By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

This week, and the following three weeks, are very special to us, my fellow Americans.

These are important times. These are times of 12-seeds and Verne Lundquist's poetry; of mid-majors and 9 a.m. Pacific tip times. These are times when we gather at The Cooler and understand this: We have social obligations during March Madness, also.

This is no time to slack off. This is no time to get lazy, fall asleep on the couch or go see a matinee with the loved ones. This is the tourney, amigos. Only championship-level sports fans need apply.

As such, we are here to present a list of Five Commandments to fulfill your social duties this March -- as it relates to you, your fellow bracket-holder and your nearest bartender:

1. Thou Shalt Toss Reality to the Wind, and Fill Out a Special "Alma Mater Bracket."

We all want to win our office pool. But we all know we will lose out to the adorable executive assistant in her mid-20s who was a Tri-Delt at a Pac-10 school. She'll have heard at one time or another that "Duke" was good at basketball, and while we all outthink ourselves and take Kansas, or Boston College, or Memphis, or Ohio State, she'll casually and coolly take the Blue Devils to win it all, and then pile it on with a brilliant and entirely blindly lucky tab of Xavier over Gonzaga in the first round, because her Dad's confirmation name is Xavier. That's how it goes.

So it is up to all of us who attended any of the 60 schools that aren't No.1 seeds to fulfill our moral and social duty, and fill out at least one bracket in which our alma mater wins it all. We may know, deep in our souls, that our alma maters have no freakin' chance. But we owe it to ourselves to soak in the secret joy of taking a ballpoint pen and writing the word "Iowa" or "Bucknell" or "Georgetown" all … the … way … through … the … brackets … step … by … step … to that sweet lit-tle space in the middle of the bracket, where national champions reside, circled with a flourish by that ballpoint pen.

You know your team has no shot. You know its flaws, its weaknesses. You have that dark dream that your No.2 seed alma mater (cough, cough) could be the punch line of a joke when Belmont (cough, cough) or Winthrop or Penn or Davidson runs around the court, doggie-piling at the buzzer. But you owe it to yourself to have that bracket, if your alma mater pulls a 1985 Villanova. You'll frame it. You'll will it to your grandchildren 50 years from now. It's worth the $10 to dream. So come one, come all. Pen in the words, people. You can do it. "Southern Illinois" or "Texas A&M" or "Tennessee" or "Montana" … all … the … way … through … the … brackets … step … by … step … to that sweet lit-tle space in the middle of the bracket.

The place where national champions reside -- circled with a flourish by that ballpoint pen.

2. Thou Shalt Close Ranks as a Conference.

Now is the time to heal, friends. Now is the time to put down our arms, and come to the aid of our conference.

This is one of our most difficult social duties, but one that displays maturity and strength, and will help you in the long run when you need stats to back up a barking match with anyone who questions the strength of your team's conference.

It goes like this: Indiana fans, root for Ohio State. Florida fans, root for Tennessee. Texas fans, root for Oklahoma. Arizona fans, root for UCLA. Carolina fans, root for Duke.

Wait, scratch that last one.

Think of your conference like you would your family. You can rip your family all day long. You can rag on your sister's hygiene and choice of boyfriends; you can rag on your brother's video-game prowess and long string of unemployment -- the same way a Syracuse fan can rag on Georgetown, Villanova and Seton Hall.

But once somebody else dares rip your family? Once somebody else dares rip your sister's hygiene, or your brother's video-game prowess and long string of unemployment?

Dem's fightin' words.

So it is with our conference brethren. We spend most of our lives hating our conference rivals. But at tourney time, we have to take the high road and preach the good of the conference. You never know when you'll be on vacation in Florida and run up against a mouthy Gator fan questioning the integrity of the Pac-10. Then you, a UCLA alum, can boast of Lute Olson's 22 consecutive NCAA bids -- even though you spent most of the conference season throwing darts at Olson's mug in your garage and trying to sneak gum onto his seat when he visited Pauley Pavilion, leading to that ejection that was so inappropriate and will hopefully be resolved in court when your wrongful-harassment suit finally sees the light of day.

These are the times that try our conference's souls! Fight alongside your conference brothers! You never know when you'll need to boast that the last five national champions have come from Big East or ACC schools. But if you do, you'll hear from a Pac-10 fan who will fire back at you with reams of water polo and volleyball titles -- so watch out, buster.

3. Thou Shalt Not Heckle a Friend In Pain.

These are emotional times. Don't believe me? Ask a Syracuse fan who tried to weekend at a B&B in Vermont anytime in the past year. Ask a Kansas fan who sees a Bucknell sticker on the back of a Volvo at day-care pickup. Ask any Iowa State fan who sees a Lionel Hampton CD in the jazz section at Tower Records.

March Madness can produce the highest of the highs, and the lowest of the lows. Your faithful correspondent can vouch for that. In April 1995, I shouted, at the top of my lungs, "I LOVE YOU!" to a man I'd never met before. Somebody told me it was Cameron Dollar's father. UCLA was minutes removed from an NCAA title win over Arkansas in the Kingdome, and Mr. Dollar's son was a hero. Naturally, I yelled: "I LOVE YOU MISTER DOLLAR!" when he walked past, waving at fans. It was one of the more awkward moments of my life. Adrenaline will do funny things to a man.

That said, a year later I had to ingest the concept of "Princeton 43, UCLA 41" down my esophagus. I tried to tell people that UCLA's '95 title win gave it a 10-year exemption from criticism, but who was I kidding? It was pure, utter, 100 percent pain, and if anybody dared rub it in, I wrote him off my Friend List, forever. Tournament time can turn the best of us into Santino Corleone.

In fact, somebody at my workplace brought up the Princeton game this week and it infuriated me.

So, in the words of the late, great Vincent Schiavelli, as Mr. Vargas in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High": Have a heart.

Don't heckle a fan in pain. Let him or her suffer alone. If Duke loses anywhere short of the Final Four, a Carolina fan need not text-message his Duke pal. That's piling it on. That's uncool. The final score is your ally. No need to kick a man in the coconuts when he's already fallen from the tree -- which I believe is an old Jamaican proverb, if I'm not mistaken.

4. Thou Shalt Become an Instant Expert.

Let's be honest. Most of us follow our own conference, and then follow the rest of the country via a few Duke appearances on ESPN. So, if you're a Big East-type, you have a grip on all things Big East. You know pretty well whether Pitt can hold off Kent State. You have a firm grip on Marquette's chances against Alabama. Syracuse? You've figured the Orange out cold, and won't tell anybody but your bracket if you think they can handle A&M.

But after that? You're in Nowheresville. Come on, now. You never saw Wichita State play. You have no clue what Lorenzo Romar is doing with the Huskies up in Washington. Hell, you even had to say "That Steve Fisher?" when you looked up the skinny on San Diego State.

So what do you do?

What else -- you anoint yourself an Instant Expert.

You fill out the brackets, game-by-game. You never saw UAB dribble a basketball this year -- and yet you know it'll beat Kentucky. You couldn't name what city Nevada plays in -- yet you know it'll handle Montana. You still think Nolan Richardson coaches Arkansas -- and figure 40 Minutes of Hell can handle Bucknell.

Don't be embarrassed. We're all in this together. There can only be one Andy Katz. You have to be you, and if that means you didn't know Oral Roberts had a university? Well, hell, welcome to the party! Put on your hat -- the one that says "INSTANT EXPERT -- JUST ADD BEER" and fill out those brackets, partner.

5. Thou Shalt Understand the Importance of Friday in the Global Scale of Human Enjoyment.

To review:

A. It's Day 2 of March Madness, with 16 games on the schedule.

B. It's St. Patrick's Day.

C. It's a Friday.

As Tom Hagen said to Frankie Pentangeli: "Do the right thing, Frankie Five Angels."

Call work. Call in sick. Call friends. Meet at local Irish pub. Bring bracket. Order pint of Guinness. Watch as bracket gets Guinness stains as day goes on. Watch game after game after game after game.

Enjoy.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

You are now ready for March Madness, friend. It's nice to have you along.

E-mail Brian Murphy at page2murphy@yahoo.com.




Brian
Murphy
THE COOLER