March Madness: Finding Success in Football and Basketball

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You’ve probably heard the labels “Basketball School” and “Football School” applied to various college athletic programs. However, on the eve of March Madness 2015, an examination of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament and the performance of each university’s football counterparts reveals that success in one can coincide with success in the other.

Twenty-seven athletic departments that have basketball teams participating in March Madness also sent teams to bowl games at the conclusion of the 2014 college football season. Now, this might not seem like that impressive a number, given the NCAA Tournament hosts 68 schools and 76 schools participated in college football’s postseason.

However, much of the crossover is evident in football’s more prominent bowls. Of the 12 teams to participate in the New Year’s Six bowl games, plus the four College Football Playoff participants, eight are also represented in March Madness (Arizona, Baylor, Boise State, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Ohio State, Oregon, Wisconsin).

And, of those eight, four had basketball teams in their conference championship games. Three — Arizona, Oregon and Wisconsin — played in both the basketball and football title contests.

Arizona exacted a measure of revenge over Oregon with its 80-52 rout of the Ducks on Saturday. In December, Marcus Mariota solidified his Heisman Trophy resume in a 51-13 Oregon win over the Wildcats.

While Arizona’s sweep of both the regular-season and tournament championships in the Pac-12 added to its reputation as a “Basketball School,” winning the Pac-12 South in head coach Rich Rodriguez’s third year with the program was a major stride for Wildcats football.

Rodriguez is building Arizona into a perennial Pac-12 contender and generating excitement around Tucson, a city so enamored with hoops that locals call it a “basketball town.” And he’s done by so embracing basketball’s history and success, most recently appearing courtside in Las Vegas for the Wildcats’ run to Pac-12 championship.

The philosophy, as athletic director Greg Byrne told Arizona Republic columnist Paola Boivin in December: “Success is contagious.”

Duke’s David Cutcliffe has similarly flourished at a basketball school. Blue Devil basketball earned a No. 1 seed this March Madness, as it often does under Mike Krzyzewski’s direction. But making three straight bowl games, as Duke football has done? That was previously unheard of.

Defending football national champion Ohio State has done both well consistently since the late 1990s, though has yet to match Florida’s impressive feat of claiming a title in at least one of the two sports every athletic year from 2005-’06 through 2007-’08. The Gators pulled off the double-dip in 2006-’07, beating Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game, and besting the Buckeyes again in the basketball championship game.

With Florida football struggling and the Gators basketball team taking a step back this season, Wisconsin is the current gold standard in excelling both on the gridiron and hardwood.

Both a national championship and Rose Bowl win elude the Badgers in this run, but the basketball Badgers are primed to make a run at this year’s title. Wisconsin earned the top seed in the West Regional, where aforementioned Arizona is one of the challenges on the road to Indianapolis — coincidentally, the same city that hosts the Big Ten Championship Game Wisconsin football has reached each of the last four seasons.

Fellow No. 1 seed Villanova is after its first national basketball championship since 1985, though the Wildcats are less than six years removed from being crowned in football.

Villanova leads a contingent of six universities with basketball teams in the NCAA Tournament, as well as football teams that participated in the 2014 FCS Playoffs. Others are Coastal Carolina, Northern Iowa, North Dakota State, Eastern Washington and Stephen F. Austin.

With Villanova, Eastern Washington and North Dakota State all part of March Madness, every FCS champion since 2009 is represented — although North Dakota State, with its four straight titles, is doing much of the heavy lifting.

Still, that’s rather impressive and speaks to each school’s ability to foster winning environments for both sports. And that championship very nearly ran back another year, but 2008 FCS national champion Richmond was left out of the NCAA Tournament’s at-large picture.

Another March Madness snub, Temple, has the dubious distinction of also reaching bowl eligibility in football but not getting an invite.

Georgia Southern can probably empathize. The Eagles were outstanding in their first FBS season, but because they were considered a transitional program, were ineligible for a bowl bid. Meanwhile, Georgia Southern basketball came one shot away from winning the Sun Belt’s automatic bid into the Big Dance.