Beware the Underdogs of March

March 20, 2014 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Spring is in the air, and with it, NCAA March Madness. This 64-team tourney gives us fast-paced drama, incredible athleticism, fierce competition, and more reasons to skip work than the Internet has bloggers. But there’s something else that drives our passion for this annual bracket bowl: the underdog factor.


Before we talk underdogs, let’s have a brief historical review. Little known fact: the Madness of March as we know it today is actually based on the Ides of March. The date of March 15th, 44 BC, marked the assassination of Julius “Dr. J” Caesar. The all-powerful dictator and perennial #1 seed was taken down dramatically and unexpectedly by a ragtag team of underdog senators. This all went down in the newly constructed Theatre of Pompey, a monument so impressive it’s widely considered the Cowboys Stadium of its time. It is upon this glorious history that March Madness is based. Don’t bother fact checking – I’ve done plenty of research on Wikipedia.


The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is that so many schools have a shot at hoisting the championship trophy. Maybe this is the year that an unknown 16 seed will get hot, knock off a #1, and parlay the confidence into a run. Although that has never happened since the field expanded to 64 teams, we have seen 15 seeds win. Sometimes it’s because they simply had nothing to lose and they caught the big dog already slobbering over the next round. Sometimes it comes down to coaching, or teenage athletes caving under the pressure. Or maybe the team figured out a way to turn their underdog position into an advantage. Regardless of the situation, we love to watch it unfold.

But why exactly do we love the underdog? Is it because we identify with them? At some point in life, we’ve all had our backs against the wall. We know how they feel when facing Goliath and we love seeing the bully taken down. Or maybe we get a thrill from the chaos that ensues when the brackets get all wacky. And if you were the soothsayer that predicted the upset, you now have bragging rights. Of course, you have to love the post-game underdog celebration followed by the post-game cliché fest: Nobody believed in us! Nobody gave us a chance! They said we couldn’t do it! My Mom bet against us!


Arguably the greatest underdog win in NCAA Tourney history also happens to be a game that ripped out my heart as a kid. It was easy to be a fan of the Houston Cougars, aka Phi Slamma Jamma, in the 80s. They had the silky-smooth moves of Clyde the Glide, the towering presence of Akeem the Dream, and the brilliant coaching of Guy Lewis. Every game was a highlight reel of fast breaks and alley-oops. These guys were posterizing before posterizing was cool.

Then in the 1983 NCAA title game, they met the #6-seeded NC State Wolfpack, coached by the legendary Jim Valvano. After a 10-loss regular season, the “Cardiac Pack” were on a postseason hot streak. Even so, when it came to playing the #1-seeded Cougars, they were given about as much chance as a snowball in Houston. Here’s what Valvano had to say prior to the game: “We’ll try to handle their team by playing, shall I say, a slower tempo. If we get the opening tip, we may not take a shot until Tuesday morning.”

And that’s exactly what they did: slow the tempo. With just a couple of minutes left in the game, the score was knotted at 52: a perfect example of an underdog leveraging their own strength and exposing their opponent’s weakness. But the real shocker came in the final seconds when NC State’s Dereck Whittenburg heaved up a 30-footer, which was caught short of the rim and slammed home by Lorenzo Charles for the win. That’s right, they beat Phi Slamma Jamma with a DUNK. As I punched the couch and grasped the true meaning of “irony” for the first time in my life, Jimmy V. stormed the court and March Madness was elevated to a whole new level.


Thirty-one years after they cut down the nets in Albuquerque, NC State has broken into this year’s tourney as a 12 seed. Chances are they’ll exit early along with long shots like Weber State, Coastal Carolina and other schools that sound like brands you’d find on your patio. On the other hand, maybe the timeless words of Coach Valvano (“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”) will inspire these young men to find a way to win against all odds. Or maybe some unknown college will pull a Shocker like Wichita State did last year, reaching the Final Four after starting as a #9 seed. Interesting side note: Wichita State enters this year’s Madness seeded #1 in their region.

So beware, all ye top-seeded powerhouses, because history has a way of repeating itself. In a couple of weeks you may find yourself dazed and defeated, staring up from the cold, hard floor of Pompey – um, Cowboys Stadium – at a scrappy group of pups that didn’t know they were supposed to lose. Hopefully you’ll be able to muster just enough energy to mutter, “Et tu, Wolfpack?”

– Jim Green is an Associate Creative Director at LOOMIS


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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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