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Mark Hollis Shares His NCAA Tournament Experiences

Nike executive Kit Morris and Mark Hollis watch the MSU-Virginia game at Madison Square Garden.

April 25, 2014

By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist

EAST LANSING, Mich. - The television face-time afforded Michigan State Athletics Director Mark Hollis appeared to show an impartial observer seated in one of the best seats at the NCAA Tournament.

Hidden behind that stoic façade, however, were the stress, fatigue, collegiality and good humor that come from being a member of the Men's Division I Basketball Committee charged with slotting 68 teams into the month-long event that makes March go mad for hoops every year and shepherding them through it.

Hollis' second installment of a five-year appointment had him:

• Sequestered with nine fellow committee members in a hotel meeting room up to 18 hours a day for the week leading up to Selection Sunday;
• Gaining valuable insight as a site supervisor into two of the Spartans' fiercest Big Ten rivals and the state of college athletics at large;
• Finally rejoining his MSU management team in New York as Coach Tom Izzo's Spartans competed in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden, which played host to the tournament for the first time in 53 years;
• Taking in the Final Four in North Texas to witness the final fruit of the committee's labors.

Despite being personally charged with monitoring seven non-Big Ten conferences - committee members are disqualified from providing appraisals of their own leagues - throughout the season, Hollis said the anxiety to pick the right teams and seed them appropriately can be daunting.

"The 10 members use a lot of data which they combine into a subjective voting process," Hollis said. "There's a lot of tension at different cut points, like once you get at that four-five (seed) line where there are benefits based on geography. But the real tension comes as you're determining teams that are in or out of the tournament."

Hollis and long-time friend and colleague Joe Castiglione, the athletic director at Oklahoma, took it upon themselves to lift the mood from time-to-time.

"We were the resident keep-things-light people," Hollis said. "I developed a walk-up music track for each committee member when they walked in at 7 in the morning. I'd hit the button and they'd walk in to their music like a baseball game.

"Joe kind of took the approach that each day is a different day and he'd come in with a theme, from the National Anthem to having a ship set sail for the tournament on the last day. It was a kind of a fun addition to a very stressful process. It's truly a much more stressful week than I had anticipated now having gone through it two times. Wednesday night through Saturday is probably the pinnacle of pressure, tension and stress."

Unlike the bowl-selection process, in which athletic directors aggressively lobby for a more advantageous spot in the pecking order, committee members could only provide perfunctory information about their own schools and leagues.

Hollis had no sway with regard to Wisconsin and Michigan becoming No. 2 seeds in the West and Midwest Regions, respectively, nor did his presence influence the committee to make Michigan State a No. 4 seed in the East, as opposed to a widely anticipated higher rating after winning the Big Ten Tournament Championship, to give the impression of being extra objective.

Whenever Big Ten teams came up for discussion, Hollis was sent to the RPI room, where numbers-crunchers sit in front of computers spitting out empirical evidence on each team.

"Any time a school or conference is talked about, the staff does a very good job of insuring that any individual on the committee (with a vested interest) does not have input or receives information relative to that school," Hollis said. "So if we're voting on Michigan State, I'm out of the room. If we're talking about a Big Ten school, I can only speak to fact. I cannot give opinion or create a bias one way or another.

"Anything relative to Michigan State, I didn't have access to. When they had a call about the (game) officials for the regional sites, I was omitted from that conference call because we still had a team in play and those officials could be in that discussion. You've got to keep the integrity there of what you do, but the NCAA also does a good job of making sure a bias can't come into play during selection week and the tournament itself.

"What's interesting is that when you're in the room, there are no conversations that take place between two people in the corner about anything. Or when you're at dinner, there aren't small groups with people talking about, I think this or I think that. It's all done at the table so whatever one person says or is looking at from a data perspective, everybody has the same information. It's one of the beauties of the committee."

After the committee adjourned, Hollis was dispatched to oversee the second- and third-round games at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, where he interacted with Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez and Badgers coach Bo Ryan and Michigan AD David Brandon and Wolverines coach John Beilein at the we-are-the-NCAA - as in student-athletes, coaches and administrators - level.

"It was an opportunity to increase your respect for both programs that you're so close to as conference members, yet you really don't get many chances to spend an extended period of time with," Hollis said. "I think the world of both of those guys and I believe they have the same respect. The congratulations were going back and forth and once it settled in, I almost had to pinch myself a few times because I was liking them too much.

"They're part of the Big Ten, but more importantly, they're part of college sports and those two guys represent what college sports are about so well. It was a blessing to spend those two rounds with those teams as well as the other teams because you take something away from every program."

Hollis rekindled his relationship with Oregon Athletics Director Rob Mullens, who was an administrator at Kentucky when the Wildcats collaborated with MSU to set a world-attendance record in The BasketBowl at Detroit's Ford Field in 2003.

"He's somebody I reach out to," Hollis said. "Being there for a week reminds you of how great people in this business are from coaches to support staff to ADs."

With the heavy lifting of selecting the tournament field completed, Hollis likened his role at the site to when he was enrolled at MSU and worked for legendary Spartans coach Jud Heathcote in the early 1980s.

"It's a lot of work and a lot of hours managing practices, meetings with officials and the teams themselves, and making sure if any problem develops at hotel, with transportation, with the arena or the locker rooms, that you and that NCAA staff member work through it," Hollis said. "The number of chairs on each bench - it gets down to that detail.

"It takes you back to the days of being a student-manager. It's wake up early in the morning and get back late at night after a full day's work. One of the unique things that happened was with locker-room assignments. Being that it was hosted by Marquette and you had Wisconsin playing in the (intrastate) rival's normal facility, it took working through some different options."

Hollis tweaked the media logistics and watched in stunned disbelief when an event worker took it upon himself to bring a ladder onto the court to dislodge ball that became stuck during one game. Meantime, he kept abreast of Michigan State's tournament operation via texts and conversations via smart phone.

Although MSU played its first two tournament games in Spokane, Wash., Hollis made sure to keep the Spartans in the picture when his interchange with Beilein from the scorer's table was caught on camera during a break in the Wolverines' game against Wofford.

"They were in a time-out and there was a big roar from the crowd," Hollis said. "John came back and asked me what it was and my first reaction was they just showed a Michigan State highlight (on the video screen). But then I came back and said, `No, no, it was shot of one of your player's parents.' Then he laughed."

Hollis was scheduled to resume his duties at the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis, but since he was the only committee member with a team still alive in the tournament, the committee relieved him of his NCAA responsibilities so he could be with Michigan State in New York.

"I got to be athletic director full-time again rather than by phone," he said. "I got to be there for Coach Izzo. We have a tendency when we get too far away from each other to miss each other, believe it or not."

Hollis wasted no time reconnecting with his staff and MSU supporters. The night before Michigan State's regional semifinal against Virginia, he held court at the Mercury Bar, a Spartan-friendly establishment discovered by his wife Nancy.

"Some of the opportunities of New York was, No. 1, catching my breath after two pretty intense weeks," Hollis said. "We watched the four games of that night, which was the first evening of relaxation I had over a 15-day window. What was accomplished for me was I got to say `thanks' to people I haven't seen in a while.

"And being in New York gave me an opportunity to take a lot of notes from a team perspective that I can take back to the committee. I got to come up with a number of concerns. It was great to have the tournament back at Madison Square Garden after so many years, but it came with some problems that maybe hadn't been anticipated relative to cost and moving around the city."

He plans to brief the committee on everything from maneuvering team buses through big-city traffic to how player per-diem requirements differ dramatically from Spokane to New York.

"I can take that AD perspective and drop it in the room not as a complaint from Michigan State's perspective, but I lived it and here's what it felt like and that will allow for some discussion," Hollis said. "As a coach, you had to prepare for the worst-case scenario and then end up sitting at the arena, and that has an impact on coaches and prep time for practice. Those are real-life examples of what we can take back."

Hollis said Michigan State President Lou Anna K. Simon often asks him to break down various experiences as the AD for her, and participating in the NCAA Tournament as a committee member has broadened his scope considerably.

"There's value when you can be around eight different schools," he said. "I spent time with the Wisconsin fans after each game asking them about their experience. I talked to presidents, ADs, student-athletes, coaches and trainers about everything from drug abuse and alcohol use on campus to concussions.

"While you're sitting there watching practices or waiting for meetings, you can have these conversations on major issues in our industry and you're able to lead those discussions as a committee member. Then you can start talking about solutions rather than just frustrations that come from thinking it's only on your campus. The tournament is a door-opener for some of those conversations. You share a lot, but you also learn a lot in that process."

Hollis also has stronger relationships within the Big Ten because of his time representing the NCAA in Milwaukee.

"Bo, Barry, Dave and John made a point to have a conversation with me before every game and those are conversations that will have meaning through the Big Ten season coming up," he said.

Looking back, Hollis recapped the experience like a runner summarizing every step, hill and turn of a marathon.

"Each of the four weeks as a committee member is dramatically different in nature," he said. "I'd classify them as stress with lots of preparation and making the right choices; then lots of work in that second- and third-round week; and then my case was different because I got to step away and be athletic director again. I think that's important because being able be back with my staff that one night was probably the most enjoyable of the tournament for me.

"You loved to be able to watch the National Championship Game between Kentucky and UConn, but for an AD that's been away from his people, it was nice to do something personally with them. Then, the Final Four was less work and more of hitting the finish line and making sure everybody is comfortable on a much bigger stage."

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