GORDON WHITE: Basketball: Let the (March) Madness Begin
Whether it is called "March Madness" or "The Big Dance", the NCAA Basketball Championship was neither a mad scene nor a big event when it was first staged 70 years ago this month.
It played a rather poor second fiddle to the National Invitation Tournament, which was only two years old in 1939 but was already recognized as the premier college basketball championship tournament.
There were only eight teams entered in that 1939 National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I tourney and only six teams in the NIT. The University of Oregon defeated Ohio State in the NCAA's title game, 46-33, before a mere 5,500 persons who filled Northwestern University's small Patten Gymnasium in Evanston, Ill., March 27, 1939.
A week later two undefeated teams met in the second NIT's final game at New York City's Madison Square Garden before 17,000 fans. Long Island University beat Loyola of Chicago, 44-32, in that NIT title game for what was then the "real" championship in college basketball.
The idea of a national college basketball championship tournament had been kicking around for years. The first such tournament came about because some New York City sports reporters and editors got fed up with the everlasting story that "maybe a national championship tournament will take place". They wanted to cover a national college basketball championship tournament instead of speculating about such a competition.
That is how the NIT was fashioned by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association which conducted the first two NIT events in conjunction with Madison Square Garden in 1938 and 1939.
That first NIT in 1938 was what galvanized some major college basketball coaches to establish the NCAA Basketball Championship tournament. There was a feeling by these coaches, particularly in the Midwest, that New York City would corner the market on college basketball's big events.
Also, many non New Yorkers in the sport felt colleges and not some New York sports writers should decide what team is a national champion. Ergo, the birth of the NCAA Championship in 1939.
It was those coaches who created that initial NCAA tournament, not the NCAA itself. The 1939 tournament, which was called the National Collegiate Basketball Championship, was conducted by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
These coaches selected a team from each of the eight NCAA districts across the nation and divided them into two four-team regions --- East and West Regionals.
The 1939 NCAA Championship opened, March 17, in Philadelphia where Villanova beat Brown, 42-30, and Ohio State beat Wake Forest, 64-52, in the East Regional first round. The next evening, Ohio State defeated Villanova, 53-36.
Then, on March 20 in San Francisco Oregon beat Texas, 56-41, and Oklahoma defeated Utah State, 50-39, in the first round of the West Regional. Oregon beat Oklahoma, 56-37, March 21, to reach the final at Northwestern.
But when all was played and done in that first NABC effort at running a National Championship tournament, the coaches' association lost over $2,500, which was considerable for that time. The total attendance for the five game dates of the tournament was only 15,025.
The NIT, by contrast, had three double-header dates in the Garden for its half dozen teams in 1939. Each date filled the house with about 17,000 fans give or take a few.
Bradley and Loyola of Chicago received first-round byes while St. John's beat Roanoke College and LIU beat New Mexico A & M (now New Mexico State). Then Loyola defeated St. John's and LIU defeated Bradley in the semi-finals. LIU beat Loyola in the title game after Bradley beat St. John's for third place.
Those three NIT double-headers drew well over 51,000 fans to the Garden, then located on Eighth Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets. The current Garden is on Eighth Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets.
One could hardly blame the NABC for being somewhat discouraged after that first NCAA tournament. As a result, the coaches association gave up the idea of conducting the tournament although it never gave up the idea that such a national championship should be held.
Therefore, the NABC turned over control of the tournament to the NCAA, which has staged its National Championship tournament ever since.
At the same time, the New York sports reporters decided that it was too much for them to run a major, national college basketball tournament. So after the 1939 NIT they turned it over to five Metropolitan colleges --- St. John's, Manhattan, New York University, Fordham and Wagner. This quintet formed the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association which conducted the NIT for the next 66 years.
The NIT remained the leading tournament until well into the 1950's when the NCAA championship became Top Banana in the business.
A number of factors and one very strong personality played major rolls in bringing about the switch.
The first big blow to the NIT came about with the exposure of the 1950-51 college basketball fixing scandal that touched many of the nation's leading intercollegiate teams from coast to coast. But the corruption of college basketball players was always blamed, rightfully or wrongfully, on the environment in and around New York City. This was a major setback to Metropolitan New York basketball.
Then came the growing influence of television. The first National telecast of an NCAA Basketball Championship final game came in 1954 when LaSalle beat Bradley for the title in Kansas City. The NCAA made $7,500 for the TV rights to that telecast.
Also, the surge of the NCAA tournament was greatly enhanced by a young, ambitious former United Press reporter, Walter Byers, who was appointed executive director of the NCAA in 1951. He strengthened the NCAA tournament by a very aggressive and negative attitude toward the NIT.
To Byers credit, he boosted the NCAA Championship by negotiating very profitable television contracts and moving the tournament into big arenas. The NCAA Basketball Championship, under Byers' direction, turned the little eight-team event of 1939 into a multi-billion-dollar affair that now starts with 65 teams and is witnessed by fans around the world. Byers retired in 1987.
The March Madness moniker was apparently first used as a throw-away line in the annual NCAA Basketball Guide of 1976. Back then UCLA had just completed its great run of a record 10 NCAA championships in 12 years under Coach John Wooden.
When UCLA won the first of those titles in 1964, there were only 25 teams entered in the NCAA Championship and UCLA, with a first-round bye, played and won only four games in the tournament. In 1965 when the Bruins won the last of those 10 championships, there were 32 teams in the event with no byes and UCLA won five games to gain the title.
Now there are 65 teams in the NCAA Championship and the current champion must win six games to take the crown.
No longer are a mere 5,500 on hand for the title game because the Final Four of March Madness is waged in such huge arenas as Ford Field in Detroit where this year's tourney concludes. The Final Four has been held in the Astrodome in Houston, the Superdome in New Orleans, the Alamodome in San Antonio and other arenas that hold 60,000 and more.
The many preliminary rounds are also held in big arenas so that the spectator revenue amounts to millions and millions of dollars each year while the TV contracts now amount to billions of dollars.
The NCAA Championship has reached the point where it takes over the attention of the American sports scene for an entire month each year.
Ironically, after the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association ran the NIT for 66 years, the five member institutions decided to divest themselves of the tournament in 2005. So who did they sell it to? Why, the NCAA of course.
So now the NCAA runs three major college basketball tournaments --- its own national championship plus the pre-season NIT that was created in 1985 and the original post-season NIT.
Both the NCAA and the NIT have produced memorable games and outcomes plus outstanding individual performances. Many coaches and colleges have become famous because of the NCAA tournament.
I covered three dozen Final Fours, countless NCAA preliminary round games from coast to coast and numerous NIT events at the Garden.
This leaves me with a backlog of wonderful memories of March Madness from the University of San Francisco with Bill Russell winning two consecutive titles in 1955 and 1956 through all 10 of Wooden's UCLA championships and Indiana's first of its three National titles under Coach Bobby Knight in 1976. Those Hoosiers were the last undefeated team to take the crown. Four of Wooden's UCLA championship teams were unbeaten.
There were many, many more fond memories, including the 1966 victory by Texas Western (now Texas at El Paso) over mighty Kentucky in the final at College Park, Maryland. Coach Don Haskins used just seven players, each of whom was an African American. This was the first NCAA title game when five black players started for a team and the first time a final team never used a Caucasian player.
Watching Bill Bradley set scoring records in the 1965 NCAA tournament and Bill Walton make 44 points in UCLA's 87-66 triumph over Memphis in the 1973 final were some of the best individual shows I remember.
When North Carolina got a "comfortable" lead over Marquette in the 1977 title game, Coach Dean Smith ordered the Tar Heels into his famous four-corner offense in order to hold the lead. But Coach Al McGuire's Warriors tore into that offense, shredded it completely and came from behind to win the 1977 championship, 67-59, in Atlanta.
Then there was the hard fought battle between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1979 title game at Salt Lake City when Bird's previously undefeated Indiana State lost to Johnson's Michigan State, 75-64.
Among the athletes who have been named "The Most Outstanding Player" in the NCAA tournament are Bill Bradley, Bill Walton, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, plus Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A & M (now Oklahoma State), Alex Groza of Kentucky, Jerry Lucas of Ohio State, James Worthy of North Carolina and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) of UCLA, the only three-time winner of that award.
The NCAA basketball Championship started with a poorly attended, money-losing effort in 1939 only to grow into the present tournament that is extremely rich in money and tradition. It is truly The Big Dance with a touch of madness thrown in.
Not bad for a former also-ran.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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