When the clock struck midnight on March 17th, the calendar turned to ‘judgment day’. Dozens of college basketball teams with their NCAA tournament hopes hanging in the balance anxiously huddled around the TV waiting to hear their name called - Selection Sunday, the annual day of reckoning, had arrived…
For the most worthy of these “bubble boys”, the moment they saw their school’s name flash across the screen was an instant validation that all the blood, sweat and tears poured into the past 12 months was all worth it. One second, they were walking the plank of postseason purgatory. The next, they were celebrating salvation after receiving an invitation to college basketball’s most exclusive dance party.
Shortly after their NCAA tournament fates were signed, sealed and delivered, it was time to get back to work. Outside distractions were promptly deflected as the attention of every player and coach honed in on that impending opening round matchup.
Not one thought was given to the logistics planning needed to arrange travel and lodging accommodations. As far as every player and coach was concerned, someone else would reserve the flight or bus, book the hotel, and the NCAA’s Gringotts-sized vault of cash would pick up the tab. This was a foregone conclusion…
Two weekends ago, Minneapolis played host to college basketball’s grandest stage at the cavernous U.S Bank Stadium - but this was not the only ‘Final 4’ that took place in the Twin Cities over the weekend…
Had you moseyed just a mile west of the Final 4 epicenter over to the Minneapolis Convention Center, you might’ve stumbled on ‘Buick Arena’, the stage for the 4th annual Student Manager Games Championship.
On that Friday, 7 teams comprised of Division 1 basketball program student managers representing their respective schools collided on this floor to compete for a national championship. For these 7 schools, the road to this Final 4 was far from traditional. They didn’t travel in chartered flights or stay in 5-star hotels - in fact, they never actually played any real life basketball games at all…
The Manager Games Championship looks and feels just like real life March Madness. Nearly 200 D1 schools participate and compete in Manager Games throughout the regular season with the hopes of qualifying for the 64-team postseason tournament. More than 400 games were played by Division I student manager teams all across the country, often the night before the regularly scheduled game. The criteria for qualification is based on a predefined set of guidelines, which is used to determine the final field of 64.
The difference here is that once the bracket is revealed and the matchups are set, the score isn’t settled with actual games between real life players. Instead, due to travel logistics complications and postseason obligations, the results for the first three rounds are simulated on the social media battleground, where Twitter fan votes (along with KPI’s predictive score metric) ultimately determine which teams advance and which teams are eliminated.
While this method seems clunky on the surface, in the face of budget and funding constraints, the spirit of this approach makes complete and total sense. In essence, the winner of each matchup is determined by what’s effectively a weighted average of fan love (Twitter vote percentages) and regular season results (KPI’s predictive score projection).
For those squads fortunate enough to survive and advance all the way to the Elite 8 by way of this simulation, the dream of playing for a national title becomes within grasp.
The final hurdle? Finding assistance to help get them to Minneapolis.
For Tennessee, Indiana, Marquette, Providence, Ole Miss, Illinois and Michigan, overwhelming buzz and fan support helped them reach their GoFundMe goals to cover travel and lodging expenses.
There’s nothing glamorous about the student manager lifestyle. It’s a tireless and thankless job, one rooted in repetition and routine. I reached out to three different managers spanning a wide range of program size to get a feel for what a typical day in the life looks like.
There’s not a more overused cliche than “first guy in, last guy to leave” when describing a player with a rigorous work ethic. But, as former University of Cincinnati manager and Liberty graduate assistant Griffin Williams explains, this is quite literally the expectation for all student managers.
“Usually you arrive at the arena thirty minutes to an hour before practice gets ready to start, if not sooner in some cases,” said Williams. “Practice obviously requires you to be there and to be ready to assist in whatever situation or capacity you might be needed. Once practice is over, if guys want to get additional work/shots in, make sure that you or somebody else has that covered.”
Practice usually takes place in the afternoon, so managers will front-load their classes early in the morning to ensure they have ample time to attend to both coach and player needs later in the the day. There’s rarely a time during the season when managers are officially ‘off the clock’, as referenced by Ohio University head manager Drew Steinbrunner.
“The time commitment is the biggest thing that people don’t realize. We must be on call during off days in case a player wants to get additional shots up.”
There’s no limit to what student managers will immerse themselves in at practice. Pretty much anything and everything that a coach might need is fair game. Rebounding. Passing. Filming. Setting up equipment. Doing laundry. Developing scout sheets. You name it; these guys do it.
Williams shared one story from his time working for Mick Cronin as a manager at Cincinnati, which I found particularly inspirational - from someone who just recently visited Nashville for a friend’s bachelor party, the day after response from the managers and staff was borderline heroic.
“When we were in Nashville the day before playing Florida State, Mick told the team that he needed to save legs so he needed some help. So a team of five, which included two assistant coaches, our graduate assistant, another manager and myself, got out and guarded our guys for the first fifty minutes or so of practice. Mick even emphasized that Florida State would deny whenever they could, so he needed us to try and simulate that as best as possible. The thing was, a few of us try to enjoy Nashville the previous night, so this was a serious challenge. Mick credited us and said we were doing a great job, and when we won the next night, I certainly felt a little bit of satisfaction from the win, for multiple reasons.”
As involved as managers are in the nitty, gritty details of practice and game preparation, their responsibilities also expand to broader logistics and basketball operations planning. Standard protocol for home games consists of an afternoon shoot-around followed by a pregame meal, the organization and preparation of which falls on the managers’ shoulders.
For road games, the game day structure is fairly consistent, but the transportation, lodging and food preparation nuances add another layer of complexity. Garrett Furubayashi, head manager at the University of San Francisco, detailed what a travel day looks like from a manager’s vantage point.
“Usually, we'll leave campus the day before our scheduled away game. We had a good amount of help on the road the past two years by traveling multiple managers. Preparation is huge for us when we go on the road, which means we need to pack up all the gear and double check that we don't leave anything behind, especially the jerseys.
One of the other things I'm in charge of is making sure the food is all set for all of our road trips. This requires getting orders from all the players and staff and communicating with restaurants about pick up and potential delivery times. Usually, we'll have food for everyone on the bus ride over to the airport, so that's one other aspect that's important to take care of before we leave. Once we arrive in a visiting city, we'll help get all the bags and load them onto the bus. From there, I'll usually take an Uber to a grocery store to pick up any supplies we'll need for the trip like waters and snacks to keep in our room.”
With how taxing life on the road can be, I was curious how much traveling by plane, specifically via chartered flights, reduces the burden associated with excessively long road trips. Due to the geographical and financial differences across schools, each manager I spoke with described a unique travel experience for a typical away game.
At Ohio University, bus is the primary form of transportation, unless the trip is more than 4 hours away. With how geographically condensed the MAC is, Steinbrunner said the Bobcats fly approximately 5 times per year and usually leave the evening before our game.
At Cincinnati, traveling by plane is much more common. Williams shed some light on how his experience differed between his time at Cincinnati and his time at Liberty, and described why flying charter was such a major advantage.
“Flying charter was a huge advantage, as it allowed coaches to create their own schedules, save wait times, and get the players back to school in a short turnaround time. This is probably a product of conference situation and location, but it definitely felt like we stayed in nicer hotels at UC than we did at Liberty. That is probably to be expected but like I said, there is a difference between a nicer hotel in Pittsburgh versus a nicer hotel in Boiling Springs, North Carolina.”
At the University of San Francisco in the geographically dispersed WCC, plane is also the primary form of transportation, but most fly standard commercial. Only Gonzaga charters flights consistently in the WCC, which gives the Zags a significant advantage and allows them to avoid any major travel-related hiccups. Furubayashi noted one specific example of when a chartered flight could’ve prevented a major hassle for the Dons this past season.
“Some trips we ended up staying the night because our games finished so late, but most of the time we tried to hop on a plane the same night. We had one crazy experience after our game against Pepperdine this season where our flight got canceled the morning after our game, so ultimately we ended up taking a bus all the way from LAX back to our USF campus. That bus ride required calling ahead to a Chipotle on the way and making sure they could have our food ready to go by the time we arrived, as well as setting up food for pick up once we arrived back on campus after our 8 hour journey.”
Long hours. Unpredictable demands. No pay.
Imagine being kooky enough to sign up for that job description…
So, what exactly possessed these lunatics to agree to that barbaric arrangement in the first place?
As the responses below indicate, one common theme ties all their individual motives together: a yearning desire to pursue a career in the game of basketball.
“For me personally, I was a huge UC fan growing up so to get involved with the program was a great opportunity,” said Williams. “Initially, I just looked at it as a resume builder, but I think a lot of my co-workers wanted to use it to find a career in basketball. Some have had success, some have had success with careers in sports, others have not, and that is for a variety of reasons, obviously.”
“We like to have fun, but one of the biggest rewards of this job is building your network and learning the game of basketball,” said Steinbrunner. “We have a passion for being in the game and learning the ins and outs of basketball.”
And while the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow may seem far away for these 18-24 year olds, it’s the journey along the way the keeps the internal fire burning. The glory is in the grind.
“For me personally, something I've grown to appreciate about this process is getting to watch the development of different players,” said Furubayashi. “You spend so much time with the players and coaches over the course of the year from preseason and spring workouts, to summer sessions and camps, all the way to the entire season itself. Especially having the opportunity to rebound and workout with some of the players, it's been awesome to really watch players improve over the course of the year and see their success during the season because you've seen and know all the hard work they've put in. Even on a larger teamwide scale, watching the team grow and improve over the course of the year and seeing it translate to success during the season is awesome.”
Special thanks to the following student managers who agreed to participate by sharing their stories and experiences, many of which are detailed in the quotes above:
Role: former Co-Head Manager at the University of Cincinnati and former Graduate Assistant at Liberty University
Role: Head Manager at Ohio University
Role: Head Manager at the University of San Francisco
Also, many thanks to Kevin Pauga, current Assistant AD at Michigan State University, for offering up his insight on the Manager Games Championship. Manager Games is currently run and operated by Kevin, fellow former Michigan State managers Ian May and Andrew Novak, as well as former Auburn manager Thomas Northcutt.