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B1G Basketball Historical Perspective - The Birthplace of March Madness

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aka what to do w/ an Evanston arena back in March 1939

Ohio State versus Oregon in the 1939 NCAA (NABC) Championship Game
NCAA Photos (AP/Wide World Photo)

March Madness, aka the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament, is a multi-billion dollar event. The Final Four particularly has grown to both an athletic and social event on par with possibly only the Super Bowl; which is fitting because the NCAA Tournament Finals are now only held in converted football stadiums. There's some debate as to when this transformation began: perhaps in 1979 with the Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird Championship in Salt Lake City, or maybe the 1982 James Worthy/Sam Perkins/Michael Jordan North Carolina Tar Heels knocking off Patrick Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas in New Orleans (the first broadcast by CBS). What isn't debatable are the NCAA Championship's origins; dating back to March 27, 1939. And this very first NCAA (actually National Association of Basketball Coaches, the NABC) Championship Game was played on the Northwestern University campus.

The 1939 NCAA Tournament featured just 8 teams in 2 regions. Ohio State (from the Big 10), Wake Forest, Brown, and Villanova in the East Region; with Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah State, and Texas in the West Region. The East Regional was played in Philadelphia, and the West Regional was played in San Francisco. Evanston, in suburban Chicago, was selected for the 1-game NCAA Championship Round. Interestingly, it was Ohio State head coach Harold Olsen who suggested that the NABC (NCAA) have its own post-season tournament.

Probably the most interesting aspect to the 1939 NCAA Championship is that this tournament was literally an afterthought; and would remain so for several decades. The year before, New York City-based sportswriters began the National Invitation Tournament with its finals played at the world-famous Madison Square Garden. In fact, prior to the early 1970s when the NCAA passed the 'Al McGuire rule' - barring teams from declining an NCAA Tournament invitation and playing in other post-season tournaments - teams could decline an invitation to the NCAA Tournament to play in the NIT.

With Ohio State winning the East Regional and Oregon winning the West Regional, the first-ever NCAA Championship Game would take place on March 27, 1939 at Northwestern University. The venue was the Patten Gymnasium (#1), a smallish on-campus arena which in an ironic twist would be torn down the next year (1940) to make way for Northwestern's Technological Institute. That said, given the newness of this championship Patten Gymnasium seemed to fit the bill for the Ohio State versus Oregon match-up. A sellout crowd of 5,500 fans were in attendance though, including Dr. James Naismith who invented the game of basketball.

Patten Gymnasium - Site of the 1939 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final
Northwestern University

The game itself was rather uneventful, with Oregon's "Tall Furs" knocking off the Big 10 representative (note that back then the University of Chicago was still in the Big 10, and Michigan State had yet to join) 46-33. The Chicago Tribune provided this summary of Oregon’s victory:

“Though the tremendous height of three of the Oregon giants was a factor in the triumph. It was the work of a pair of comparative midget guards, Capt. Bob Anet and Wally Johansen, that provided the vital spark to the winners’ offensive. Repeatedly Johansen and Anet dribbled with racehorse speed through the entire Buckeye quintet to set up a score. Anet is 5 feet 8 inches tall, three inches shorter than Johansen.”

In stark contrast to the multi-billion dollar revenues generated by today’s NCAA Tournament, the 1939 National Championship game lost $2,500; supposedly to a lot of fans getting into Patten Gymnasium for free. However, there was enough interest in the game and the tournament that the NCAA took it over from the NCAA the following year. And interestingly, the Big 10 would win the next 2 National Championships: Indiana in 1940 and Wisconsin in 1941 (both finals played in Kansas City).

Northwestern would again host the NCAA Championship in 1956 in what is now the Welsh-Ryan Arena. Additionally, Minnesota's Williams Arena (1951) and Maryland's Cole Fieldhouse (1966 and 1970) have hosted Final Fours as well. However, in the last 35 years or so the NCAA Tournament has pretty-much outgrown on-campus facilities; with only facilities such as the Dayton Arena and Syracuse's Carrier Dome remaining as on-campus hosts for March Madness.

Ohio State would go on to appear in what would become the Final Four a total of 11 times; claiming the 1960 National Championship. As for the Oregon Webfeet (now Ducks) who won the 1939 NCAA Championship. They would not return to the Final Four until 2017. Which, in an interestingly ironic twist of fate, would be THE YEAR at Northwestern.

This concludes the school-by-school Historical Perspective articles. It's been a blast going through these memories; both of games I watched way too many years ago, and on topics I found interesting such as this one. Over the next few weeks I'll write ('write') a few more articles on Conference and NCAA Tournament memories; including some 'southern hospitality', a second answer to an old joke, and on attempt #6 the opportunity to say (or sing) Amen!

Historical Perspectives

Maryland Part 1 and Part 2

Illinois

Rutgers

Iowa

Michigan

Indiana

Purdue

Penn State

Minnesota

Wisconsin

Ohio State

Nebraska

Michigan State