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The managers of March Madness are hard at work, harder at play

AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt

General managers run pro sports franchises.

Managers run a 25-man roster and make too many pitching changes.

Basketball managers? They’re at the bottom of the ecosystem. They look up to grunts. They make “gofers” look like CEOs.

Yet, their bottom-rung status belies the fact that their hamster-in-a-treadmill work ethic makes programs with even the bluest blood operate at a high level.

Now get ready for the 30 For 30 story angle:

What if I told you that over 160 Division I manager teams play structured pickup games, that those results are ranked on a web site maintained by a Michigan State athletics administrator, and that last season a national championship tournament was held during the Final Four in Houston… and that a similar event is on tap at this year’s Final Four in Phoenix?”

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“Managers are the hardest workers in basketball and put in far more hours than the players,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who benefited from the help of managers as a player and assistant coach at Duke. “As far as their games, they have a great sense of humor. They know they’re not players, but they love to play.”

Bilas (1.6 million Twitter followers) and ESPN colleague Fran Fraschilla (136,000 followers) have brought attention to the manager games in recent years.

“Social media has been a huge factor,” Bilas said. “What Fran and I have been able to do is put some sunshine or shined a spotlight on this and that’s been fun to be a part of that.

“I’ve become the patron saint of managers, always get a large greeting from the managers when I come to a practice, a fresh towel and some Gatorade.”

That’s typical Bilas humor: dry and wry. He’s quick to point out, though, that Michigan State assistant athletic director/administration Kevin Pauga is the godfather of the manager games. A former Spartans manager, Pauga runs the KPI.com web site that is becoming a favorite analytical tool for Division I basketball teams.

He also uses the formula to rank the manager teams and pushed to set up last year’s final four in Houston and is helping to set it up again in Phoenix in April.

“The manager games concept dates back to when I was a manager back in 2000,” said Pauga, who laughs at Bilas’ description. “Once other teams in other conferences started playing, keeping standings didn’t make much sense so we decided to rank them based on the KPI formula. We didn’t know that people would care as much as they have.

“It’s as much a social project that allows to get to know each other and it just took over.”

Two Michigan State managers have teamed with Pauga to boost and publicize the manager games. Ian May, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, and Novak, who is a graduate student seeing his masters in sports administration, starting tracking Big Ten manager results and created standings in 2014.They followed that with a Twitter account @ManagerGames_ that helped spread the word to other managers around the country.

“It’s been nice to use our platform to sort of lift the manager brand and sort of promote something that’s unique,” said May, who was one of 40 candidates to try out as manager his freshman year.

“It just got huge and manager games became a thing out of nowhere,” Novak said. ”We organized it and now teams are just playing all the time.”

A 64-team will announced on March 13, the day after the NCAA Tournament’s Selection Sunday. The second annual Manager Games National Championship Tournament is on tap with a GoFundMe page set up to help defray travel costs. Pauga also praises the cooperation and support of the NCAA, which helped last year’s final four happen during the big Final Four.

While Kansas fell a game short of the Final Four in Houston, the Jayhawks’ managers triumphed in the managers’ championship.

“After we lost to Villanova, there was no way for us to get down there, they won’t really be playing a final four managers,” said Chip Kueffer, a senior majoring in special education, is KU’s head manager. “Then Kevin Pauga told us it was happening, my dad drove us down the night before. It started as a joke but it turned out to be something we’ll remember for a long time.”

So, you want to be a basketball manager

Here’s the job description for Division I basketball managers: everything.

Laundry, hydration, towels, carrying bags, charting details of practices and games, filming practices, editing opponents’ game film to help the staff with scouting reports, arriving an hour before practice to make sure all is ready, picking up lunch or laundry for time-slammed coaches, occasionally stepping in to help with drills in practice.

“It’s the little things, the dirty work nobody wants to do, that makes everybody else’s life easier,” said Michigan State manager Andrew Novak.

And rebounding, lots and lots of rebounding.

“We’ve got a lot of players who want to get shots up at all hours and there’s always a manager ready and willing to show up and rebound,” Smart said. “Their attitudes are so good in terms of they always ask, ‘What can I do to help the team?’”

“Managers are part of our staff,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Without managers, coaches and assistants in any program would have a lot more on their plate to get done. Here at Baylor, they do a great job helping the coaches and the players in a variety of ways. They bring a lot of energy.”

While it sounds like indentured servitude, managers at most schools get paid by the hour, with other compensation being lots of free food and enough school-logo apparel to last until they’re 30. Those who spend four years with a program also acquire a great reference for their resume.

“I think the attention from the manager games has raised the profile for managers,” said Pauga, who is an example of someone who has spun a successful career that started with a manager gig. “I think when someone walks into a job interview and says he was a basketball manager, it means more than it did a year ago.”

“It’s fun to get to know those guys as people because as coaches we spend a lot of time with the managers,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said. “What I’ve learned as a coach that a lot of times your managers are the guys who are going to end up being the most successful of anyone on the team.

“As a manager, you have to have a humility and a work ethic. They learn some valuable lessons. They also usually get after it in the class room.”

Smart pointed out that Diego Arguelles, a senior first-year manager, took 21 hours in the fall semester and aced every class.

Joey Pennavaria, a sophomore manager at UT majoring in sports management, has dreams of becoming a sports agent. For now, though, it’s books and basketball.

“I knew this would be a great experience, I played in high school and I wanted to stay around the game,” he said. “I have a love of the game and I’m a big college sports fan. It’s tough managing my time but I love it.”

Game time … when possible

Manager games represent an underground endeavor where the rules are more like guidelines. Games are scheduled at a moment’s notice. Getting in a run against the other group of managers who are in town falls low on the list of priorities, but if their other obligations can be completed, it’s game on.

Time is of the essence. Practices are for the players, not the managers. They try to keep their individual games sharp, but when the manager games are played, it’s mostly one step up from noon pick-up at the YMCA. Most teams borrow offensive sets they see in practice to add structure to the games.

Most teams have practice facilities to accommodate the games, but there are rare opportunities to play in the “real” arena. Imagine the chance to play in Allen Fieldhouse or Pauley Pavilion?

Rules allow for staff members to augment the manager lineup. That means at times there’s a “ringer.” When Maryland and Ohio State faced off, Juan Dixon played with the Terps’ managers and Greg Oden was posting up for the Buckeyes. Keiton Page, one of the best 3-point shooters in Oklahoma State history, fills in when the Cowboys’ managers are short handed.

“I actually guarded him when we played Oklahoma State,” Pennavaria said of Page. “Last year he dropped 30 on us but this year he only had about 15.”

Baylor senior Zachary Amundson is a senior mathematics major who wants to be a basketball coach. His four seasons as a manager for the Bears has allowed him to enhance his knowledge of the game. Amundson thought he wanted the typical college experience but he’s found being a manager and part of the team is like being in a fraternity.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a manager but basically fell in love with the idea when I got a tour of the Ferrell Center when I was a freshman,” he said. “The manager games really took off a couple of years ago. It’s like ‘man, we’re hooping.’ We all work so hard, go to school and there’s a lot of stress. But we care and the managers really want to win when we play.

“It’s all kinda silly but when you get to play a game in Allen Fieldhouse it’s pretty hard to believe. Fran (Fraschilla) has come to our games to watch. It’s just a fun time.”

“I had been playing basketball since I was four, was on the team in high school and I wanted to still be involved with the game,” said Alex McCarty, a junior manager at Central Michigan who is majoring in marketing logistics but has hopes of becoming a coach. “We’re at the bottom of the food chain but the players and the coaches treat us like we’re important.

“I take pride in everything I do, from doing laundry to scouting reports. It really feels like we’re part of a brotherhood.”

Asked if he and his staff are aware of the manager games, Smart chuckled.

“When we’re on the road, the guys come back from their game and start talking about,” he said. “They get a kick out of playing. It’s something to look forward to, a chance to compete. I think it’s pretty neat they get a chance to do that.”

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