Inside the underground March Madness of the Manager Games

ByJake Trotter ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Sam Young had been up before 6 a.m. all week, rebounding for Iowa Stateplayers and setting up for the Cyclones' practices. He was putting in yet another 70-hour work week as Iowa State's head student basketball manager -- coming on top of his full class load.

But Young's turn on the court came late that Friday. With a postmidnight tipoff, he and Iowa State's other managers defeated Texas' managers inside Hilton Coliseum in a key showdown of the Manager Games. It's a league with the motto "Sometimes they let the managers play," though sometimes they let ringers like former No. 1 overall NBA pick Greg Oden play, too.

The problem for Young and the other managers that night was that their cars had been covered in snow during the game. So together, using ice scrapers, they spent another hour clearing a path from one of the cars to a nearby main road to escape. That gave them only a couple of hours to sleep before they had to return later that morning for the actual Iowa State-Texas game.

"Sleep is secondary for managers," Young said. "But we have so much fun. ... sacrificing to put the team in a good position. ... creating so many relationships. ... learning how to be a hard-working person. I definitely think there's a correlation between being a manager and then having success later in life."

This week, the Manager Games will crown its annual champion, capping a tournament that started with a 64-team bracket. Fan voting determined the first three rounds. But in Houston, on Friday and Saturday, preceding the realFinal Four, the last eight teams remaining in the Manager Games Championship will compete on the court with bragging rights and a trophy on the line. It's a chance for the students -- who are the indispensable glue of every college basketball program -- to have their own shining moment.

"Managers to me are the best human beings in America," said Hall of Fame Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "They're f---ing great."

They rebound for players all hours of the day and sometimes night -- "always on call," Wyoming manager Collin Boroz said. They mop the court before practice. They get food for players on the road. They clean the locker rooms. They help players move in and out of apartments. They cut video clips for the coaches. And, most unenviable, they usually do the laundry -- "as terrible as it sounds, and it's every day," as Western Kentucky junior manager Kyle Huber puts it.

But the brutal hours, low pay, if one gets paid at all, and constant time spent in locker rooms and gyms, has its benefits. That includes being part of a Division I team, traveling the country and sometimes overseas, and on-the-job training to pursue a career in coaching or other basketball-related professions.

"You're working entirely for the needs of the program," said Florida manager Jordan Jacobson, in graduate school studying sports management, a common major for managers. "But you get to be part of something special."

And also, play in the Manager Games, or as Kentucky manager Jonas Alger calls it, "the game before the game."

Teams selected for the Manager Games postseason tournament are seeded via a mathematical power ranking that Michigan State associate athletic director Kevin Pauga designed when he was a student manager for the Spartans. The first three rounds hinge on Twitter polling. Lower seeds must garner a higher percentage of the vote to pull off the upset -- Lipscomb knocked off top-seeded Louisiana by securing 57.9% of the vote (the Bisons needed to exceed 54.5%).

The competition for votes has led managers to solicit famous alums for help. This year, multiple notable current and former NBA players, including Rex Chapman (Kentucky), Jamal Crawford (Michigan) and Draymond Green (Michigan State), tweeted their support.

The Michigan-Wisconsin Sweet 16 matchup alone generated more than 50,000 votes, a Manager Games record.

"You got to pull out all the stops," said West Virginiamanager Tyler Milchman, whose Mountaineers advanced to their first elite eight with the help of former West Virginia and NFL quarterback Marc Bulger.

Managers still have the option to decide games in the first three rounds on the hardwood instead. Last week, Liberty traveled to Raleigh to play NC State for the final elite eight spot. The Flames prevailed to join West Virginia, Kentucky, Bellarmine, Michigan, Michigan State, Miami and Notre Dame, the defending champion.

"We had an off-day shooting. ... but always better to decide something on the court," said Wolfpack manager Jamile Francis. "Still glad we played it."

Liberty's upcoming opponent in the elite eight is glad, too.

"They streamed the game," said Michigan manager Devon Wisniewski, "so we'll get to study some game film."

Wisniewski said Michigan's managers created a GoFundMe account to pay for their trip to Houston, site of this year's Final Four. Most of the other elite eight teams are doing the same. After driving 14 hours to New Orleans last year, Notre Dame's managers are hoping to raise enough money to fly this time. The Fighting Irish are aiming to become the first team to win back-to-back championships.

After last year's title, Notre Dame hung a Manager Games championship banner at the school practice facility.

"We'd be thrilled if we could pull it off again," said Irish senior manager Bill Courtney. "We sent our seniors out the right way and I'm trying to get the same treatment."

Managers have been scrimmaging for decades, long before the creation of the Manager Games. But in 2015, a pair of Michigan State managers, Ian May and Andrew Novak, decided they would try and codify these glorified pickup games into an actual league.

"We were like, 'How can we pull this off?" said May, who had kept records the year before just with the Big Ten Conference managers. They enlisted Pauga, who by then was an assistant athletic director for the Spartans, to work with the NCAA on securing a court at the Final Four site. Thomas Northcutt, then a manager at Auburn, became the fourth founder. All four remain co-commissioners of the Manager Games.

"We were going to keep rankings and standings," Pauga said, "but we didn't know where it was going to lead."

Now, managers from 185 schools, from the Power 5 to mid-majors, participate, all vying for a coveted berth in the 64-team tournament.

"The games get intense," said Bellarmine manager Tristan Beckmann. "They're no joke. You call your own fouls, and when that happens, it can get really chippy."

St. Joseph's game with VCU got so physical that it had to be delayed 30 minutes so they could "clean up all the blood on the court," recalled St. Joe's senior manager Frank Sorochen after teammate Phil Lawrence-Ricks took an elbow to the left eye. A VCU trainer took Lawrence-Ricks to the emergency room to get stitches -- while St. Joe's and VCU finished their game.

Such intensity has spawned rivalries. "We can't stand the Clemson managers and I'm sure they feel the same about us," Francis said of his Wolfpack. "Those games get extremely tense."

Bowling Green and Ball State had to call their game early because the skirmishes were getting out of hand. "We were getting killed and they were getting cocky," said Bowling Green manager Joey Lagnese. "But then they gave us a ride back. We were all laughing about it the whole way."

May said that managers usually are "kids that grew up loving basketball, but maybe weren't good enough to play" Division I. But that doesn't mean they can't hoop. Many were elite high school players.

Under coach John Calipari, Kentucky has a tradition of handing out a Wildcats football helmet to any player who gets dunked on in practice. This year, during a walk-through, 6-foot-11 manager Ray Surratt dunked on Kentucky starting forward Chris Livingston. "Everyone started freaking out," Alger said. "Cal gave Ray the helmet and he put it on Chris. ... A really cool manager moment."

And then, as Courtney notes, "teams are always bringing ringers" to fill out their manager rosters. That can include graduate assistants, strength coaches, video coordinators and operations staffers.

As Oklahoma State's director of player development, former All-Big 12 guard Keiton Page has played for the Cowboys' manager team. After Page lit them up for 36 points, Kansas' managers made a point on social media of noting that Page had played, leading to a Twitter spat.

Young has had to guard Baylor player development director Tweety Carter, who led the Bears to the Elite Eight in 2010, and Oklahoma video operations director Clayton Custer, who propelled Loyola Chicago's improbable run to the Final Four in 2018.

Florida's manager team features the same backcourt that won back-to-back national championships in 2006-07 -- Taurean Green is now the school's player development director. Lee Humphrey is the Gators' radio color commentator.

"The guys on our team peaked [on the court] in high school," said Tennesseemanager Blake Sexton. "It's a cool experience, but definitely difficult matching up with guys like that."

The most legendary Manager Games ringer, though, remains Oden, who, along with future NBA All-Star Mike Conley, led Ohio State to the national championship game against those Gators in 2007. Oden was a graduate assistant with the Buckeyes before joining Butler's staff last year.

"He dropped 50 on us," Purdue manager Bailey Good said of the 7-foot Oden, "and didn't even break a sweat."

Managers, however, sweat constantly -- no one more than Sorochen, who doubles as St. Joseph's "Hawk" mascot. Earlier this year, Sorochen and the other St. Joe's managers couldn't find anywhere to do the team's laundry. Their downtown Charlotte hotel didn't have laundry service. They called five nearby hotels with no luck. Finally, they located one with laundry machines 2 miles away. But without transportation, three of them lugged five laundry bags all the way there and, after several hours washing clothes, all the way back. But Sorochen had to carry only one bag.

"The other managers wanted my shoulders to be OK [to be the Hawk] for the game the next day, so I got off the hook," said Sorochen, who changes into his mascot costume only after his pregame manager duties are completed, then takes it off immediately after to help in the locker room. "I'm exhausted after games. I'm usually drenched in sweat. It's a lot."

The schedules can be exhausting. But managers say they believe their hard work can eventually open doors once they graduate.

"It can be a lot with school," Minnesota manager Nick Gag said. "But if you put in the time, it can really pay off."

That's especially true for one former manager, who's now coaching in the Final Four. Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May got his start as a manager at Indiana under Bobby Knight in the late 1990s. Now, May has the Owls, who had never won an NCAA tournament game before this year, two victories from a national championship.

Managers "serve without wanting anything in return," May said, "except knowledge and experience."

Young, who is finishing his final semester at Iowa State, is already applying for jobs elsewhere to become a graduate assistant coach. Northcutt, one of the Manager Games founders, is a graphic designer for the Brooklyn Nets. Novak, another founder, is the manager of scouting for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"I wouldn't be working in basketball if I hadn't been a manager," Novak said. "A huge part of where I'm at today."

In the meantime, the Manager Games are a huge part of being a manager. And even in the Manager Games, at least in South Bend, championship banners hang forever.

Said Courtney: "We've got room for another."

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