Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

NCAA's underdogs embody the leaner American workplace

They're not supposed to have done this much.

The men's basketball teams from Cornell University, Butler University, the University of Northern Iowa and St. Mary's College in California are the surprising small-school headliners of one of the most unpredictable NCAA tournaments ever. The second weekend of games starts tonight. There are only 16 teams left with a shot at the national title, and these four are among them.

America's teams, they're often called, or Cinderellas wearing glass slippers, or overachieving underdogs within so much March Madness.

But all those sports entertainment cliches miss the more interesting, more instructive point: These teams are doing more with less.

That feels especially important right now.

Here in March 2010, as the country pulls out of the Great Recession and begins what is going to be a long, slow slog of an economic recovery, individual net worth is down, median household income is down, home values are down. Food stamps are up. Schools are closing, libraries are closing, and the image of the moment could be cleared-out cubicles inside workplaces wracked by layoffs.

Last year, though, as the national unemployment rate surged, so did employee productivity. It didn't dip. It jumped.

More with less.

"What's going on in business today, the key word is 'lean,' " said Bob Forsythe, the dean of the business school at the University of South Florida. "Companies are working smarter and harder."

In the first round of the NCAAs, Murray State beat Vanderbilt, Ohio University beat Georgetown, and Old Dominion beat Notre Dame. In the second round, St. Mary's beat Villanova, Cornell beat Wisconsin, and Northern Iowa beat the nation's top-rated team from the University of Kansas. Unexpected results, every one of them.

Last year, 14 of the top 16 seeds made it this far. Two years ago, the four teams in the Final Four were the four top seeds. This year's been different.

"Everyone wants to make it seem like it's a big gap," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Sunday when he was asked about the difference between the teams from the bigger schools and their opponents from the smaller schools.

"It's not a big gap," Boeheim said.

But he's wrong. The gap isn't big. The gap is enormous.

Statistics from the Department of Education say so.

Northern Iowa's annual men's basketball budget is $1.5 million. Kansas: $9.4 million.

St. Mary's annual men's basketball budget is $1.6 million. Villanova: $5 million.

And Cornell? Cornell's annual men's basketball budget is $822,000. Wisconsin: $6 million. The difference between a chartered bus and a chartered jet.

Bigger, in this tournament, hasn't always been better.

"During expansion, a certain largesse sets in," University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said Wednesday from Orlando. "In a recession, businesses are forced to reassess processes to try to find more efficient ways to do business."

Added Forsythe, the USF dean: "When you're big and successful, it's almost inevitable that waste comes into the process.

"You get sloppy," he said.

The basketball teams from the bigger schools have on their rosters most of the future NBA players. Many of the teams with the very best talent, though, have turned into way stations for players who pause on campus for just one year before going to the pros. That means those teams almost always have the superior talent but often lack the experience or the teamwork that comes only from time spent together.

Northern Iowa has had the same starting five for the last two years. Same thing with Butler. Cornell has eight seniors, and 13 of the team's players live in the same off-campus house in Ithaca, N.Y. The Big Red became the first Ivy League team since 1998 to win an NCAA tournament game. Then it won another.

Cornell plays Kentucky on Thursday night. Cornell's best players have been on campus for the last four years. Kentucky's best players were in high school last year and will almost certainly be in the NBA next year.

Here's what Paula Pautauros, the chief operating officer of National Title Network in St. Petersburg, said Wednesday on the phone: "I really think it has to do with the caliber of the people working for us."

Her company, with only 73 employees, has not just survived but thrived at a time when many companies like hers, and bigger than hers, have done neither.

"We are looking for people who are wanting to make this a career and not a pit stop," she said. "We are investing in them. We want them to invest in us."

And here's what Cornell coach Steve Donahue said last week after his team beat Wisconsin: "You're looking at kids that have played 120 games together."

The message of Cornell, and the message of the rest of this tournament's "America's teams," is this: long view over quick fix, well-drilled over well-heeled, and sometimes smarter beats bigger.

Michael Kruse can be reached at or (727) 893-8751.

NCAA's underdogs embody the leaner American workplace 03/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 9:30pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Lightning's Steven Stamkos looks close to top form in first game since November

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was curious how he would feel — and perform — in Friday's exhibition against Nashville, his first game since mid-November knee surgery.

    The Lightning’s Alex Killorn, left, makes his preseason debut and has an assist in a 3-1 win against the Predators at Amalie Arena.
  2. Steven Souza Jr. vindicating big trade for Rays

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — There was a time when the three-team, 11-player transaction the Rays orchestrated to get Steven Souza Jr. from the Nationals looked liked a bad deal.

    The Rays’ Steven Souza Jr. has 30 home runs this season while improving his defense and baserunning but wants to improve on his .236 batting average.
  3. Fennelly: Lightning's Manon Rheaume made history 25 years ago Saturday

    Lightning Strikes

    The name is part of Lightning history, hockey history, sports history.

    Lightning goalie Manon Rheaume became the first woman to play in an NHL game 25 years ago today.
  4. Investigators reviewing HHS chief's private charter flights


    WASHINGTON — Federal investigators are examining Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price's recent use of costly charter flights on the taxpayers' dime for official business.

  5. FSU gives president John Thrasher a pay bump as its academic standing rises


    TALLAHASSEE — With Florida State University moving closer to becoming a top-25 public university, the school's trustees on Friday bumped up President John Thrasher's salary by 7 percent and awarded him a $200,000 bonus.

    Florida State University President John Thrasher, center, is surrounded by lawmakers in 2016 as he visits the Florida Senate. Thrasher on Friday received a pay increase to go with the university's increased academic standing, including in the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking of public universities. FSU ranks 33rd this year, and is aiming for a top-25 spot. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]