Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Thursday, January 17, 2008
What's better, NFL's final four or NCAA Final Four?

By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

We all have that one friend. You know, the one we love to argue with about all things sports? Your boy, your BF4L. The one you can't stand to lose to.

My boy's nickname is The Encyclopedia. He's a sports fiend. A football fanatic. John Madden on HGH. Not only did he play football in high school (all-state) and college (Jackson State), he is currently a football coach at one of the powerhouse programs in Illinois (Hubbard High School in Chicago).

Brett Favre
Would you rather watch Brett Favre play in the freezing cold in the NFC championship game?
But his passion is basketball. He bleeds Carolina blue and believes college basketball is to sports what Sinatra was to Vegas. Every year he takes time off from work to visually participate -- either in person or in front of a television -- in what he calls the greatest event in sports: the NCAA Tournament.

But in another one of our classic arguments the other day, he said something that threw me: "Say what you want, the four best teams in football are playing to get to the Super Bowl. That's football, that's the way it's supposed to be and it usually plays out. That's why I'll take the NFL's final four over the NCAA Final Four any day."

Wait. Hold up. "You really said that?" I asked him.

"Said it and will say it again," he replied. "Did I stutter?"

So the man everyone in my crew turns to as our sports reference point (hence, The Encyclopedia) said he'll take the NFL's semifinal Sunday over the NCAA's semifinal Saturday? The most dramatic, pulse-racing, nerve-racking, exciting sports day in America is second fiddle in his mind to what's about to go down this Sunday?

I thought he was joking. But no, he was closed-casket serious.

"People get all caught up in the pageantry and the drama leading up to the Final Four in basketball," he said to me. "And I agree, the first two weeks of the tournament are the best sports can give. But once you get to this stage in the NFL, all of the BS is gone and what's left standing is everything that the game represents. There are no surprises, no Cinderella stories, no more luck. Every year, the four teams that make it to this point in the NFL earned the right to be there. More than any team in any other sport."

His points were clear. He brought up examples showing the level of desire is greater at this stage in the NFL than in the NCAA. ("TO and Antonio Gates played with dislocated bones in their feet last week, ain't no college basketball player going to do that.") He called the Final Four in the NFL the epitome. ("For a lot of kids playing NCAA basketball, if you go to a certain school to play in the Final Four, chances are you might play in the NBA, so a championship ring is not the end-all be-all. But for the NFL, this is it. It's the Holy Grail.") He talked about how nothing else will matter to any player on the football field come this Sunday, while players in the NCAA Final Four still use that event as a stepping stone to something bigger. ("In the NCAA Final Four some of those players are playing to impress someone. In the NFL they're playing to do only one thing: win.")

He said George Mason was a cute story a couple years ago, making the NCAA Final Four. But he wants more than cute. "You won't see a George Mason in the NFL," he said. "You can't sneak up on anyone and make it to the AFC or NFC championship game. If you make it that far, you earned the right to be there. In the NFL, in January, you get the best. Ain't no secrets, ain't no flukes, ain't no cute stories."

The argument soon became one-sided because, to be honest, I started to believe him! Like he was Bishop Juan, and my name was Sunshine. For three days I thought about everything that came out of The Encyclopedia's mouth. I rationalized all of his rationalizations. It began to make sense.

Tyler Hansbrough
Or would you rather watch the likes of Tyler Hansbrough compete for a spot in the NCAA national championship game?
But before I was totally taken under, I made a phone call. To the one man who could answer the question with objectivity and insight that no one else has, because he's had and still has his feet planted deeply in both worlds: Mr. James Brown. He of the Harvard University Hall of Fame NCAA basketball career. He who is the legendary host of CBS's "NFL Today."

"If I had to choose," he said, while finishing getting his hair cut for Sunday's telecast, "I'd choose the NCAA."

What?!?

"Lemme tell you why," he continued. "The enthusiasm, the excitement, the passion, the anticipation, that umph -- the NCAA Final Four has all of that to a degree I don't think the NFL can match. Now I agree with all of the points you told me that your man made, but to me I'd still have to give the edge to the NCAA on this one."

That's all JB needed to say. The umph factor trumps all in sports.

I took this back to The Encyclopedia, figuring since JB was his idol, he'd concede. Fold on his stance. How could he argue with The Great One? In The Encyclopedia's world, JB's that dude.

"That's that man's opinion and I respect that," he said. "But still, to me, this Sunday has always been more about the sport, more about the games and who really is the best, and the other one [NCAA] is more about the extracurriculars around the sport, the aura of the event, and not the essence of what's actually happening while the game is being played. Which to me is not what the last four teams standing in any sport is supposed to be about."

Undefeated and unfazed, The Encyclopedia dispensed his final dose of rationality. "It's like choosing between Beyonce and Eva Mendes to me. It ain't easy. Now, most folks are going to choose Beyonce, and I'm not mad at that. But me? There's something about Eva Mendes that does it for me. I can't explain it, can't tell you what it is, but she does it for me."

"And the NFL final four does it for you over the NCAA Final Four?" I asked him, just to clarify one more time.

"I'd choose this Sunday over that Saturday all day anyway."

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to him here.