'Cats and trying to win the pool in the early rounds was the strategy of choice in this election year.
Skylark chairman Steve Rhoads reviewed the brackets and noted that "Kentucky is the family values issue of the campaign. Everyone's trying to claim it for their own." But it was Karen Hoffman that found the key the voters were looking for-she not only had Kentucky values-but her bracket truly valued Kentucky. While other entrants were had Pitino's squad facing powerhouses like Kansas or Cincinnati for the crown, Karen paired them up with an abnormally weak Syracuse squad on Monday night. Astonishingly the gamble paid off and the Orangemen were the 'Cats victims in the final. It remains the biggest example off a longshot pick paying off.
There have been many other memorable moments that this writer has born witness too. The late, great Carl Buss won the 1997 keys when Arizona completed a run of upsets to win Lute Olson's first national title. Pam Rapshard rolled to victory in 2001 behind Maryland's surprise trip to the Final Four-and afterward delivered the pool's first-ever victory speech via e-mail. When Steve Rhoads won in 2000, it meant that an immediate member of the Rhoads family had won in each presidential election year(for those outside the circle, Karen Hoffman is Steve's sister). Surely the Dinner Table Caucuses to determine the family nominee this year will be particularly bloody with the stakes so high.
And no doubt readers out there in the hinterlands have their own moments to recall. Did Indiana's magic 2002 run to the final change anyone's pool destiny? Did Kentucky's 1998 title give anyone a badly needed infusion of cash? This site welcomes more stories March Madness, Skylark style.
1Donna unfortunately gave in and bought William the boots anyway. We think it would have been better if she taught him the value of hard work and insisted he properly earn the money by counting cards in Atlantic City.