Digger Phelps has a million of'em. … No, really.
One-liners? A million of 'em. Stories about the glory days when he coached Notre Dame? A million of them. Four-by-six cards with notes, color-coded with highlighters? Hundreds of them, at least.
"I don't own a computer," he said, pulling out a stack of cards. "I don't email. Send me a text? I'll call you back."
Phelps, 71, shows a card and explains that there are three games represented on it. Duke vs. Virginia, in pink, and Virginia vs. Miami in light blue, and in the middle in orange is another game.
Now he has an array of cards scattered in front of him, with matching, color-coded folders to represent each regional.
It's day one at ESPN, and it's Digger Phelps' day. It's Jay Bilas' day, and Bruce Pearl's and Seth Greenberg's day. Content Conference Room A on ESPN's sprawling campus, known on this day as "The War Room," is packed with researchers, producers and folks updating the website, and it's buzzing with basketball banter as the NCAA Tournament begins.
"It's just competition," Bilas says as he glances at his laptop. He uses one. "There isn't any moralizing."
Time was, ESPN had the early rounds of the tournament and helped make these first two days a national holiday, and then CBS locked up broadcast rights for the games. But ESPN's coverage is now gavel-to-gavel, and it crosses media platforms, keeping its roster of analysts hustling from one building, one studio, to another. Still a tournament epicenter, ESPN received 8.15 million brackets for its online tournament challenge, up 26 percent from last year.
Greenberg, 56, who has coached South Florida and, most recently, Virginia Tech until last year, is watching the day unfold, preparing his notes.
"It's the best day," he says. "It's better than the championship game. You see players on this big stage who haven't been on this stage before, and that's intriguing to me."
Pearl, 52, two years removed from coaching Tennessee, was proclaimed "rookie of the year" by Phelps, who left coaching for TV for good in 1991.
"I like teaching," Pearl says. "I liked teaching the game to players, and if I can teach the game to fans, that's good, too. … They tell me not to talk too fast, and not so loud."
There are 12 screens on the wall in Content Conference Room A, but Bilas is focusing on Bucknell vs. Butler. He rests his chin on his hands and focuses. He needs to take it one game at a time.
"Fourteen points at halftime," he said. "… Our game is in trouble."
Bilas, 49, an ex-Duke player, is outspoken about the college game, the NCAA, the off-the-court issues. He is still annoyed over UConn's ineligibility in the tournament, for instance. The aesthetics of the game concern him as he watches the action. Not enough fouls are called, allowing too many liberties on defense.
"People say these players aren't fundamentally sound," he says. "That's nonsense. Everything else is better, but basketball players aren't? The 18-year-old coming out of high school today is so far ahead of 10 years ago."
Players are younger, and early departures for the NBA take away the best players. But the ability to hand-check without a foul matters, too. "They say it's incidental contact," Bilas said. "Well, then stop doing it. The defender does it because it helps him."
Butler goes on to win. Phelps has a different take. "Too many threes," he said. "Look at this." The stat sheet shows two teams 0-for-11 from that range. "Move the arc back to 23 feet. You'll have more penetration to the basket, then kick it out and shoot a 14-footer."
Greenberg marvels, meanwhile, at Michigan State coach Tom Izzo's preparation for the tournament and ponders what makes a successful tournament coach.
"He doesn't sweat it in November and December," Greenberg says. "It's nice to have a team you know is going to be there. He keeps them in their routine. People who try to re-invent themselves in the tournament don't have success."