Q&A With Committee Chair Marty Scarano, Part I
by Jim Love/Special to CHN
Marty Scarano is the current chair of the Division I Men's Ice Hockey Committee. Among its many functions is selecting the teams for the NCAA tournament, a process that is largely objective, in that it's based upon a system that has come to be popularly-known as "The Pairwise." Though the system is objective, it does leave open many interesting topics of discussion, many of which are covered here.
This is Part I of an interview with Scarano.
Portions of this article first appeared in BLUElines, the newsletter of the Friends of UNH Hockey, and are reprinted here with permission.
Jim Love: I wonder if you could start off by telling us a little bit about how the Committee functions? Is this a position that you're nominated for (and elected to), or did you 'volunteer'?
Marty Scarano: Each member of the Committee is nominated to the position by their peers in their respective leagues, so when I was brought in I was nominated and voted into the position by my fellow Hockey East athletic directors. Every Division I League has a representative on the Committee, which in recent years means we now function with six voting members.
JL: Were you voted Chairman by the other Committee members? If I remember correctly, members of the committee serve for three years, and this is your final year, right?
MS: Each Committee member serves a 4-year term, and this is my second year as Chairman. That's somewhat unusual, as most chairs serve only for a single term, but I was moved up a year early when another Committee member rotated out [Canisius AD Timothy Dillon] and the rest of the Committee nominated me for an extended, two-year term as chair. But that's OK — I'm obviously appreciative of the opportunity, and I think it's a great way to give back to the sport.
JL: How does membership rotate thru each of the various leagues? Is membership restricted to the athletic directors of the 59 Division I hockey-playing schools, or can league officials, coaches, etc. serve on the Committee?
MS: My four-year term on the Committee is just about complete; Bob Driscoll, the Providence College Athletic Director, will be the new Hockey East representative starting in September. But no, there's no restriction that only athletic directors can serve on the Committee — in fact, Don Vaughan [Colgate head coach] is the current ECACHL representative, and Dave Burkholder [Niagara head coach] sits in for College Hockey America. Coaches and first-year members can't be elected as chair, however, so once I've rotated off the Committee that role will be filled by one of the remaining athletic directors from the other Divison I leagues.
JL: How often does the committee meet throughout the season? Do you meet via conference call in the weeks leading up to the crowning of league champions, or is most of the work done during that final weekend once the possible outcomes are narrowed to a manageable few?
MS: Actually we've been meeting regularly via conference calls every second week since the first of the year, and starting in mid-February we shift to weekly calls. But as chair I'm on the phone 3-4 times a week dealing with regional site issues, event planning at the Frozen Four like the Skills Challenge, etc. so there's a lot of activity throughout the season. We also have an Annual Meeting where quite a bit gets done in preparation for the following season; this summer and every other year it's in Indianapolis, and every second year it rotates East or West at a chosen site. And of course we all convene at the Frozen Four, for seemingly endless meetings throughout those four days.
JL: Having served on a fair number of committees myself over the years, I can appreciate how dissenting opinions keep everybody on their toes rather than simply marching in lockstep. I understand that the Committee must ultimately present a unified front, but what's it like behind the scenes? Is everyone on the same page, or is there room for some maverick free-thinking perhaps?
MS: [laughter] I don't know if I'd call it 'maverick' thinking, but we certainly debate things quite a lot. I think that around the NCAA the reputation of the Ice Hockey Committee is that it's one of the most fun committees to serve on, probably because — as you know — the hockey community is somewhat closed and rather small; we all know each other. And frankly, because of that, we're all held accountable. I can't travel anywhere in the NCAA hockey world without people knowing who I am — not just administrators and coaches, but fans alike. And of course there's the internet, which sometimes complicates things a whole lot. But all of us who serve on this Committee do so because we love and understand the sport, and have been involved with it in varying capacities for a long time. We all come from different regions of the country, and each league obviously has its own nuances, but we try and bridge those differences for the betterment of the sport. I think that's our core philosophy — whatever we do we do to strengthen the overall health of college hockey.
JL: Let's move on to some details of how you go about doing things ... The transparency of the NCAA Tournament selection process as it's now conducted is unquestionably a big improvement over the lamentable (and perhaps apocryphal) 'smoke-filled rooms' of years past. The Basketball Committee, on the other hand, seems to revel in keeping much of its deliberations purposefully murky, the better it seems to fuel armchair second-guessing. Do YOU think it's good for our sport that each team knows exactly what it has to accomplish to qualify for post-season play vs. the more mysterious 'close to the vest' style used in hoops?
MS: Let me preface my answer by saying that I'm not speaking officially on behalf of the Committee, but personally I do. I think it forms an impression in the athletes and coaches minds that it's just as you say — they know exactly what they have to do. And it doesn't just come down to the last weekend, as I'm sure you know. When UNH played in Colorado at CC to open the season, everyone now understands the significance of those games as it relates to bonus points, for example.
JL: Well, it's not even so much the bonus points, but the impact a sweep of CC means to UNH in other aspects of the Pairwise. Since CC is UNH's lone WCHA opponent this season, the 'Cats will win the Common Opponent point vs. every WCHA team that doesn't also sweep the Tigers. That's a huge advantage for UNH, just as Maine's sweep of Denver last season was to the Black Bears.
MS: Right, exactly. I personally like it, but we debate it every year, and I think there are some who would like to see more arbitrary decisions made. What about the team that sweeps the last few weekends, and is peaking at just the right time? How fair are the numbers to a team that loses its top center for a month? Those things can really affect your TUC record, your RPI, etc. and are factors that the basketball Committee considers, but they aren't included in the hockey Pairwise right now.
JL: That's an issue that's on our minds as well. How much subjectivity do you think the Committee should have at its disposal to consider 'intangibles' (timely winning streaks, injured players, players lost to World Junior participation, etc.) that computers cannot?
MS: Very little to none. You mentioned an important point — what about a team like Minnesota that will routinely lose 2-3 players every season to the World Junior Championships? Don Lucia was my coach when I was at CC; he's a good friend, and we've talked about this a lot. He thinks of the opportunity to play in the World Juniors as a recruiting tool. It helps him attract top-shelf players to the program, and if the team loses some games while temporarily missing players, so be it. The long-term benefit outweighs the short-term loss. And he's not alone; the coaches have accepted it, and deal with it in their own way.
JL: Well, we're certainly glad to hear that, because as fans it's so much better to follow our sport — where everything's out in the open — vs. basketball, where self-appointed 'experts' like Billy Packer and Jim Nantz prattle on endlessly about whether this team or that team 'deserves' to be in the Tournament. With hockey everyone knows why each team was selected (or excluded), and we think that's a big advantage.
MS: It is, but then again there are those wonderful stories like George Mason reaching the Final Four last season. Maybe hockey misses out in that regard, unless, say, Holy Cross knocks off Minnesota. That David vs. Goliath upset that seems to happen quite regularly in the basketball tournament happens less often in hockey, and maybe that's why some people on the Committee have talked about opening up the process.
JL: Notre Dame was recently voted No. 1 in both media polls, a first for the Irish hockey program. Yet — if the NCAA Tournament began this weekend — Notre Dame would NOT be the overall #1 seed, but would be slotted No. 3. Fans who follow the process would understand why this happened, but you can bet there'd be some grousing from the media/fans about 'disrespecting' the Irish. Do you think the traditional media (print/TV/radio) have done a good job educating the public — and themselves — about the selection/seeding process?
MS: Yes and no. College hockey is still a very provincial sport that's only followed closely in certain areas of the country. Now you're overlying that with pop culture, where Notre Dame connotes Knute Rockne and Rudy. So when Joe in South Carolina sees the Irish ranked No. 1 in the nation, yet seeded No. 3, his first reaction is 'What's up with that?' It's hard to explain to people who aren't college hockey fans how we do things. That's not necessarily a bad thing; I think it's a great opportunity to show people outside the NCAA hockey community that maybe hockey does it better vis a vis basketball. The I-AA football schools have already demonstrated how to run a postseason elimination tournament, and a little of that has leaked over into the BCS debate. If Notre Dame's seeding for the NCAA Tournament causes a little media dust-up, perhaps that will spark some discussion about whether basketball ought to consider a more strictly quantifiable process for its tournament.
JL: Many college hockey fans believe that the Committee is wedded to the RPI because it's used as a ranking tool by so many other intercollegiate sports, that over time it's become the de facto 'Gold Standard' for the NCAA and that other demonstrably better statistical measures aren't (and won't be) considered because of a 'Not Invented Here' attitude. Is that a fair assessment?
MS: No, not at all. We talk about KRACH and its pros/cons all the time. I think you already know that the system we use is a combination of several different criteria, and that we're not as dependent on the RPI as basketball is. Then we add super secret bonus points on top of that, which is the only intrigue we have left. I can access a special Web site where all these factors are constantly updated; it's different than what many fans think it is, but not by a whole lot. Once we've announced the seeds, my sense is that there's not a lot of mystery there, but it seems the [fan] debate has shifted now to asking why teams are sent to particular regional sites. We can — and do — move teams around within the four seeding bands, but we try to stick to a straight bracket whenever possible.
JL: Jay Bilas, former Duke standout and current ESPN basketball analyst, was asked recently what changes he'd make to the college game if he was crowned 'Omnipotent King of All Basketball' ... Among his edicts was this one, and we quote: 'Discard the RPI forever. Who cares about your opponent's opponents' records? Let the NCAA Tournament Committee use some other power rating which employs more common sense' ... Would you advocate something similar if YOU were suddenly named 'Omnipotent King of All College Hockey'?
MS: [laughter] This will probably make me sound like an NCAA minion, but I've been involved with this for so long that I think we've got a helluva good system in place right now, and I probably wouldn't change very much. I don't disagree with Bilas' idea to let common sense dictate the process, but I think that everyone defines common sense in their own mind, and it's somewhat arbitrary. College hockey is not only still a provincial sport as I mentioned earlier, but I think the way the separate leagues view the sport makes it different from basketball too. The WCHA looks at things differently than Hockey East, and Hockey East looks at things very differently from the ECAC. Throw in the two fledgling leagues, and it's quite a disparate group trying to reach common ground. I think that basketball is more homogeneous, and that hockey more closely resembles college football, which has a distinct regional flavor. My sense is that we've arrived at a process that's really working well, and I'd be reluctant to make changes just for the sake of change.
But let me add another thing that helps convince me that we're doing it the right way, again using basketball for comparison. Typically a better basketball team will find a way to win throughout the course of a game, but I don't think that's as true with hockey. There aren't as many scoring opportunities, and the puck takes funny bounces sometimes. It's all about match-ups — coaches, players, offensive/defensive systems — and so long as we have compelling games using the process we have now, why mess with a good thing?
JL: The Committee has sought to minimize the effects of 'negative impact' outcomes (when a team's RPI decreases after a win) by jiggering the RPI weighting factors [NOTE: 25-50-25 changed to 25-21-54], but the problem persists. Other changes made over the summer to the Pairwise criteria include changing the TUC definition, awarding bonus points only to non-conference road victories, and restricting from analysis ANY winning outcome that causes your RPI to drop. These changes seem to many fans nothing more than band-aids on a flawed system, an easier solution than stepping back, looking at the system as a whole, and then proposing a new course. Was a wholesale overhaul of the system ever on the table?
MS: We actually did just that this past summer, and what you characterize as band-aids took countless hours of trial/error to implement. Math has never been my forte, but we work closely with a statistician who programmed all the changes you mentioned. I don't fully understand everything he says, but I'll say this: we started with a clean slate, reviewed the current system, challenged ourselves to throw the whole thing out if we thought it wasn't working as we hoped ...
JL: Excuse me for interrupting for a second, but would the NCAA allow you to do that? Does the Committee have the freedom to basically say 'We don't like the RPI, and we're going in a different direction'?
MS: Absolutely. Each of the NCAA sports committees is in charge of its own Tournament and team selection; the NCAA is there to offer guidance and provide assistance, but stays out of the details. I believe we have the freedom to select teams for the Ice Hockey Tournament any way we want, and I'm confident that my colleagues on the Committee feel the same way. Tom Jacobs, our NCAA liaison, is a great guy to work with and is very knowledgeable about hockey, but I direct the meetings and set the agenda. Let me assure you that everyone on the Committee takes its role as representing college hockey very seriously.
Throughout my time on the Committee, one of the things I've tried hardest to do is add more inclusiveness — or transparency as you call it — especially about the officiating. We completely redid the way we choose our officials, since there was a lot of griping about provincialism, playing favorites, that sort of thing. I believe the integrity of the sport is much too important to have any mystique; everything should be out in the open. We literally sit up on a dais with Tom Jacobs in front of every Division I coach and don't leave the room until we've answered all their questions. I don't know how basketball does it, but I know that our coaches aren't afraid to come up to me and say, 'You screwed this up; here's what I think.' I've had several people who used to be on the Committee tell me they really appreciate — for the most part — the way we do things now, that there's more fairness in the process. So I think we're on the right track.
(See Part II of this article)