© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003
Memo to the NCAA: crumple the pods into wads and launch them into the crowded dustbin of well-intentioned ideas that failed.
Two years ago, in an attempt to allow more teams to play closer to home in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, especially higher-seeded teams, the pod system was instituted. The smaller four-team pod units give the selection committee increased bracket flexibility.
It has succeeded moderately at reducing travel, which is important. It also has failed in some instances, such as last season when No. 3 seed Mississippi State played lower-seeded Texas in Dallas. Thus, the benefits have not outweighed the failings (e.g. the diminished excitement at the subregion sites because the teams are not all in the same region).
Also, the pods cause confusion among bracket-filling fans -- the lifeblood of the tournament -- and even the selection committee, which made two pod-induced mistakes. It placed BYU in a pod that would have had the Cougars playing in a region final on Sunday, which is forbidden by the school. It also placed the nation's top two teams, Kentucky and Arizona, in pods aligned with regions that match up in the Final Four instead of the championship game.
There is no foolproof system when assigning 64 teams to eight subregions, but the old one worked better. Bring it back.
Sunday at Darlington was NASCAR at its finest -- bumpin' and grindin', rubbin' and racin', a mad dash to the finish.
One of NASCAR's allures is the closed-wheel cars can touch, tap, rub, bump and bang, unlike their open-wheel brethren. Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch showcased all of that, plus skill and gumption, in a riveting duel Craven captured in a photo finish.
Craven called Darlington, in backwoods South Carolina, the Fenway Park of NASCAR. Busch, the loser, called the race "awesome." Darrell Waltrip suggested they do it again tomorrow. (They did. In the Busch series event Monday, Todd Bodine and Jamie McMurray staged another thriller.)
So, why is NASCAR considering dropping the event? Money. Luxurious new tracks from Chicago to California are thirsting for NASCAR races. Their revenue potential dwarfs tiny Darlington, which also hosts the historic Southern 500 each fall.
One problem: The races at the sanitized, cookie-cutter new tracks are snoozers. NASCAR needs to recognize quirky, exciting Darlington as a loss leader. Fans are drawn to NASCAR by Darlington's action-packed races. Newspapers across America splashed giant photos of the Craven-Busch finish on the front of the sports page. That's priceless.
Eliminate a date at Darlington? NASCAR should be thinking about adding a third race.