This year's Final Four will be bittersweet for UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey, who is completing her fifth and final year as a member of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee.
A basketball junkie since she was a kid growing up in Welch, Okla., where her father was her high school coach, Hickey is only the second female to serve on one of the most prestigious committees in college sports.
"First of all, I wasn't appointed because of my gender," Hickey said last week before leaving town to watch second- and third-round games in Nashville, Tenn. "But I think to say that I wasn't proud to represent my gender on that committee would be wrong."
The 10-member panel, composed of athletic directors and conference commissioners, oversees all operations of the Division I men's basketball tournament, including the selection and seeding of teams.
"It's been a great experience," Hickey said. "It's been unbelievable. I've been totally blessed. This week, all week long when I got up every morning, I just said a prayer of thanks because for me to be in the right spot at the right time, to get an opportunity to be on the committee, it's pretty unbelievable that it happened.
"I've had a chance to meet some very good people. There's a lot of work to it, but it is a lot of fun. It'll be hard to say goodbye."
Hickey, UTSA's athletic director since 1999, is the only female athletic director at a Division I school in Texas who oversees both men's and women's sports.
A former women's basketball coach at Kansas State and Texas A&M, Hickey has become an authority on the men's game since her appointment to the men's basketball committee in 2007.
Always meticulously organized and prepared, Hickey quickly earned the respect of her peers on the committee with her knowledge of even the smallest details of teams throughout the country.
Committee puts in long hours of work
Most fans would be surprised with how much work and analysis goes into seeding and selecting teams for the 68-team men's tournament, which captures the imagination of the country annually and is known simply as "March Madness."
"A lot of people think we just wait until that week to start working, and we sit in a room and we're just a bunch of good ol' boys saying, 'Well, I want so-and-so to play this team.' But it's not anything like that."
The selection committee convened in Indianapolis on Tuesday, March 6, and worked day and night to complete the bracket by the time CBS went on the air with its Selection Sunday show at 6 p.m. on March 11.
"We got done at about 5:25 this year, because we were waiting for the Ohio State-Michigan State game to finish," Hickey said. "We had two brackets done, one if Ohio State won and one if Michigan State won. This is the closest we've hit the TV deadline since I've been on the committee. Last year we were about two hours ahead."
Sequestered in a hotel, the committee members waded through notebooks filled with information on teams from coast to coast, watched games on big-screen TVs and pored over information on their laptops before presenting the bracket to CBS.
The Selection Show culminated months of work by the committee members, who put in hours and hours of preparation long before they met in Indianapolis. From watching games on TV regularly starting in early November to seeing teams in person, they did their homework.
Hickey was primarily responsible for monitoring four conferences this season, including the always-tough ACC, and three others were on her secondary list.
Committee members get paid per diem only
"As soon as I'd get home at night, I'd turn on the TV and start watching games," Hickey said. "There were nights when there were about 10 games I needed to see. I'd watch some of them, but you can't watch all of them.
"Then I tried to see as many games as I could in person. So I would go to to Austin and I would go to A&M, trying to see teams as they're coming through. I'd travel with our men's team and it was great because we were in the preseason NIT. I got to see Colorado State, and Colorado State was a factor in the tournament this year. That really helped me."
Hickey hesitated before adding: "It's like a second job."
And how does the NCAA compensate the committee members for all their hours of hard work?
"You get a per diem," Hickey said.
But Hickey said committee members gladly serve because they are committed to the future of men's college basketball.
"The responsibility that this committee has is unbelievably important, because the men's basketball tournament is what funds the entire NCAA," she said. "To be with a group of people that have the opportunity to be right in the middle of determining policy and procedures, and really, trying to be the gatekeepers of the game, from everything from the CBS contract on, was an unbelievable experience."
Being a committee member has its privileges
There are perks to the job, however, that Hickey will miss after she attends her last Final Four as a committee member in two weeks. This year's Final Four is scheduled March 31-April 2 in New Orleans.
"You get to be right on the floor," she said. "The most fun is sitting in on the practices. You get to meet the coaches. You get to see the kids.
"When we got done Sunday night and I looked around the committee room, I thought, 'This is the last time I'll be on the inside of this, to hear the conversations.' But most importantly, to be with those people. We become very close and we share a lot. You kind of lose those relationships."
Hickey still marvels at the allure of March Madness and the hold it has on America's sports fans.
"I think it's a combination of things," Hickey said. "First of all, everybody in their particular locality or area has a favorite team. And every favorite team is eligible for the tournament. UTSA is eligible for the tournament. The University of Texas is eligible for the tournament.
"The greatest thing about the tournament is that you don't want it to be perfect. If you have a perfect tournament, nobody would pay attention to it. The idea that you can be a eight, nine seed and make it to the Final Four keeps people interested."
After returning from Nashville on Monday, Hickey will be in town just long enough to pack again and head for this week's Midwest Regional in St. Louis.
Hickey chuckled when she mentioned another perk she'll miss at next year's tournament.
"Getting in the black SUVs and driving with the police escorts to the game and when you walk on the floor for the Final Four and you sit down," she said. "Three of the past Final Fours, I've gotten to sit next to the bench for that last game.
"That is so cool, to be down on the floor and wave at people in the crowd. That's where the perk stuff comes in."