March Madness History
by Matt Foust
In 1891, when Dr. James Naismith first conceived the game of basketball, it's certain that he had no idea what kind of cultural phenomenon his invention would become. However, he probably started to have an inkling of a revelation when he handed Long Island University the second National Invitation Tournament trophy in 1939. Still, Dr. Naismith only lived long enough to see a glimpse of what has now become one the greatest annual sporting events in this nation's or any nation's history - March Madness. The following is a brief rundown of March Madness history.
As the popularity of college basketball began to spread, many felt it needed an avenue to allow for the full expression of its potential and a method to determine who the nation's best team was. A group of New York writers organized the first NIT tournament in 1938 as a means to accommodate the surging sport and crown a true national champion (who doesn't wish they had done this with football?). A year later the NCAA followed suit with a tournament of its own.
Initially, the winner of the NIT's field of six was considered the national champion. The tournament, being the original, also gained and maintained its status as top dog due to location. The prestige and limelight of New York's Madison Square Garden provided the backdrop for all of the on-court action.
In 1977 the Executive Director of the NIT, Peter A. Carlesimo, decided to move the tournament action to the campuses of the participating schools in an effort to bolster the tournaments waning popularity. Madison Square Garden would host the championship round only. Shortly afterward the NIT expanded to the 32-team format that it currently employs.
The NCAA Tournament, like the NIT, began in small fashion. The original tournament played host to only eight teams with the winners of the east and west regionals advancing to the championship game. The eight teams qualified for the tournament by winning district playoff games.
In 1946 the tournament began to take on a semblance of the moniker it now carries when, for the first time, four teams were allowed to advance to the championship site. However, the two teams not winning the east and west regionals only participated for third place.
By 1951, the NCAA Tournament began to make use of ideas that would one day propel it past the NIT as college basketball's premier tournament. It expanded its field to 16 teams, with 10 of the 16 teams qualifying automatically by winning their respective conference championships.
The tournament soon found itself gaining momentum and in 1954 the championship game was televised for the first time when LaSalle thumped Bradley, 94-76, in Kansas City. The years of 1974 and '75 also served as landmarks for the tournament in its bid to become king of the college basketball world. 1974 signified the first year in tournament action that the final four remaining teams all had a shot at the championship. In 1975 the NCAA expanded the tournament field to 32 teams and also began using the term "Final Four" in reference to the tournament.
By the early eighties the NCAA Tournament had sealed the deal as America's most beloved post-season college basketball event.
In 1985 the NCAA further paved the way for its current success by expanding the tournament field to 64 teams. Not only did this bring more excitement and anticipation to campuses across the country, it practically spawned a small cottage industry relating to the tournament's selection process. The current generation of college basketball fan starts looking at potential brackets about the time the Final Four has ended.
The NCAA Tournament has also been witness to some of the greatest moments, athletes, and teams in sports history. In 1950 the City College of New York actually won both the NIT and NCAA Tournament. In 1964 John Wooden's UCLA squads started an historic run that would result in nine NCAA championships in a 10-year span. During that stretch Wooden's Bruins lost only seven games. There's also legendary coach Bob Knight and his 1976 Hoosier squad that was the last team to go undefeated through the regular season and the NCAA Tournament.
The 1982 final saw a young Michael Jordan make himself a household name by nailing a game winning shot against Georgetown. Who can forget North Carolina State's improbable 1983 championship under the tutelage of the late Jim Valvano? Or Christian Laettner's last second OT shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Regional final? What about Danny Manning and the 11th-seeded 1988 Jayhawks? The list could go on and on, that's why the tournament has become an integral part of the American sports psyche.
Now there are printable March Madness brackets in almost every sports publication, office betting pools in every city in the United States, and tournament watch parties in homes across the country. Everybody has an opinion, everybody has a team, and everybody yearns for a Cinderella story. Outside of the Super Bowl, the NCAA Tournament is the most anticipated sporting event in America.
No, nobody could blame Dr. Naismith if he did not see any of this coming, nobody could have envisioned this kind of madness.