Person of the Week: Lee Fowler

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Lee Fowler, the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee chair

It's the most wonderful time of the year, March, when the entire nation suddenly becomes very interested in the athletic fortunes of tiny liberal arts colleges in Ohio, when water cooler conversation turns to RPI and the question everyone wants to know is "who do you have in your bracket?" As the nation spends the next three weeks watching the NCAA men?s basketball tournament (and betting an estimated $5 billion in office and online pools) our Person of the Week is the man who made it all possible: Lee Fowler.

Fowler leads the nine-member NCAA selection committee that decides who gets invited to the tournament — and who they play. It's not an easy job. There are more than 300 schools trying for one of the 65 spots in the tournament, and the stakes are high: Not only do schools take in hundreds of thousands of dollars for participating (courtesy CBS, which will pay $6.5 billion over the next 11 years for broadcast rights), but they also receive invaluable exposure on national television. Gonzaga, a small Jesuit college in Spokane, Wash., saw enrollment soar after its team advanced deep into the tournament in each of the past three years.

Gonzaga is also Exhibit A for those who charge that the committee favors college basketball's elite programs like Duke, Kansas and Arizona over deserving smaller schools. They point to schools like Ball State, which earlier this year beat Kansas but didn't make the tournament, or Butler, a team that won 25 games while losing just five and was not invited. Gonzaga, meanwhile, was rated the number 6 team in the country by the sportwriters, but Fowler's committee said the Bulldogs were at best number 21. They ranked them 6th in their region, which set off a storm of complaints that the NCAA was once again trying to ensure the big-gun programs succeed.

The smaller schools argue that the teams' abilities should determine their berth — not the size of their audience or the scope of their alumni network. And shouldn't the lesser-known squads be given the same chance to boost their schools' profiles — and bottom lines? It's a self-perpetuating cycle, many argue: schools with teams that do well in the tournament stand to make millions from exposure and merchandising alone, and that money means better facilities, better coaches and better players.

Fowler, who must have felt a twinge of satisfaction last night when Gonzaga lost to a lightly regarded squad from the U. of Wyoming, says there is nothing political about making up the brackets. The way he tells it, the month before releasing their picks, committee members hole up in a hotel like a sequestered jury and spend their days crunching numbers and watching tape. Any regional or conference loyalties are pushed aside, he insists, while the grueling process is underway.

In his day job, Fowler is the director of athletics at North Carolina State. He played basketball as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, and has had several college coaching positions. His committee is never going to be able to satisfy everyone, but the proof is in the tournament. After one day of upsets and dramatic finishes, it looks like they have delivered.