College Basketball

ACC’s new basketball official values the league’s rivalries

ACC basketball is “Red Sox-Yankees all the time,” Senior Associate Commissioner for Men’s Basketball Operations Paul Brazeau said. Above, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, left, and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski greet each other before the Feb. 17 game at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.
ACC basketball is “Red Sox-Yankees all the time,” Senior Associate Commissioner for Men’s Basketball Operations Paul Brazeau said. Above, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, left, and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski greet each other before the Feb. 17 game at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Paul Brazeau gets it. He grew up in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts and spent virtually his entire professional life in the Northeast. But like many folks who relocate to North Carolina, he didn’t take long to appreciate what the ACC is all about.

“It’s Red Sox-Yankees all the time,” Brazeau says admiringly. This may not be news to those who’ve been here for awhile, but in the ACC’s expanded configuration it’s still comforting that the essence of what first captivated us remains visible to fresh eyes. The intensity “goes from sport to sport to sport, where baseball, Red Sox-Yankees, is a tremendous rivalry, and then you take a break,” says the man hired 15 months ago as the ACC’s Senior Associate Commissioner for Men’s Basketball Operations. “The rivalries, the passionate fan bases, make this whole thing special. And the teams are really good.”

Brazeau is a basketball lifer. He didn’t play the game as an undergraduate at Boston College, but immediately went into coaching as a graduate assistant at his alma mater. Now 56, he served as an assistant coach at BC and Ohio State, including seven years under Hall of Famer Gary Williams. (Brazeau was unfazed by his boss’ chronic verbal blasts at bench personnel. “He always treated us in a good way, so when he did yell at you he’d already built up the equity.”)

From 1993 to 2000 Brazeau was head coach at Hartford, posting a 100-122 record. “I wanted to win more, I wanted to keep coaching like everybody else,” he recalls. “I wanted to coach at Duke, I wanted to coach at BC some day.”

Once ousted, he never coached again. Instead came a 10-year stint as the NBA’s vice president for basketball operations, followed by brief stays in positions similar to his ACC role in the old Big East and American Athletic Association.

Game interrupted

Brazeau’s ACC job requires tending basketball’s interests, specifically by managing the postseason tournament, arranging television and regular-season scheduling, and working with coaches and the league supervisor of basketball officials. In essence, he says, it’s his responsibility to “keep polishing the diamond.”

Yet, for all his responsibilities to keep things “on the right track,” or perhaps because of them, Brazeau is willing to indulge a few fantasies that would warm the heart of any traditionalist.

Despite his immersion in the nuances of accommodating TV’s needs, and his recognition of their importance to league interests, Brazeau recalls fondly days when the game flowed with minimal disruption from mandated commercial breaks. If teams were capable of running, and a sustained pace fit both coaches’ predilections, action was sustained for long periods without interruption, much like the soccer games we just witnessed in the Women’s World Cup.

In fact, Brazeau concedes a noteworthy historical factor in slowing the college game – one that well-paid announcers with ambitious reform agendas somehow fail to mention – is the proliferation of timeouts to accommodate television. The commercials are getting longer too, even as more power conference games are included on someone’s TV schedule.

The barely acknowledged impact of those artificial breaks in the action, and other changes over the years, leave Brazeau not much impressed with the shortened shot clock and other tweaks recently implemented to speed up men’s basketball.

Not that his pet alternative stands a chance of gaining traction. Still, a fellow can dream.

“I’d love for us to play under the old timeout rules,” he says. “Fantasy. Can’t happen. It is what it is. Here we are. I liked the old (rules) where the coaches called the timeouts. No media timeouts. I don’t dwell on it because it’s not going to happen. I just want to see what would the game be like.”

Reality intrudes

Perhaps some brave TV producer will explore the possibility, much as Don Ohlmeyer, a 16-time Emmy Award producer, did with a Jets-Dolphins game in 1980. NBC’s Ohlmeyer decided to broadcast the season-ending NFL clash without announcers. The change was refreshing, if short-lived.

Perhaps a modern experimenter could offer a college basketball telecast with commercials limited to the beginning and end of each half, with coaches using their allotted stoppages as they see fit.

But, probably not. “Some of your ideas are framed by reality,” Brazeau cautions. “You don’t go too far off the farm.”

Then his imagination resumes wandering.

When Brazeau was with the American Athletic Conference during its inaugural 2013-14 season, teams in the 10-member league played each other twice, home and away. (East Carolina joined in 2014-15, and Navy became the 12th member in late May of 2015.) Brazeau appreciated the new league’s round-robin arrangement, once an ACC staple and among the older conference’s chief charms until it expanded in the mid-2000s.

Certainly the round robin makes it easier to craft a conference schedule. Reciprocal visits reduce complaints of unfairness by teams venturing to the league’s toughest venues without enjoying a return engagement. For financial as well as competitive reasons everyone also wants to host the top teams; last season high-profile Duke and North Carolina each drew full houses for six of their nine ACC road games.

Sharing the pain

Brazeau must contend with many other gripes beyond scheduling symmetry. For instance, some of the same coaches who parlayed prime-time exposure into national prominence now complain about playing all those 9 p.m. games. Others object to facing an opponent who got what amounts to a bye on a day when the remainder of the ACC’s teams played, an unavoidable advantage for someone in a league with an odd number of members.

“It’s all the same – everybody’s got an easier schedule than you do, all 15,” Brazeau says good-naturedly. “I joke with our coaches, everybody’s going to be unhappy with the schedule. We’re just trying to spread the unhappiness around.”

In his ideal formulation, each ACC program would face more league opponents than it does now. “It would be great,” Brazeau says. Unfortunately, even if coaches were willing to undertake that heightened challenge, a dubious proposition, he notes there’s the matter of “this other tournament that we play in March.”

By now it’s old news that qualifying for the NCAAs not only defines the success of any season, but shapes the way a coach approaches the optional portion of his regular-season schedule. Under present circumstances, with job security often an issue, Brazeau recognizes that loading up on league games is an unwise risk.

Brazeau does have realistic proposals too. He’s a member of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Oversight Committee that recently recommended loosening rules under which players can test their pro prospects without foreclosing the opportunity of returning to college. And there’s one playing rule he would like the NCAA to adopt from the pros: allow an offensive team to advance the ball to the frontcourt on a timeout called in the final two minutes of a game.

That would minimize the need for mad dashes up the floor with a minimal chance of success, or for three-quarter-court passes, a long-shot unless it’s a Grant Hill firing the ball to a Christian Laettner. The alternative “gives us a good offensive play, a realistic offensive play,” Brazeau says. Put it on the list – basketball rulemakers have proven there’s always room for tinkering.

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