Updated: March 17, 2014 at 8:26 pm
A long time ago, I was sitting at my newsroom desk in a small city in Texas, pondering my NCAA Tournament bracket. A few feet away, our newspaper's lifestyle editor savored an unfiltered cigarette while pondering her bracket.
I had chosen the logical approach, closely examining each game, consulting with fellow college-basketball fanatics. This was a time-gobbling approach.
Merle, the woman who smoked like a chimney, employed a different strategy.
She chose the teams according to mascots.
"Hoyas," I heard Merle say, barely able to see her through the smoke. "What the hell is a Hoya?"
Merle chose the Hoyas of Georgetown to win the tournament. Merle, who spent six minutes picking her bracket, watched her Hoyas maul their way to the title. She won the office pool along with $400 and taught me a lesson I will carry to my final days.
Anyone - anyone! - can claim victory in March Madness bracket competition.
Quicken Loans has announced a billion-dollar reward for a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket and 20 $100,000 payouts to the top 20 imperfect brackets. You might be reading these words and saying to yourself, "I know absolutely nothing about college basketball. How can I possibly hope to earn a huge pile of cash?"
Your ignorance could be the key to your victory. Merle knew more about cigarettes than she did about college basketball.
Here is my strong advice as you prepare selections for office bracket competition:
Decline to listen to experts.
I have several friends who watch college basketball almost every night during the winter. They know who plays backup point for the Idaho Vandals. And, even as we speak, these college basketball freaks are convinced they have crafted the perfect bracket.
But not one of my college basketball freaks/friends told me last year No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast would defeat Georgetown and San Diego State to advance to the Sweet 16. But I bet some 8-year-old somewhere did pick Gulf Coast to win those games.
The tournament is all about surprise, all about that No. 15 seed roaring to improbable victories. That's why the tournament has seized the hearts of so many Americans. That's why the experts are so often wrong.
I have not escaped the humiliation of being the expert who was not so expert.
For 13 winters, my professional life revolved around college basketball. I covered the late, great Big East Conference for a New York newspaper, obsessed about the national scene, voted in the AP Top-25 poll.
In 1989, a stockbroker friend from New York City called to seek advice for his bracket. He had every game figured out, he told me, except one. In his bracket, he had Duke meeting Georgetown for the right to travel to the Final Four, and he was asking me, college basketball expert, which team he should pick.
I did not hesitate. On the afternoon of our phone conversation, I had seen Georgetown roar to victory in the Big East Tournament final. Alonzo Mourning, then a freshman, had swatted shots and charmed refs and threatened to tear down rims. Georgetown would crush Duke, I assured my friend.
Was I sure? He really liked Duke.
Oh, yes, I was sure. He picked Georgetown solely because I told him to pick Georgetown.
Georgetown, No. 1 seed, and Duke, No. 2 seed met as expected in the national quarterfinals. Christian Laettner, also a freshman, shredded Mourning. Duke won easily.
I did not, at first, feel much guilt about my faulty advice. A few weeks later, a mutual friend informed me of the pile of money that had been involved. How big a pile? I was figuring five or six thousand, tops.
No, I was told.
My stockbroker friend had placed a grand into his winner-takes-all office pool. And this was an Olympic-sized pool.
If I had told my stockbroker friend to pick Duke, he would have been swimming as the lone winner in a pool filled with tens of thousands of tax-free dollars.
So, since 1989 I have declined to offer NCAA Tournament advice. And for some reason, my stockbroker friend never again called to ask for bracket help.