March Madness comes to super fan Mitch Henck
Now back home in Indiana, the former Madison-area media personality is about to experience the NCAA Tournament in his backyard.
For decades, Mitch Henck chased the NCAA basketball tournament, counting seven Final Four games among his travels. This year — starting this weekend — March Madness is coming to him.
More on that momentarily.
Anyone who remembers Henck’s 20 years as a Madison media personality knows about his passion for college basketball in general and the men’s NCAA Tournament in particular. Among true aficionados, opening weekend is the real heart of March Madness.
“The NCAA Tournament is the rare sports event that gets worse as it goes,” Ben Cohen wrote Thursday in the Wall Street Journal. “The best part of March Madness is the bracket chaos of the first round.”
“It’s my favorite weekend of the year and has been since I was a little kid,” Henck says.
While in Madison, on the tournament’s first day each year, Henck would host his 1310 WIBA-AM radio show “Outside the Box” from the Mid Town Pub in Middleton. His guests included former University of Wisconsin–Badgers players and coaches like John Powless and Dick Bennett.
“It was a rite of spring,” Henck says.
There was the occasional bloody mary and Henck would often impart some arcane piece of tournament history, like how the Badgers’ only NCAA Tournament title came with a 39-34 win over Washington State University in 1941 — this year is the 80th anniversary.
Henck moved to Indiana, his native state, two years ago. He hosts “Mitch in the Morning” on WHBU-AM in Anderson, some 40 miles from Indianapolis. Due to the pandemic, the NCAA is holding all 2021 tournament games in Indiana, mostly in four arenas in Indianapolis.
Yes, the entire tournament is in Mitch Henck’s backyard.
Better yet, he has tickets.
Which brings us to a component so far missing from our tale. Since they were old enough to dribble a ball, Henck encouraged his two children, Stephen and Ariana, to love March Madness the way most kids love Santa Claus.
“My job as a parent,” Henck says, “was to try to instill a reverence for the tournament.”
Starting before they were 10 (Ariana today is 26, Stephen is 28), Henck would take them to Babe’s Sports Grill on Schroeder Road on Selection Sunday. Each child would be handed a paper plate with an empty 64-team bracket drawn on it. The kids would then fill in the bracket as the pairings were announced on the Babe’s TV. Henck’s encouragement bore fruit.
“It did stick,” Henck says. “They love it.”
What happened in 2007 didn’t hurt. That year, the three Hencks entered the March Madness bracket pool at the Stadium Sports Bar on Monroe Street.
“Grown-ups tend to bet with their hearts,” Henck says. “My kids played the favorites.”
Stephen took first place and won $218. Ariana finished second and won $135. “I finished 40th,” Henck says.
The University of Florida won the championship that year. A couple of weeks later, Ariana was getting a golf lesson at Vitense from pro Mike Schnarr. Badgers head basketball coach Bo Ryan was taking a lesson in an adjacent stall and Mitch introduced his daughter to the coach, whose team had made an early exit from the tournament that year.
“I had Florida in the pool,” Ariana told him.
Today Stephen and Ariana both live and work in the St. Petersburg, Florida area. Since they’ve grown and left the Midwest, they’ve made a point of meeting up with their dad to watch the opening weekend of March Madness on TV. (Ariana attended UW–Madison and went to two Final Four games when the Badgers played.)
“Ariana can name every NCAA Tournament winner since 2000,” Henck says.
Last year, Mitch was planning to fly to St. Petersburg to be with the kids on opening weekend. The pandemic shelved that. This year — with the NCAA allowing up to 25% capacity attendance for tournament games — Stephen and Ariana got online early and secured a bunch of tickets for the first weekend games in Indianapolis.
“They’re bringing friends and got an Airbnb,” Henck says. “Stephen says he’s seven minutes by Uber from every venue.”
Henck knows they have a ticket for him for the West Virginia vs. Morehead State game on Friday and he figures he’ll see four games across the weekend.
“I don’t care which games I go to,” Henck says. “I just enjoy the heck out of the tournament.”
Thursday evening, Henck was planning to attend an invite-only TV viewing party of the tournament’s First Four games, played at other venues in the state. The party was at the swank Columbia Club in Indianapolis.
“I’m told I have to wear a jacket,” he says.
Mitch Henck in a jacket? The first upset of the tournament.
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