By Mara Dresner
Every year, with the turn of the calendar to March, comes a bit of craziness. No, we’re not talking about Purim costumes and masquerades (gone before the flip this year) or even the annual pre-Passover cleaning frenzy. No, for lovers of college hoops, it’s time for March Madness, the NCAA’s annual tournament, now in its 75th year. And two community members are in the thick of the action: ESPN’s Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg.
Growing up in Newton, Mass., Katz said he was always interested in sports, especially in basketball.
“I was one of those kids,” he said. “I grew up during the Celtics and Larry Bird era. They were the dominant sports team at the time.”
He remembers watching Bird play in the NCAA tournament in 1979 for Indiana State against Magic Johnson and Michigan State. “That began the modern-day era NCAA tournament,” said Katz, also setting up the later rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers.
Katz headed to the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science, with a minor in Soviet and East European studies.
“Once I realized I was not good enough to play in college in my senior year in high school, I started working more in sports journalism and broadcasting,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in majoring in it, but I worked in it for my entire college career. I didn’t work in a restaurant or anything like that. My jobs to earn money were in journalism.”
Katz, who is recognized as one of the distinguished alumni of the Daily Cardinal, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, was the national basketball writer for the Fresno Bee, in addition to working at the Albuquerque Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, prior to joining ESPN in 1999.
At the time, he said he was the only college basketball reporter. Since then, the coverage – and his responsibilities – has grown. Katz now does work across all of ESPN’s platforms – radio, television, espn.com and the magazine.
“It’s non-stop,” said Katz, who is a former president of the United States Basketball Writers Association. In January, he debuted a new weekly show on ESPNU, “Katz Korner,” and also hosts “The Experts” weekly during basketball season.
In 2012 he began collaborating with college basketball analyst Greenberg on podcasts. Additionally, last month the pair debuted ESPNU College Basketball Now with Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg
. The show combines content from their podcast and original interviews with key coaches, players and analysts.
Greenberg may be a new kid on the ESPN block, but he’s no stranger to the basketball community.
Greenberg said that he was always around basketball, remembering watching his father play with friends while growing up on Long Island and going to see the Knicks play at Madison Square garden.
His “most vivid” March Madness memory is from 30 years ago, when North Carolina State won the national title at the buzzer, watching “[Coach] Jim Valvano run around looking for someone to hug. He recruited my brother and grew up one town over. To see him get to that point in his career was something really special,” said Greenberg.
Greenberg graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in broadcast journalism in 1978, where he was a four-year letter winner under head coach Al LoBalo. He took a job as an assistant at Columbia in 1978, moving to Pittsburgh two years later where he was part of a coaching staff that made two appearances in the NCAA Tournament. He later worked in Miami, at Long Beach State and South Florida, before joining Virginia Tech, where he served as head coach from 2003 to 2012.
He was inducted into The National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in 2012. He was also presented with the inaugural Al LoBalbo Award by his alma mater in 2009, and was the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coach of the Year in 2008 and 2005.
“I was intense, passionate, there was great ownership in players; I held the players accountable. I had a bigger picture in mind, not where they were now, but where they could be 10 years from now,” said Greenberg of his coaching days.
“I was very passionate. I loved the game. I loved teaching the game. Coaching is all about relationships and trust. Those are the two things you build programs on,” he said, adding, “my family was involved in what I was doing on daily basis,” including his wife, Karen, and daughters Paige and Ella, both graduates of Virginia Tech, and daughter Jacqueline, who’s a senior at Avon High School and will be heading to Villanova next year to play volleyball.
Greenberg is excited about his new opportunities at ESPN. “I get the chance to stay in the game. I get the best seat. I hope to continue to grow in my love of the game and hopefully offer something from my 35 years of coaching basketball.”
It’s obvious that he has a soft spot for college basketball.
“I just the love the passion, the ownership of the fans, the ownership as a coach, the opportunity to change lives, to change people’s station in life, to give young people the opportunity to get somewhere they couldn’t get themselves,” he said. “It’s the most beautiful game played. The ownership and passion are second to none.”
Greenberg said he’s “trying to develop roots” in Connecticut. “People have been great. It’s a great place to live,” he said. “We’re meeting people and developing relationships and immersing ourselves in the community.”
Greenberg, an active member of the American Heart Association, Coaches vs. Cancer, Boys and Girls Club and Great American Teach-in, said he’s been enjoying the back-and-forth with Katz on their show.
“It’s fun. We debate. We kind of challenge each other. We think outside the box,” he said. “We have two different perspectives, him as a journalist, me as a coach.”
That means they have an opinion on everything, such as the recent transitions in the Big East conference “I’m not sure it will ever be what I grew up on. I’m disappointed some of the great rivalries were lost,” said Greenberg. “I think schools have to have a commonality to have a conference, whether that’s geographic or an academic mission.”
Still, while Katz sees UConn one day joining the ACC, he believes for now that the Big East is viable.
“The schools that were left behind, led by UConn, really have no other choice but to form as competitive a league as they can,” said Katz, who lives in West Hartford with his wife, Denise Padilla and their children Lucia, 10, and Salvador, 7, where they are members of Congregation Beth Israel, and where Katz is a board member of thr Mandell JCC.
With March Madness just ahead, the UConn men’s team being barred from play in this year’s post-season is another hot-button topic.
“I’m not a fan of penalizing players who had nothing to do with the infractions. None of the guys on this team were part of the poor academic progress report, said Katz. “I’d rather see a fine-based penalty so you’re hitting the institution rather than penalizing players two years later who had nothing to do with it. It takes so long for these reports to come out, and the players and coaches are long gone.”
Katz had high praise, though, for Coach Kevin Ollie. “He’s wonderful. He took over a difficult situation. He took over from a Hall of Fame coach [Jim Calhoun], and that’s never easy. He took over a team that knew it had nothing more to play for but itself and its school. So much of the sport has turned into what do you in March and UConn knew that it can’t do anything in March and they’ve played as if they had a shot to go to the Final Four pretty much in every game, and that’s a credit to him.”
Greenberg said he was “so impressed” with the job that Ollie has done. He also called what Calhoun accomplished “maybe the greatest turnaround in the history of college athletics. Calhoun created something, in many ways, out of nothing.
He created a culture of winning.”
Both are big fans of UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma. “He’s tremendous, just a terrific coach, and ambassador for women’s basketball and basketball in general,” said Greenberg, who is a former assistant coach for the U.S. basketball team for the Maccabiah Games. “I like how he holds the players accountable. He could coach any level, any gender.”
“The sport had not had the depth of the men. … [He] essentially created a professional women’s basketball factory. When you come to UConn, it’s essential a path going to the WNBA,” said Katz.
So, who are their early picks to go to the Final Four?
“I like Miami; I like Indiana, Gonzaga; and I think Michigan,” said Greenberg. “I really like Miami. I like teams invested in winning. Teams that are competitive, with good chemistry, and Miami defines that.”
For the men, Katz chose Indiana, Miami, Florida and Gonzaga. On the women’s side, he thinks UConn, Notre Dame, Baylor and Duke could make up the Final Four.
Mara Dresner is a freelance writer living in Rocky Hill.