Pool rules: March Madness stays old school

People Sports

March 22, 2024

This annual NCAA Tournament Pool connects longtime friends in the best — albeit slightly inconvenient — way.

by Sharon Smith
Originally published March 1, 2023

There’s a singular know-it-when-you-hear-it sound that comes around only once a year in our household. It’s my husband’s “One Shining Moment,” when the fax machine gets hooked up and brackets start coming in.

Just like it was in 1999. That’s when Colin and a few friends from UNC Chapel Hill launched the “No Randoms Allowed” NCAA Tournament Pool. It’s my husband’s baby (though we have three children), and he devotes nearly newborn-level attention to running the pool every year. 

Despite plenty of technological advances since then, the rules of submission haven’t changed: Brackets can only be delivered via fax, mail or by hand.

“I always send out an opening email to get the juices flowing with everyone — a kickoff, to get the email chatter going,” Colin says. He smiles with a little glint in his eye. We know, all 75 or so of us, that he takes great pride in crafting that annual email opener. It’s long, witty and full of shoutouts to this loyal crowd.

It’s a tightknit group. Colin estimates 90% of participants are Carolina friends, their spouses or partners. Children are also allowed to fill out brackets. Entries make their way to our home from New York to Atlanta. A few N.C. State and Wake fans are also in the group. Bob Stillerman, whose family became like family to Colin during his Winston-Salem junior high days, is one such case, along with his three brothers. “Colin’s opening email is always a good read,” says Bob, a Wolfpack fan who lives in Charlotte. 

Colin and friends from their Carolina days.

“Yes, the registration process and lack of technology is inconvenient. Yes, it’s ridiculous that you get points docked for picking Duke to win it all … But in its own way, the whole thing is charming and hilarious,” Bob says. As a State fan, Bob also has an advantage to being in a pool with a bunch of Carolina people. “Most people bet with their hearts … if you know 90% of the pool is going to pick Carolina to win (not to mention none of them will touch Duke!), you can make a unique pick,” he says.

Colin sees the pool as a connecting thread among friends. “I’m not on social media, so it’s a time of year to catch up with folks that I don’t often see.” Did I mention he doesn’t have a cell phone and carries a pager? That’s another story, but suffice it to say Colin is not scrolling to see vacation photos or what cool thing someone did last week.

Maybe that stance, as someone who prefers a newspaper and dialing the phone, explains his aversion to uploading brackets so a computer can keep score. He knows his methods are an inconvenience, and perhaps a barrier for some. “If they want to submit their bracket, they will find a way,” he says. ”It’s a natural filter. You have to really love March Madness to be a part of this pool.”

Red pen at the ready, Colin stays up into the wee hours of the night grading a stack of 130-ish brackets, ever mindful of the points added or subtracted for various rules. There’s the “Benedict Arnold Rule,” a 7-point penalty for picking Duke to win. There’s the “Doug Rule,” which gives an extra 2.3 points for picking UNC as the champ. It’s a heartfelt addition in memory of our friend who was a huge Tar Heels and Michael Jordan fan. There’s also the “Hot Sauce Rule” (see sidebar), plus Sleepers and Shockers. 

Colin and son watching the Tar Heels play basketball.

Colin and our son, Sam, at the Dean E. Smith Center watching the Tar Heels play. Now that he’s older, Sam helps grade brackets.

Colin logs more hours waxing poetic in emailed scoring updates that go out after each round, and of course, replying to the “reply-all” banter. “It’s a labor of love. I enjoy doing it. I love college basketball,” he says. “At this point, I know a lot of other people in the pool really look forward to this time of year. I don’t want to disappoint folks. Gotta bring my A-game.”

One of them is Cameron Hight, who lives in SouthPark. Though not an OG, he’s been leaving brackets on the front porch for a decade. Cameron enters several pools each year, but he says the email camaraderie Colin promotes is top-tier. “Half of the conversations revolve around his dedication to the Luddite life. Fax machines, scoring by hand … fits perfect for a guy with no cell phone, a beeper, and takes the newspaper. Who else do you know under 80 that does that?” he says, joking that it’s just par for the course as Colin’s friend. 

There have been gap years. There was no NCAA tournament in 2020 because of Covid. And Colin handed off the duties to his capable friend Dave Brooks, who lives in Virginia, in 2013 when our twin girls were born and my dad passed away. We had our own March Madness on the homefront that year, but still faxed in brackets for a welcome sense of routine and a little levity.

Each year, I give Colin grief about his antiquated ways. Bracket piles find their way from the coffee table to the kitchen table. The noisy fax machine is annoying. He’s up late. There are a lot of emails. But our kids love it. And he does, too. “What can I say? I’m a purist. I’m a dinosaur,” Colin says. 

He’s a winner, too — 2006 was his year. “I can rest in peace knowing I won my own pool,” he jokes.  SP

Tell me your bracket story. I won the inaugural Mecklenburg County Clerk’s Office pool many years ago when the courthouse was my beat as a reporter. Those bragging rights never go away. Have you ever won? Come in last? Send me an email and we’ll share a few stories online.

The Rules:

Entries: Brackets must be faxed, mailed or dropped off
Hot Sauce Rule: No faxes from 8 p.m. – 8 a.m. 
Benedict Arnold Rule: Minus 7 points for picking Duke as the champ
The Doug Rule: Plus 2.3 points for picking Carolina
Sleepers and Shockers: Double or triple points for lower-seeded teams that win
Regressive Rule: Minus 5 points if a bracket is emailed “just in case”

UPDATE: In March of 2024, Colin announced the 25th year would be his last running the pool. Immediately, his friends responded with words of gratitude and appreciation — and a record number of entries, nearly 150 brackets!

In his much-anticipated opening email for the year, Colin wrote in part: “‘Running this pool has been an absolute blast. I love the email banter. I love the chance to connect with many of you for the only time all year … I love the familiar rhythms and routines each pool season brings. I love the satisfaction of playing a part in your March Madness happiness. 

“Above all else, I love March Madness itself. The build-up, the bubble, Selection Sunday, THE BRACKET, watching the kids pore over their picks, 12:15 p.m. Thursday tip-off, and letting the tsunami of games wash over me. Yes. More, please. 

The past few years, an uncomfortable feeling has crept in as the calendar flipped to March: a labor of love is still a labor.”

He goes on to write about how the work has chipped away at some of the joy of the season — and he throws out the possibility of a friend taking the reins. Perhaps taking the pool into the 21st century. We’ll see what happens. Either way, I’ll not miss the fax machine humming and beeping for three days in our den, and I’m excited for Colin’s freedom to celebrate March Madness without a red pen in hand. — Sharon


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