COLLEGE basketball's "March Madness" - the men's and women's versions - commenced last week with 112 teams participating in separate National Collegiate Athletic Association tournaments. The hoopla will roll on to its early-April conclusion, but without the benefit of the University of Vermont's women's team, a logical sentimental favorite of the postseason.
For the second straight year, first-round elimination meant the Catamounts came up short in their bid to gain wider respect for a program that previously has enjoyed little.
Generally speaking, there is much to recommend Vermont's athletic program, including its impressive support of 26 varsity teams (sans football).
Nationally, the greatest success has come in skiing - logical, given that Burlington, Vt., sits in northern New England ski country, not far from Lake Placid, N.Y. The Catamounts have won three of the last five national ski championships, beating larger Western schools such as Colorado and Utah for the combined Alpine and cross-country titles.
Until last year, however, Catamount basketball never made so much as a blip on the national radar. Perfect back-to-back regular seasons have changed that, lifting the women's team to 18th in the latest wire-service rankings.
The ranking might be higher, of course, except that few equate Vermont's record 52-straight regular season wins with the 76 UCLA's men's squad rang up between 1971 and 1974.
Referring to Vermont's lack of cachet in recruiting circles, women's coach Cathy Inglese says, "You didn't use to be able to say `Vermont' and `basketball' in the same sentence," lest communication lines be severed.
A year ago, the team lost by a point to George Washington University in the NCAA tournament. This year, it was awarded a first-round home game. But even a capacity crowd of 3,200 could not propel the Catamounts past a much taller Rutgers University squad, coached by US Olympic coach Theresa Grentz. The score: 80-74.
The day after the defeat, Inglese expressed disappointment in not going a "step further" than last season. Nevertheless, she says two near-perfect seasons leave her hopeful and encouraged about the future.
Now, she may find it easier to recruit out of state and add the skillful six-footers the team has lacked. She also might get a second assistant, a few more scholarships, and an improved schedule. Better-quality teams have been reluctant to schedule Vermont and reciprocate the Catamounts with visits to their far-removed arena. But the team's national ranking is a helpful selling point.
Perhaps best of all, from the administration's standpoint, the women's team has established itself as a top-rank academic representative of the school. Last fall, the team's overall grade-point average was 3.26 on a 4-point system, giving it the highest GPA of any Vermont team. The jet-set way to better football
After many years of stonewalling true free agency, the National Football League has entered the brave new world of bidding for players. The league has created a complex set of safeguards to prevent the situation from getting out of hand, yet clearly some teams more than others plan to avail themselves of this new opportunity to acquire players.
The New York Jets thus far have been the most aggressive. They have already signed two established defensive stars away from other teams - Ronnie Lott from the Los Angeles Raiders and Leonard Marshall from the New York Giants - and have been in hot pursuit of a third, Reggie White of the Philadelphia Eagles. In addition, they signed quarterback Boomer Esiason, who, while no Broadway Joe Namath in recent years, took the Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl five seasons ago.
If this were baseball, the Jets would be accused of trying to "buy a pennant." The Yankees, under owner George Steinbrenner, however, have shown that money can buy players, but not necessarily the hoped-for results.
Nonetheless, the Jets are pumping new interest into a franchise that has lacked it. They are the only team without a division crown since the American and National conferences were created in 1970.