"Dad, I can go home. Come up and get me!"
Julie's voice on the phone sounded much better.
She'd been at Lawrence Memorial Hospital for the last few days - after suffering from an unexpected lung collapse, she's doing just fine now - and our thoughts were getting her back to the normal life of a college freshman.
As I left home to go help her check out of the hospital, I went to shut off the TV.
An ESPN TV announcer was saying, "It's tournament time. Selection Sunday is coming up . . . "
As I headed out the door, the thoughts were bouncing in: March Madness. Basketball. The office pool. Making picks. Should I go with the Jayhawks again?
I was glad to be thinking about something else for a change.
A dose of B-ball
If you need a little escape from life's setbacks, one of the greatest events of the spring is coming up: the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Just about everyone can have some fun with it, whether it's just watching the games or taking part in an office pool.
In the past, office pools were generally set up by hand, with a few people designated to tally up the standings after every round. Some people probably still go the old-fashioned route and run their own by hand. If you don't know how, you can get some instructions at eHow.com (www.ehow.com/how_11958_NCAA-tournament-pool.html)
But you also can hook into free pools set up online by Web sites such as Yahoo!, ESPN and KUSports.com. SportsBracket.com offers free software and a forum.
Or you can take it a step further, and plunk down about $20 to $30 and buy software to set up your own exclusive office pool.
The software out there helps you sign up participants, makes it easy to score and allows you to print out the brackets or even set up Web pages that display the results and generate e-mail to the participants.
Getting set up
One of the longtime software products on the market is Turbo Tourney, which is made by Sideline Softwear in Ankeny, Iowa.
It's been around for a dozen years and costs $29.95 for the basic program, which is set up to handle 1,000 players. You can download a demo to see if it's what you want.
Among the features are downloadable pairings and results templates, custom scoring and tie-breaking options, a database connector, Web page generator, second-chance pools, customizable reports and scenarios to let you see which players are still in the running.
It also gives you various ways for players to enter their picks, including either manually on paper, through e-mail, a network, with text files or over the Web.
If you want to put up a Web site, it will generate all the files you need for a tournament Web site.
And it has an automated scheduler, which updates your pool with the latest results, calculates the standings and posts the latest results to your Web site. It even sends e-mail out to the pool players.
Another product is Office Pool 2006 by Pachyderm Software Inc. It runs on Mac OS X, Mac Classic (OS 8 or 9), Linux and Windows XP.
It's free to try out, but costs $22 to buy. So, if your pool has 100 people, it would cost 22 cents each to spread out the cost of the software.
If you want to enter a pool, but don't want to figure out your picks yourself, it also has a QuikPik feature than automatically makes you a random bracket.
Office Pool 2006 also has a Web-based entry form, which makes it easy for people to fill out their picks online.
Not in Kansas
Office Pool 2006 also has a feature to "keep track of who's paid" to help identify the deadbeats. But since gambling is illegal in Kansas, I'm sure that feature wouldn't be necessary around here, where we play only for the thrill of winning.
Just to be sure, I checked with Whitney Watson, a spokesman for Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline.
Watson said that Kansas law prohibits any type of gambling that is not sanctioned by the state. The only legal gambling in Kansas is trackside parimutuel betting at state-sanctioned horse and dog tracks, the state-operated lottery and gambling at state-sanctioned Indian casinos, he said.
"Any time you pay a price for the chance to win a prize or money, then it would apply," he said.
But yes, you can enter a pool if it's just for fun, he said.
Another piece of software you might consider is Leapy Dog's Pool Master 2006 (www.leapydog.com).
It works with Windows 98, Me, NT4.0, 2000, XP and Mac OS9.
Leapy Dog's pool master spreadsheet provides stats about who's ahead in the pool and whether their picks can win the Final Four.
It also keeps track of the picks for each pool player, showing each player's picks in color coding, to make it easy to see which teams are still in the running.
It shows how many people in the pool made the correct pick.
It also allows you to build a pool Web site that features the entry bracket, standings, everyone's picks and stats.
And it gives you some options for using a scoring system in your pool and allows you options for upsets and for bonus teams.
You can download a free demo to try it out and use it to run a pool for up to five players. To get the registered version, it will cost you $19.
Bring on the madness
"I can't believe how good it feels to be outside," Julie said as we pulled up to her residence hall on Kansas University's campus.
One of her friends, Andrew, helped us gather up all the flowers, balloons, cards and other get-well gifts her friends had given her to carry up to her dorm room.
"We're going over to Mrs. E's to get something to eat," Julie told me, happy to be back in familiar surroundings.
I was still worried about her being back on campus. But the craziness and stress surrounding her hospital stay was over.
As I drove home, the kids down the street from me were in their driveway, shooting a basketball.
That reminded me I'm ready for another kind of madness: only four days until Selection Sunday.