Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Q&A with Ivy League executive director Robin Harris

Even though we're already halfway through the Sweet 16, allow me to take you back for a moment to the day before Selection Sunday.

Q&A with Ivy League executive director Robin Harris

A not-so-random sampling of Ivy League basketball fans at the Princeton-Harvard playoff earlier this month. (Jessica Hill/AP)
A not-so-random sampling of Ivy League basketball fans at the Princeton-Harvard playoff earlier this month. (Jessica Hill/AP)

Warning: As happens on here every once in a while, this is a long post. I've been meaning to put it up for some time, but I wasn't able to get it all together until now.

Even though we're already halfway through the Sweet 16, allow me to take you back for a moment to the day before Selection Sunday. In the heart of a weekend usually devoted to power-conference tournaments, the Ivy League was able to steal a fair amount of the national spotlight for a few hours.

The Harvard-Princeton playoff game for the Ancient Eight's NCAA Tournament berth will live long in the memories of fans in Cambridge, Old Nassau and beyond. It was a wonderful contest, capped off by a Douglas Davis buzzer-beater that became the lead story on SportsCenter that evening.

But that moment of triumph carried a caveat: the game was not broadcast on television. The only live viewing option was online, via ESPN3.com.

Before the game started, I sat down with Ivy League executive director Robin Harris to discuss that issue, as well as some of the other controversies that emerged during the basketball season.

Chief among them was one that many of you are familiar with: the lack of courtside review monitors at Ivy League basketball games.

The moment that turned what had been a long-simmering question into something much bigger came in the Harvard-Penn game at the Palestra, Zack Rosen's buzzer-beating shot at the end of the first overtime was ruled to have counted, but a video shot by the Penn student newspaper proved that the shot was too late.

Below, I have posted the full transcript of my interview with Harris. Everything we discussed was considered on-the-record. It is important to remember that the interview took place before the Harvard-Princeton game, because some of the questions were framed in a different context at that point. But I figured you'd like to read everything that was said.

I'm not going to make any editorial comments about Harris' remarks from me for now. Once the season is over, I will have a lot more to say about what I see as the current state of Ivy League basketball, and this interview will definitely come into play.

So here goes.


First of all, talk about what this game means for the league.

Well, this is a very exciting game to be playing, between two great teams that have had wonderful seasons. To be playing during a championship weekend for other conferences, and obviously the day before Selection Sunday, there's so much attention and focus being placed on college basketball this weekend. And it's obviously an important game for the Ivy League.

A lot of people have talked about this game nationally and have wondered what it takes to get this game set up on such short notice, after you had Princeton playing on Tuesday. Take us through the logistics of getting this set up, getting it to this gym, and the broadcast.

It was a true team effort. A team effort among the staff at the Ivy League office, also working with the staffs at - well, obviously the staff at Yale has done a tremendous job in getting this set up, and then also the staffs at Harvard and Princeton.

We started the process, though, a couple of weeks ago. Internally we were talking about it. You certainly can't turn an event on like this in three days and have it be done to the level we wanted it to be done at. So internally, within our office, we were planning for the eventuality, if it should happen.

And so we were looking at possible locations, we were starting to put out feelers for availability. So by the time we knew if a playoff was going to be happening on Tuesday night, we had already decided the location. Then it was just a matter of putting the pieces together, which takes a lot of work and is a true team effort.

What factors went into the venue decision?

We looked at a central location that would preferably be as equidistant as possible betewen the two schools, so the fans of each school could have similar opportunities to get here. We were interested in having it at an Ivy League school because that's good for our league, and also availability.

Saturday gave Princeton, having to turn around - they played on Tuesday, Harvard hasn't played since Saturday - so to have a game on Saturday gives Princeton an extra day of rest. We also looked at possibly having a game on Friday.

There were some reports that the decision came down to Columbia and Yale. A lot of people said to me and to other people who are covering this game, how great it would be to be in New York, for the publicity that any major event in New York brings.

But at the same time, you talked about the distance factor - it is a little bit closer to Princeton. Was Columbia in the conversation, and what do you think you gain and perhaps lose from playing at Yale versus another venue?

Absolutely, Columbia was in the conversation. We talked about a number of venues. I think being in New Haven is great. Yale has done a tremendous job in putting together this event, in having their staff available at a time where they had multiple teams in season.

They've made their staff available to us even though other staff members are traveling and it's Spring Break here. They've gotten the workers that we need, and I think this gives us a great venue. I'm thrilled to be here.

The other question a lot of people have asked me is, "Is the game on television?" And to that specific question, the answer has been "No." Take us through, if you can, the conversations about finding outlets to broadcast the game.

We started that process several weeks ago, so Scottie Rodgers and our staff were in contact with a number of different television entities to assess interest and availability. We started this within the past month, as it looked more possible - we didn’t even know if it was probable at that point, but we at least wanted to explore the options.

So it came down to that ESPN has the best availability, and they had the availability with ESPN3. We’re thrilled to be able to offer this on broadcast, even if it’s on the internet - it still enables the fans who weren’t able to purchase tickets or travel to New Haven to watch. And it marks the third game in one week that the Ivy League has been on ESPN3.

Do you think this is a relationship that may continue in some capacity next year, perhaps earlier in the regular season?

Well, we’ve had a relationship with ESPN. They’re televising our men’s lacrosse tournament. So yeah, we look to continue our relationship with them.

I remember from when you started with the Ivy League that increasing exposure for the league’s sporting events on TV was a major issue for you.

Yes.

So I think people would want to know if there are plans coming in the future.

Well we’re looking at more than television. It’s broadcast in general, so the digital strategy as well as television are both important. We’re still looking at that. We’re looking at it for the long term, and it’s going to be comprehensive.

Comprehensive could mean with one network, it could mean with multiple networks, multiple sports. We just have to see what works best. But yes, we’re looking to expand what we’re doing now.

Do you think the league might do some in-house production at some point, the way the Horizon League does, for example?

You know, I’m not going to rule anything out. But certainly with our current staff, we’re not in position to do that.

You told USA Today that you thought that the Ivy League might merit an at-large bid in addition to whoever wins today. In your experience, what do you think it’s going to take for that to happen? It’s not something that the Ivy League has ever had before.

The Ivy League has not had that happen. I think it’s warranted this year. I’ve only been here for two seasons. This is the first season that I’ve seen where it’s truly warranted, where we would be in consideration for an at-large bid.

I can’t put myself in the heads of the selection committee members - I know they have a lot of very qualified candidates for selection to the NCAA Tournament. I do know this is one of the more difficult years that they’ve had, because it’s a very wide and flat bubble. And so we’re in the conversation. What tips the scale to get us in, I don’t know, but in my mind, I think we’re deserving of that at-large bid.

And I can elaborate on that. Certainly if you look at the RPIs of our teams, Harvard is in the 30's, Princeton is in the 40's right now. That’s certainly in the conversation for an at-large bid, and also the strength of their wins outside the conference. Harvard has Boston College and Colorado, and the George Mason loss was not a bad loss given their season.

Princeton has been on a tremendous roll, where they’ve won 22 out of 25 contests. So we are one of 10 leagues in the country to have two teams in the RPI top 50. You can guess what six of those conferences are. To be in that group is truly special.

I want to ask you one other question that is related to television, at least tangentially. There has been a lot of conversation this year - not only in the Ivy League but across the country, as we saw with the Big East this week - about the use of courtside replay monitors.

As everybody knows, when an Ivy League game is not televised, there is no courtside replay monitor. We saw at the Penn-Harvard game in Philadelphia that the Penn student newspaper was able to capture an image from their video proving that the shot at the end of the first overtime should not have counted.

And maybe that was a situation where if there was a monitor, it would have been overturned - I don’t know, that’s speculation on my part, but it’s out there. Is the league working on a solution, for next year and going forward, that can help with some of those situations?

We’re looking at instant replay. It’s an expensive proposition, and so it’s something that we are evaluating.

I know it’s expensive - do you think it’s worth the expense?

It’s something we’re evaluating. We’re getting dollars, and until I have those figures, I don’t even know what it costs at this point. But I have staff that are looking into it. When they get the figures, the options, they’ll present a report, and we’ll go to the athletic directors and we’ll have a conversation. But it would be premature for me to offer a position one way or the other.

How are the athletic directors around the league that you’re hearing from reacting to the exposure that the Ivy League is getting?

It’s great. It’s just good for the league. Just like Cornell’s success last year was good for the league as a whole. And that’s what makes our league special. Other leagues have this too, but we recognize that there are certain things that benefit a school or a couple of schools, but they’re also good for the league.

I’m sure there are other schools that would want to be here, but given that they can’t be here, they’d just as soon have this publicity.

And it’s a little bit different in the Ivy League, I think, because the presidents have so much control. I would say from my experience covering from the league that they aren’t always answering to the athletic side of the university.

The presidents are clearly in control. They’re my bosses and the athletic directors’ bosses, and that’s a very clear structure in the Ivy League.

Have you seen any changes in the views towards athletics of any or all of the presidents since you’ve been here?

Well, I think it’s already positive generally. They are supportive of athletics, they don’t want to see issues or problems, but it brings tremendous value to their campuses and they recognize that.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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