The 25th edition of Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco was won by a 23-year-old college student smart enough to pick with precision and pliant enough to yield to friendly persuasion. John Mitchell wanted to pick North Carolina to win the Midwest Regional, but roommate Ricky Staebler happens to be a Kansas fan. Staebler’s lobbying carried not just the day but the whole darn Fiasco.
“I had to change it around because of the grief he gave me,” Mitchell said Monday. “That was the biggest toss-up to me. Outside influence made the biggest difference.”
Of 5,174 Fiasco entrants, five picked the correct Final Four. Mitchell prevailed on the second tiebreaker, tabbing 11 of the Sweet 16 correctly. This marks the first time since 2009 that any Fiasco participant has nailed the Final Four, which goes to show the difference not having a Butler or a VCU can make.
Mitchell lives in Powder Springs and set to finish college at Kennesaw State after attending Valdosta State. He’s a graduate of McEachern High, and he played football and wrestled his first two years there. Then he got a job at Kohl’s, and that was the end of his athletic career.
Which isn’t to say he stopped watching sports. He knows his basketball. (He describes himself as a Georgia fan, but the Bulldogs were a non-starter in this NCAA tournament.) “I know it’s a bandwagon thing,” Mitchell said, “but I love [Kentucky coach John] Calipari and the kind of players he brings in … With Anthony Davis and [Michael] Kidd-Gilchrist, they have a dominating squad. They’re my pick. I’m riding them all the way to the championship.”
Not that he regards Louisville, which the Wildcats will face in the semifinal, as a walkover. “I like [coach Rick] Pitino. I like [point guard] Peyton Siva. And their center [Gorgui Dieng] is a rebounding, blocking machine. I don’t know about everybody else, but I wanted to see a Kentucky-Louisville matchup … I would probably pick Louisville over everybody else.”
Our runnerup is Chuck Hagenbaugh, 49, who lives in Winder and works for Convergent Media Systems in Lawrenceville. He entered the Fiasco for a fundamental reason: Unlike other online contests and office pools, it’s free. “I don’t watch a lot of basketball because my daughter [Ashley, who's the goalkeeper for Winder-Barrow High] is into soccer,” Hagenbaugh said.
It should be noted that Hagenbaugh is one of the few not picking Kentucky to win it all. He likes Louisville to upset the Wildcats and then lose to Ohio State. “They look hungry enough,” Hagenbaugh said of the Buckeyes, and he happens to be a Buckeye himself. He’s from Akron.
Our champ receives a $1,000 Kroger gift card — “That’s something everyone can use,” Mitchell said — and both our winner and runner-up will get the traditional Final Four sweatshirt/hoodie. At least in prizes, our Fiasco has come a long way from its inaugural run, when the prize was a CBS Sports ballcap. Speaking of which …
The greatest regret I’ve had in our 25 Fiasco years was in not being able to interview our first winner. In the attempt to play long-deferred catch-up ball, I gave him a call Monday. Lou Ricke, now 68 but still living in Woodstock, still enters every year, and he even had the column hailing his 1988 victory made into a plaque.
Sad to say, Ricke didn’t do so well this year. He’s from Sharon, Kans., and he always goes heavy on Midwestern teams. (His ‘88 triumph was paved by the Final Four runs of Kansas and Oklahoma from the league then known as the Big Eight.) He got Kansas again this time, but he whiffed on Wichita State winning the South. For the record, Ricke likes Kansas to reach the final and believes the Jayhawks would have a real shot against Kentucky.
Also for the record: I did try to call Ricke in 1988. But he worked for the Georgia Department of Revenue — the tax folks. “I got a lot of messages in those days,” Ricke said, “and most of them weren’t pleasant. It wasn’t until I saw you’d written about me that I thought, ‘So that’s what that was about.’ ”
Over 25 years, we’ve had a total of 53,236 entrants, and this wasn’t the first time the Fiasco was won (or lost) by someone who, for whatever reason, changed his/her mind. Regarding his Jayhawk-touting roommate, Mitchell was asked if he’d split his thousand dollar’s worth of groceries with Staebler.
“Oooh,” he said. “I don’t know about that.”
Yet again, I’d like to say thanks to all the folks here at the ol’ AJC — Cynthia Daniels-Dubose, Drue Miller, Emily Merwin, Tracy Brown and Ray Cox — who made the contest run smoothly, and thanks to all who’ve entered this or any of our 25 years. And it’s true what they say: Time does fly when you’re having a Fiasco.