Warren Buffett’s annual March Madness contest for Berkshire Hathaway employees ended on Friday night when the final bracket got busted. The winner, 36-year-old Dwayne Johnson from West Virginia, was perfect through the first 29 games; his run ended when Marquette lost to South Carolina.
Johnson won $100,000—but if Marquette had won, he would have won $1 million. He came one game away.
Berkshire’s contest ends when no more brackets are perfect. The eye-popping grand prize is $1 million per year for life, but only for getting the Sweet Sixteen perfect. The odds on that are extremely slim. So the contest also gives $100,000 to the bracket that stays perfect the longest, no matter when it breaks. Last year, that came after 20 games; two men split the $100,000 prize when their brackets both busted from Middle Tennessee toppling Michigan State. Johnson made it much farther than last year’s winners, thanks in part to the dearth of big upsets in this year’s first round.
This year, Buffett sweetened the pot by adding another $1 million prize to anyone who correctly called all of the first 32 games. (Johnson says he didn’t know about that.) Marquette’s game against South Carolina was not the final game on Friday to finish, but in the next two games, Johnson had picked Kentucky and UCLA, and both won.
Thus, he got 31 of the first 32 games correct.
After Rhode Island beat Creighton, 10 perfect brackets remained in the Berkshire contest. When Wichita State beat Dayton, eight remained. After Cincinnati beat Kansas State, five remained. Michigan State beating Miami took out everyone but Johnson.
Johnson is a welder for Precision Castparts, which Berkshire acquired just two years ago. The company is headquartered in Portland, Ore., but Johnson works in a factory in Huntington, W. Virg. Johnson won $105,000 in total, because his company threw in another $5,000 to the contest. (Yes, he must pay standard taxes on his winnings.)
He spoke to Yahoo Finance by phone to discuss his big win; his wife and three sons, ages 5, 9, and 10, were in the car with him for the phone call.
“The enormity of the whole thing, $1 million a year for life, that’s insane,” he says, “so that thought does creep in where I think, man, that would have been really nice… but I can’t say enough about where I’m at. Just the fact that there wasn’t anything asked on my part, just being an employee. You’re not out anything. I’m dumbfounded that so many people don’t take part in it. I think for my 30 minutes, I got a pretty good return on my investment.”
Out of about 367,000 people who work for companies owned by Berkshire Hathaway, less than a third entered brackets in the free contest: 98,106 people.
Believe it or not, Johnson says he didn’t do much research for his bracket. “I spent 5 minutes here and there, over lunch, reading a couple articles on potential upsets, but it was kind of an afterthought,” he says. “Last year I had different methodology, I let my three sons pick whatever name sounded better. We didn’t make it very far that year.”
Johnson says he doesn’t pay much attention to college basketball until March, but he’s a big West Virginia University fan. (And the Mountaineers are still in the tournament as of the Sweet Sixteen.) In case you’re wondering: his Final Four are Villanova vs Arizona, and Louisville vs UNC. (In other words: his bracket is mostly busted, but that doesn’t matter now.) His final game is Arizona vs Louisville, and his champion pick is Arizona.
Shortly after Johnson received an email telling him that he had won the contest, he got a phone call from Warren Buffett. “He’s a warm, friendly fella,” Johnson says. “He asked me about my boys, and if they were basketball fans, and he said, ‘If you buy a basketball, make sure it’s a Spalding.’ And I said, ‘will do.’” (Spalding is owned by Russell Brands, which is owned by Berkshire.)
So, the big question is: what will Johnson do with the money?
“I don’t want to come off too cliche and obvious,” he says, “but it’s pretty much already gone. We are paying off some debt, paying off a vehicle, improving our situation in that respect. And of course we’re going to do a trip to Disney World for my boys, because I don’t know that I would ever be able to do that for them prior to this.”
Above all, Johnson says he’s struck by how many different types of people are in the same contest. “I’m a steelworker from West Virginia, competing for a prize, just the same as a counter worker from [Berkshire-owned] Dairy Queen in Odessa.”
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance.