UF prof relives his role in 40-year-old hoops hoax

Published: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 7:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 7:37 p.m.

It was only after the Wall Street Journal reporter asked if there was anything else he’d like to add that Steven Noll considered sharing his story.

“Yeah, I might have something for you,” Noll, a University of Florida professor, told her, “but I have to check with some friends first.”

He hopped on his computer to confer with Reed Bohne, Paul Pavlich and Tom Duncan, three close pals from his college days at William & Mary.

Was it finally time to reveal the identity of the National Association of Collegiate Basketball Writers? he asked. Would it matter if he exposed their secret to the world after 40 years?

The consensus was a nonchalant “yes,” Noll said. So, he shared their tale from March 1973, when the four college juniors created their own fictitious professional organization (the National Association of Collegiate Basketball Writers), handpicked an All-American team of the top-15 rookie players in the nation and mailed seemingly official certificates to the winners’ universities.

The sports junkies then called the Associated Press, and told them about the award. Before anyone could question their organization’s validity, the news was launched out over the AP wire and released in newspapers across the country.

“It was just an idea that we came up with while we were just farting around in our dorm rooms,” Noll said Sunday, “but it snowballed from there.”

Noll encountered Rachel Bachman, the WSJ reporter, in the fall of 2012, when football season was still in session and the heat of Autumn was just starting to fade. Although she traveled to Gainesville to cover a different story, she listened with fervent interest, Noll recalled, and said she’d do further reporting and sit on it until the time was right.

It wasn’t until Friday that the story ran in the WSJ.

This year’s March Madness ends Monday night, with a Louisville or Michigan victory -- they’re all that’s left after a month-long onslaught of competitive college basketball. Between the tournament’s close and the recent media hype, the merry press pranksters have reflected a great deal on a stunt they managed to keep hidden for almost half a century, which was born out of wariness, Noll said.

“At some level, we were wanting to tweak the process of the All-American selection,” he said. “There was X-team and Y-team and Z-team, and we thought that we could come up with a team as well and just show how ridiculous the process was.”

To do that, the crew spent hours researching stats from national newspapers. They gathered to watch games. These were the days before ESPN and the internet, Noll likes to point out. It wasn’t that easy to analyze and compile information; they had to rigorously track the players’ talent themselves.

“Today, it’d probably be much tougher to do,” said Reed Bohne, a co-conspirator who’s now the regional director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s the kind of thing that could be checked so easily on Google.”

Bohne said he remembers when they shared their unaccredited team with the AP.

“Steve called at night so that he could deal with a less-experienced operator,” Bohne recalled, pinpointing the exchange between Noll and the AP to spring break of ‘73, “and they bought it. They hesitated at first and said, ‘There’s no All-American rookie team,’ but Steve said, ‘Yes there is. This is the first year there can be.’”

The 1972-73 season was the first time college rookies could start playing for their teams, Bohne explained, and he believes that the timing helped them slip through the wire and make national news.

When it hit the papers, Tom Duncan said he was at home in Michigan. He opened the sports section of The Detroit Free Press, saw their All-American team in the middle of the page and “jumped up and shrieked.”

“That was when it all became real,” he said.

Aside from close friends and family, they didn’t share their news with anyone, Duncan said -- and for years, they’ve had no struggle in doing so.

“I think we always proved that it worked,” he said, “and we didn’t need validation from the public.

“It’s been fun to relive it, though.”

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