SPOTLIGHT: Tom Burnett trades Chair for … something softer

FINAL FOUR FOREMAN: NCAA Tournament Selection Committee Chair Tom Burnett, who has watched more basketball than you over the past five years, talks with the CBS audience on Selection Sunday.

By TEDDY ALLEN, Journal Sports

Meet a Chair who needs a couch.

Outgoing Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett, a West Monroe High and Class of ’88 Louisiana Tech graduate, has watched more than 1,000 college basketball games during the past five years as a member of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee.

But Monday night after he hands the national championship trophy to the Final Four survivor in the Caesars Superdome, the Houston native’s final job as a five-year member of the committee — and as its Chair this year — Burnett will watch “definitely less” hoops next season.

“Maybe tremendously less,” he said, the exclamation obvious. And understood.

A lifelong lover of sports, Burnett is one of those guys who’s nearing 60 and has left it all on the field. But even a guy this easy-going, efficient and dependable as sunrise, knows when it’s too much of a good thing.

Commissioner of the Southland for the past 19 years after working on communication staffs at Tech and with the old American South Conference (which later merged with the Sun Belt), Burnett felt it was time to step away after hoops season. He’ll be in a consulting role for the league for a bit, then will decide what he and wife Tracy will do.

Going to a basketball game or committee meeting might not be at the top of the list.

“I’ve learned,” he said, “that the Tournament never stops.”

Burnett’s first job on the committee — service and responsibilities change as you advance through a five-year term — included meeting with other members five times a year, being co-monitor with another member of five-to-seven conferences, and watching as many games as possible on TV or through a database of coaches’ films the committee has access to. The first year, 2017-18, he counted watching all or parts of 170 games.

“After that,” he said, “I quit counting.”

The committee is also charged with the full oversight of the men’s tournament: the business operations, television negotiations/relations, officiating, site selection including future Final Fours, planning for next year and the year after, and … it’s always something.

Plus, each member has, well, a regular job. So think about playing for the run-happy Kansas Jayhawks all year. While wearing a tie. Or, if you’re a committee member and Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade, sensible pumps.

It’s a challenge. And for Burnett, a big jump from his first job at Tech for sports information and its director, the now-retired Keith Prince.

“Baseball P.A. announcer in the spring of ’85,” Burnett said. “Didn’t realize that also included keeping the scorebook, running the scoreboard and serving as the ballpark deejay. But, whatever — I was hooked.”

The exclamation obvious. Again.

And that figures, because to do something right in the public sphere takes enthusiasm — and a thick skin. Burnett has heard it all concerning the committee, and it often seems many well-meaning fans tend to miss the boat on at least one sticky point.

“If there is one thing that people either don’t believe or simply don’t want to accept, it’s that there is unimpeachable integrity among the committee members, and throughout the selection process,” he said. “There are no games played or deals made, as we are simply focused on getting it right. Not perfect – but right.

“And some speculate that the bracketing process is gamed, that the committee plans for certain matchups to reunite coaches with certain teams, or that certain travel is arranged to reward or penalize teams,” he said. “Couldn’t be farther from the truth, as the bracketing process is mostly automated based on longstanding principles and procedures, often reviewed and approved by the committee and the national coaches’ association.”

Chris Reynolds, the 2022-23 committee chair and director of athletics at Bradley, will inherit the same questions. But he’ll also inherit being a key part in what many feel is sport’s finest event.

Consider the March Madness so far: powerhouses hanging around, some traditional powers punched out early, Saint Peter’s and Cinderella, a legend retiring, more nail-biting first- and second-round games than ever before … and full gyms.

That’s right, fans. As Burnett prepares to leave, something else is back to stay.

“I’m most proud that the committee, primarily through the great work of the NCAA staff, the local hosts and our medical officials, could get the tournament back on its traditional course,” Burnett said. “A national tournament at the 14 sites, from Dayton through the Final Four in New Orleans. The basketball is going to get played and take care of itself, but to get the tournament back on track was always our focus after the unfortunate shutdown in 2020 — a tough, tough day — and the controlled-environment tournament played in Indianapolis in 2021, which is what we had to do.

“There are great storylines this year, such as upsets, a tremendous group of bluebloods descending on New Orleans this week, Coach K’s retirement, some other things,” he said. “But the return of March Madness as we’ve always known it ranks at the top.”