Luke DeCock

For ACC executive, every NCAA tournament game is worth the trip

Paul Brazeau, senior associate commissioner for men's basketball for the ACC, left, talks with ACC Commissioner John Swofford, during practice day before the 2016 New York Life ACC Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Monday, March 7, 2016.
Paul Brazeau, senior associate commissioner for men's basketball for the ACC, left, talks with ACC Commissioner John Swofford, during practice day before the 2016 New York Life ACC Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Monday, March 7, 2016. ehyman@newsobserver.com

On Saturday, Paul Brazeau got a decent night's sleep for the first time in days. After bouncing around five different states over the first two weeks of the NCAA tournament, the ACC senior associate commissioner finally found an itinerary he couldn't wrangle into submission. Florida State would have to try to make the Final Four without him in Los Angeles.

Brazeau had missed another ACC game – Duke vs. Rhode Island in the second round – when his connection from Nashville to Pittsburgh got mangled, but there was no way to get from Omaha to Los Angeles and back to Omaha in time for Duke's game Sunday night.

So Brazeau rested. And did he ever need it. The ACC's basketball czar has been playing hurt since he fell on a snowy Brooklyn street during the ACC tournament, fracturing his left elbow and tearing his left rotator cuff. He missed Thursday's afternoon session to have surgery on his arm; he was back at Barclays Center for the night games, arm in a sling.

“He's lucky he didn't hit his head,” said Bryan Kersey, the ACC's director of basketball officiating. “I don't know how he didn't hit his head. It was a nasty fall. I fell right behind him and I was just worried my pants were ripped.”

There's no time to heal. This is the busiest time of the year for Brazeau, a former head coach at Hartford and NBA administrator who oversees all aspects of the sport for the conference, from officiating to scheduling to logistics. He's the first point of contact for coaches and athletic directors on all basketball matters.

When Debbie Yow tweets that she has contacted the ACC office to complain about officiating in N.C. State games and “we believe our concerns were heard,” it's Brazeau on the other end of the phone. When Mike Krzyzewski stopped on his way off the floor after a home loss to Syracuse two years ago to plead his case to an ACC administrator seated on press row – the “literally amazing” game – that was Brazeau, who was waiting for the telecast to catch up on his iPad and told Krzyzewski he'd take a look at play in question.

And that's the best part of this time of year for Brazeau: He spends the 11 other months wrangling and placating ACC coaches and athletic directors, being careful to treat all 15 teams equally. In March, he gets to root for them, unabashedly. Every game an ACC team wins is good for the conference, financially and otherwise, and by extension good for Brazeau.

“The importance of regular season games never leaves our minds,” Brazeau said. “Every game is a win and a loss, for every coach, every player. But you get here, and there's some joy to it. You can be on their side, instead of both sides.”

Brazeau also serves on the NCAA's men's basketball oversight group, which doesn't get the attention that the basketball committee does for selecting teams and running the tournament but includes coaches, athletic directors, players and administrators and has a huge behind-the-scenes impact on the general direction of the sport, everything from tournament selection criteria to rule changes.

“I'm not sure we could have a better leader in that regard,” said Duke athletic director Kevin White, a member of the basketball committee. “That's what we want to represent the ACC. I don't know anyone else who could bring what he brings to it.”

His presence at NCAA tournament games is important to the conference and its coaches, so when the tournament starts, he's on the move. From Dayton to Pittsburgh to Nashville (and not back to Pittsburgh) to Charlotte to Los Angeles to Omaha, Brazeau has been on a steady run of redeyes and 6 a.m. flights, one after another after another.

In the process, he crosses paths with his counterparts from other conferences doing the same thing, like salesmen all chasing the same customer. The SEC's Dan Leibovitz made it from Nashville to Pittsburgh by flying a different airline; after the Villanova-Alabama game, Leibovitz and the Big East's Stu Jackson vacated their seats for Brazeau, who had gone straight to Charlotte instead.

All told, Sunday night's Duke-Kansas game will be the ninth of the tournament Brazeau has seen in person, seeing six of the ACC's nine teams and all that advanced past the first round. Saturday, he watched Florida State take on Michigan on television in Omaha, having told Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton that since he saw the Seminoles' first-round game but not their second-round game, this would be a good omen for them. (It was not.)

And then, Monday: Home. For a few days, at least. Then he's back on the road to the Final Four, whether an ACC team is there or not. It'll be a better week for Brazeau if there is.

The NCAA Tournament is upon us, but the madness of March goes beyond the court. The amount of money the TV industry, its advertisers and fans spend on the tournament are pretty crazy too.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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