With no Madness to distract us, John Feinstein’s ‘The Back Roads to March’ is a timely read

Obviously, it’s a lot harder to have one’s mind on college basketball when there is no college basketball being played. So one could say March 2020 was a tough time to release a book on the subject.

But John Feinstein’s eighth book about the college game — “The Back Roads to March” — has already gone to a second printing, and with good reason. For those who love the game, it offers a compelling examination of what it is like to play at the mid-major (and low-major, for that matter) level of NCAA Division I.

Feinstein recently spoke with me about what made him want to write the book, the people he profiled and what the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament meant to all involved:

Sporting News: Since you’d done “The Last Amateurs,” your book about a year in the Patriot League, what made you decide to take a larger step into the pool of programs at the mid-major level?

John Feinstein: We’ll, I’ve described this book to some people as “The Last Amateurs” on steroids. And obviously I had a great time doing that book. I loved every second of it. I loved the kids I dealt with. The coaches were great. My editor, my agent and Bob Woodward, who’s been a mentor for 40 years, all tried to talk me out of doing the book.

I remember Bob saying, “Why don’t you just do a magazine piece?” Nah, I think there’s a book here. I’ve always believed you don’t have to be rich and famous to have a story to tell. And the book ended up getting on the bestseller list.

I’ve got to be honest with you: My least favorite week of the NCAA Tournament is the Final Four … I love the one-bid conference tournaments. I love the first weekend of the NCAAs, when all the upsets happen. And this was a chance for me to go back to that for an entire season. I knew I would enjoy it, and I knew there were stories there. Somebody described this book as a love letter to college basketball, and I think that’s pretty accurate.

SN: One of the things that is striking is the discussion of your love for the Palestra. Is that your favorite place to watch a basketball game?

Feinstein: Without question. A lot of my love for basketball goes back to intimacy, and the Palestra may be the most intimate arena that has ever hosted big-time basketball.

It’s weird. I grew up in New York, I’ve lived my adult life in Washington. And yet, for whatever reason, the city I identify most with as a fan is Philadelphia. And a lot of it is the Big 5, which is unique, and it’s ticked me off for years that we don’t have anything like it in Washington. I still wish they’d play all the Big 5 games there, and I argue with Jay Wright about it all the time.

It’s unique also in the sense that it has that museum as you walk around that concourse. I never once walked around that concourse without finding something I hadn’t noticed before. I always feel right at home there. I said this in the book: My wife often says if I ever disappear she’ll send the cops to look for me in the Palestra, and that’s probably where I’ll be.

SN: Among the people you write about is Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. Can you explain why he is so wonderfully successful at Harvard, when it didn’t really take off at either Seton Hall or Michigan?

Feinstein: I think it has a lot to do with the fact that being who he is, he’s very comfortable recruiting and coaching smart kids. I don’t think he was ever really comfortable in that big-time recruiting arena. He understood that’s what you do — as a Duke assistant and then at Seton Hall and Michigan — you have to go after big-time kids. You have to deal with AAU coaches and all of those things. But I don’t think he was ever entirely comfortable with it.

I think getting fired at Michigan allowed him to sit back and look at himself and say, ‘Who do you want to be when you grow up?’ And I don’t think he wanted to be that guy, successful or not. And Harvard comes along.

I think the Seth Towns recruiting story kind of sums it up. Tommy will look at you and say, “I’m not putting anyone else down, but Harvard is Harvard.” Well, he is putting everyone else down. When he went into Seth’s home — he’s going to play at Ohio State now (as a graduate transfer) and was being recruited by most of the big-time schools at the time — but Tommy knew he could be a very successful student at Harvard. And he looks at Seth and the mother and goes, “All due respect, but you’re out of your f—ing mind if you don’t come to Harvard.”

SN: I remember well when you were writing “A March to Madness,” you were there in the late ‘90s when Jeff Jones was going through the divorce that became so controversial among the Virginia fan base. What differences did you perceive in his situation now that he’s at Old Dominion?

Feinstein: I dealt with Jeff a lot when he was here in D.C. at American, because he took the program to the NCAAs for the first two times ever, and I’ve known him since he played at Virginia, so we go way back. And you throw in the idea of a coach dealing with a second cancer scare. And it’s kind of a natural thing for me to go and write about in this book.

Jeff’s always been more open with me than he generally is with the media because we go so far back. I still remember, the day they won the Patriot League Tournament at American for the first time ever, they’re cutting the nets down and Jeff is sitting on the bench crying into a towel because it meant so much to him. And I sat down next to him and he looked up from the towel and said, “This is the best moment I’ve ever had in basketball.” And I was about to follow up and one of their assistant athletic directors said, “John, can you give Jeff some space?” And Jeff turned to the guy and said, “He’s fine. You give me some space.”

At Old Dominion, he had not been to the tournament even though they’d won 20 games like every year, so it was kind of cool to see them have the season they had. And if you go back and look at the scores in the conference tournament, I think they won three games by a total of seven points total to get in.

SN: Is there a particular player or coach you feel the worst for as a result of the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament?

Feinstein: The coach who comes to mind first is a guy who wasn’t in the tournament yet, and probably had an uphill climb to get in: John Gallagher from Hartford. He’s never been in the tournament. Hartford’s never been in the tournament. And they had upset Stony Brook in the America East semis on the road and they were going to go play at Vermont.

John was convinced they could beat Vermont. They’d done pretty well against Vermont, relatively speaking, compared to the rest of the league. He thought they were going to win. He had five senior starters last year and they lost in the conference tournament semis; they came from 26 down to take the lead in the last 10 seconds and ended up losing in double overtime on a couple of questionable block-charge calls. They both could have gone either way and both went UMBC’s way.

He had an AD who was giving him a hard time, he was in a kind of power struggle with her, and most people thought he was in trouble, whole team graduated. Well, John won the struggle from the AD; she’s gone. Brought in a bunch of new players and was going to play in the conference championship game. I feel bad for him and his kids that they didn’t get that opportunity.

Joe Mihalich, certainly, at Hofstra. And Hofstra in general. I don’t think they’d been in the tournament since 2001. They certainly are a team I feel badly for.

And the kid from Utah State, Sam Merrill. Went and did a Mormon mission, came back, and this was going to be their chance. And I saw their championship game. Utah State was one of those teams that might not have gotten in as an at-large if they hadn’t beaten San Diego State. And they won the game, they earned their way in without any doubt, and now they don’t get to play.

Krzyzewski said it very well. He said, “Look, I’m OK. I’ve been in 35 of these. I have a lot of big-time players on my team. I feel sorry for the coaches and players from the one-bid leagues.”

SN: Last question, since they’re a factor in the book: What are your thoughts on Iona hiring Rick Pitino?

Feinstein: My first thought was when the president said Rick Pitino’s values are in line with Iona’s, maybe there’s something about Iona we don’t know. Look, I don’t think any college president should be hiring Rick Pitino based on his past, both as a coach and as a person. But I also know he’s a great coach, and I know he’ll be on ESPN 15 times and Vitale will be on there screaming about how he’s one of the great people who ever walked the face of the Earth.

But Tim Cluess, who I wrote about in the book, had gotten them to the tournament six times in nine years. And now people are going to be acting like Iona never played basketball before Rick got there. The only reason they were down this year is because Cluess couldn’t coach because of his health.

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