Morning Joe’s Willie Geist on the NCAA’s Final Four


Knowing that our friend, Morning Joe‘s Willie Geist–“The Oracle of MSNBC”–is a big sports fan, we thought we’d check in with him about the NCAA’s Final Four. Willie has fielded some questions from us before, so we’re pleased he had time–between Indian-wrestling matches with co-host Mike Barnicle–to answer a few more.

OK, give us the Willie Geist breakdown of the Final Four.

First, a disclosure: I have massive, life-changing amounts of money riding on North Carolina beating UConn for the national championship. This country’s fascist anti-gaming laws prevent me from saying anything more, but I do have a rooting interest here.

My financial considerations aside, UNC and UConn are the two teams that should play in the title game. A typical college basketball team is lucky to have two good players. Carolina and UConn each have four or five. I don’t like most of those players, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good. North Carolina’s star Tyler Hansbrough is perhaps the least likable college star to come along since Christian Laettner. He has a boring, old-man’s YMCA-league game and he plays with all the joy of Meryl Streep’s character in Sophie’s Choice. His unchanging facial expression is reminiscent of the one you see on hostage tapes–“Someone’s forcing me to be here. Send help.” The good news is that he has no chance of being a good NBA player, so we won’t have to watch him much longer.

The other hateable thing about Carolina is coach Roy Williams’s put-on, weepy folksiness in post-game press conferences. He’s always tearing up in front of the cameras and talking about how he can’t wait to get back to the locker room to hug some “big ole rascal” on his team. Shut up. The strange thing is that I’ve always liked Carolina. Not this year. They’re too good. I love their opponent, though. Villanova’s tough as hell and afraid of no one, as they’ve shown against UCLA, Duke, and Pitt in the tournament. Carolina’s a whole different animal, though.

In the other game, you have to root for Michigan State playing in Detroit, a city and a state that could use a win right now. I was shocked that the Spartans beat Louisville so badly. UConn should beat State, but you never know in this tournament. Tom Izzo is a great coach. Plus, it’s the 30th anniversary of the season Magic Johnson led Michigan State to the national title (which means nothing, but the media loves a dumb storyline).

Bottomline: My heart wants Villanova and Michigan State to win, but my rotten, vacant, money-grubbing soul will be cheering for two teams I really don’t like. UNC beats UConn for the title.

What do you think of UConn coach Jim Calhoun’s impassioned defense (“Not a dime back!”) of his exorbitant salary?

I know we’re supposed to be outraged by people’s salaries these days, but most college coaches are worth the money they’re paid. The big revenue sports (men’s football and basketball) bring huge TV, licensing, and ticket money to universities. A study out just this week showed the UConn basketball program brought in more than $14 million dollars last year. Calhoun made $1.6 million. A lot of that revenue goes back to help sports that could not exist without the money Calhoun’s team brings into the school (yeah, I’m talking to you men’s water polo).

The University of Kentucky just signed coach John Calipari to an eight-year, $32 million deal. Somebody at these schools seems to think the big salaries are worth it because they’re not getting any smaller. In fairness, a large percentage of Calipari’s paycheck will go toward purchasing cars and homes for the families of high school recruits. The money is not all for him.

What college or pro basketball player does your co-host Mika Brzezinski most remind you of?

Definitely former Knicks and Nets star Michael Ray Richardson. Like Michael Ray, Mika has all the talent in the world, she has no flaws in her game, she’s fun to watch, and everybody likes her. But, also like Michael Ray, the demons of substance abuse will ultimately prevent her from reaching the stardom for which she was destined. Hers will become a cautionary tale for future generations. Substitute Michael Ray’s cocaine with Ambien and you have “The Mika Brzezinski Story” (sure to be the subject of a future HBO documentary narrated eerily by Liev Schreiber).

If you’re able to get out to watch the Final on Monday night, what bar might we find you and Barnicle at?

First of all, I would never be seen outside of work with Mike Barnicle. Our whole back-slapping comraderie thing is an act for TV. I assume he’ll be watching from his usual steamy bench at the Russian & Turkish Baths on the Lower East Side. Barnicle likes to be beaten with Platza Oak Leaves while he watches college hoops. He says it heightens the pleasure of watching top-flight athletes in competition. I don’t get it.

I’d love to say I’ll be watching the game in a rowdy bar and high-fiving my buddies like they do in Bud Light commercials, or hanging out in the VIP room at the 40/40 Club with Jay-Z and Beyonce, drinking champagne and talking about our new projects. The truth is I’ll probably pass out at halftime after polishing off the pot pie my one-year-old daughter didn’t finish for dinner. Our pre-dawn Morning Joe wakeup call doesn’t allow for much entertainment after 10 p.m.

Say you had to design the mascot costume for Morning Joe–what would it be?

Boy, that’s a strange question. I think we’d look good as those giant Racing Sausages the Milwaukee Brewers have. Joe could be the All-American hot dog. Mika, given her family heritage, would be the Polish sausage. And if it’s just the same to everybody, I wouldn’t mind being the bratwurst: German, spicy, and often cooked in beer.

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