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Inside ESPN's March Madness War Room: "A Sports Bar Without the Alcohol"

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Digger Phelps and Rece Davis are arguing over a plastic fork.

It’s 1:39 p.m. inside the “War Room” deep inside ESPN’s labyrinthine Bristol Campus. Phelps is lining up a fork to throw it at one of eleven television screens, officially decreeing that Colorado – then down roughly 800 points to Pitt five minutes into their NCAA Tournament game – is “done.” It would be the earliest Phelps has ever “stuck a fork” in a team, 20 years into the War Room’s history. Davis urges for Phelps to hold off on the proclamation.

Ten minutes later the fork goes flying. The Buffaloes are indeed “done” – eventually losing  77-48  – but that’s a mere formality after Phelps’ plastic proclamation. Fork don’t lie, as it were.

Maybe this is getting too far ahead of things.

Thursday afternoon, I found myself at what is normally the nerve center of college hoops. But after televising 957 regular season games, traveling to gyms across the country each weekend for College GameDay and serving as the epicenter for Championship Week, ESPN hands off the actual Madness of March to CBS/Turner for the tournament’s 21-day duration. The network will do so until at least 2024 thanks to the 14-year, $11 billion pact CBS/Turner made with the NCAA in 2010.

ESPN tends to own college sports — it aired, what, 17 different live feeds for the BCS Championship Game in January? — but during the NCAA tournament college basketball is sometimes restricted to only two minutes of highlights every hour. Nobody on the outside will feel sorry for the World Wide Leader in Sports any time soon, but what’s it like for the broadcasters, researchers and everyone in between when the party goes elsewhere and they’re left with an almost empty dance floor?

“You do feel a little bit removed. You feel like you’re hovering over the top. It’s not the way you are at the BCS Championship Game,” host Rece Davis told me. “It’s the way it is. You can’t let it affect you. It’s not productive. It’s certainly different from the experience we have on a weekly basis, when we go in and do GameDay in front of the crowd.”

Davis told me that just minutes after doing a live SportsCenter spot with analyst Jay Bilas. Off camera, the duo prepared with equal amounts of time joking about each other’s wardrobe (Davis always goes full suit) and the Boring Jabari Twitter account– something you’d never guess when they seamlessly highlight North Dakota State’s versatile guard Taylor Braun on live television when the light goes on.

When not stepping out for live segments, the ESPN college hoops family huddles in the “War Room” — a conference room that resembles a normal NCAA viewing party — only with a lot more laptops and guys like Bilas, Phelps, Dan Dakich and Seth Greenberg second-guessing the referees rather than some guy in his late 30s with a receding hairline, wearing a way too tight jersey and using “we” while discussing his team.

“It’s a sports bar without the alcohol,” said senior researcher Jason McCollum. It should be noted McCollum, a Raiders fan with a sense of humor, is wearing a silver-and-black JaMarcus Russell jersey, so maybe it’s not too unlike a sports bar, only swap out Diet Dr. Pepper for Bud Lights and iPhone chargers for cigarette butts. (Also inside the War Room is a Sebastian Telfair Portland Trailblazers jersey, and an old Wimbledon ‘Crazy Gang’ era soccer jersey among others.) The jerseys aren’t there solely for ironic purposes, but for a good cause — any ESPN employee wearing one on the first two days of the tournament makes a small donation to the V Foundation for Cancer Research.

Digger Phelps' work station inside the 'War Room.' Each colored binder represents one of the brackets four regions.

Digger Phelps’ work station inside the ‘War Room.’ Each colored binder represents one of the brackets four regions.

Without Jim Valvano, the War Room might never have come into existence. Phelps — the room’s recognized leader, or Sergeant at Arms to everyone else — replaced Valvano at ESPN after he passed away from bone cancer in 1993. Phelps’ ties to the Valvano family run deep. He was roommates with Nick Valvano at Rider in the early 1960s and the Valvanos — “Rocky and Ang” — would bring the hungry college basketball players Italian food on the weekends.

This year’s proceedings inside the War Room don’t officially kick off until 3:03 p.m. when the homemade linguine-in-clam sauce cooked up by Phelps’ longtime friend Johnny Viniello arrives, along with two big trays of wings from Norm’s in Brewster, New York.

“They bring me in to replace Jimmy with Dick (Vitale) and (John) Saunders or Chris Fowler. That’s how we all started. ten years after that GameDay started,” said Phelps, who commands almost an entire table in the front row to himself, covered with his trademark highlighters, colored folders for each of the four brackets and more note cards than a college freshman prepping for a test. “The first years coming here, gosh, we were in that one small room upstairs. That was all of it. For that it was the connection to the Valvano family and Jimmy.

“The whole concept of what this has been for me, has been an extended family. People I know and love. It’s how you’ve seen this place grow and how the relationships grow. Brothers and sisters. Aunts and uncles. Here I am, 20 years later. That’s been the growth. I come in here. I still coach. That’s why I bust on everybody.”

The linguine and clams arrived too late for the first big upset of the tournament — Dayton’s 60-59 win over Ohio State. From his seat in the front row, Davis breaks out some impromptu play-by-play in the final seconds as Aaron Craft’s would-be game-winning layup for the Buckeyes rattles out. The pundits in the room who picked Dayton beam, while researchers and web programmers grumble that their shot at winning Warren Buffett’s  $1 billion is already over. 

On the actual call for Craft’s miss at the First Niagara Center were CBS’s Vern Lundquist and Bill Raftery — Bilas’ former partner alongside Sean McDonough on Big Monday broadcasts until this season. Bilas, as you’d easily surmise, still misses working alongside Raftery, who left ESPN for Fox Sports 1 in the summer.

“Do I miss him? Usually after when we go out for a drink and he’s not there,” Bilas said. “It’s been difficult. It’s been a huge adjustment. Of all the fun we have, and look it is ridiculous for us to call this work. It’s not work. Other people have jobs. We get to do this for a living and claim it’s work. Of all the fun I had, that was at or near the top of the list. So I miss it a lot.”

Staffers come and go, poking there head in every few minutes. The analysts are entrenched in their positions, watching intently or pouring over Twitter. Everyone eventually begins to pick over the spread and Harvard keeps the upset train chugging along with its win over No. 5 seeded Cincinnati. Bilas and others predicted the result on air and afterward didn’t even want to label it an upset.

And here’s the part where we come to the the other grand tradition of March: brackets.

Digger and Jay talking shop.

Digger and Jay talking shop.

Every professional sports game played across the globe has a gambling element. The bracket phenomenon makes it feels like everyone in America — up to and including President Obama — has a vested interest in every single first round game. How, as an analyst, do you look at a game when you know 99 percent of viewers have a vested interest in your pick: either to use it as advice or to go against you?

“We can all pretend that people don’t gamble,” Bilas told me. “We can all live in fantasy land, but people gamble. I play golf during the summer. My friends and I we never play without a $5 Nassau. There’s never a time where we don’t have a bet on a hole. I don’t consider myself a gambler. That’s the way the world is. Pretending it doesn’t exist is silly.”

It’s a far cry from Bilas’ earlier days on television when he fought against making picks.

“I thought this was inappropriate,” he said. “I don’t know who’s going to win. I can tell you why someone is going to win or what it’s going to turn on. I don’t know who’s going to win. That’s what TV does. People want to know who you think is going to win. They don’t want to hear maybe. They’re not interested in maybe. You have to take a stand. You realize you’ll be wrong. That’s how sports are. At this time of year everyone is doing an office pool.”

Bilas isn’t exaggerating. Consider this story relayed to me from Greenberg, illustrating how far people are willing to go looking for an edge in their bracket:

“A student in a college class tweeted me and asked if I would be available for a class project,” the former Virginia Tech coach said. “So I said sure. I’d be glad to do it. I gave him my email. We set up a time. Two days later he sent me an email, could I pick his bracket? I said, now you’re pushing it. I’d be glad for an interview, but I’m not picking your bracket.”

Had Greenberg gone through with the student’s request we all know which team he’d have picked to win it all: Michigan State. Sunday night immediately after the brackets were revealed all five ESPN analysts — Bilas, Vitale, Phelps, Greenberg and Jay Williams — picked the Spartans to cut down the nets in Dallas.

“I’ve been doing this show in some capacity for 15 years. That was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen, how they all picked Michigan State,” Davis said.

Bilas and Greenberg were equally stunned.

“They hand us a bracket, we fill it out – usually at a break – and have it done by the end of the break. It might be three minutes. None of us said a word to one another. I’ve never heard of this before,” Bilas said. “If we had known somebody would have gone the other way. … My record has been pretty good, but I’m not stupid enough to think I can pick these games. You can’t. It’s impossible. That’s why Warren Buffett is smart. They stealth-marketed this tournament. It didn’t cost them a nickel and look at the publicity they got because nobody is going to win their billion dollars. They got millions in publicity with no risk at all.”

Those very same Spartans were the final team to tip off in the Thursday afternoon slate. By then most of the analysts had shuffled off to work on GameDay or SportsCenter, leaving mostly researchers in the room to watch the Spartans dutifully dispatch Delaware. Phelps, who earlier told me his inkling Oklahoma State could repeat Wichita State’s run to the Final Four as the No. 9 seed from the West Region, eventually leaves his post to head off to the SportsCenter set.

Now 72 years old, he still loves the game, the connections, the banter, and the voicemails from Tom Izzo on his flip phone. But a year removed from bladder cancer and following a brutal winter with countless delayed flights, he’s looking forward to the first week in April when he’ll sit down in the easy chair at his home of 43 years in South Bend, Ind., pour himself a glass of red wine and watch the Masters. Until then, Phelps will continue to do what he’s done the last two decades.

And if ESPN doesn’t own the rights to broadcast the games themselves, so be it.

“When you’re in the Pentagon you see it all,” Phelps said. “This is the War Room. We don’t miss a beat. So even after Championship Week, when CBS does their show, when we break it down to two hours everybody is watching us. When we’re doing the stuff now, everybody is watching us.”

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