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Thursday, March 7, 2002
Updated: March 11, 5:36 PM ET

How March went mad

By Jeff Merron
Special to ESPN.com

A few years ago, Texas Tech coach Bob Knight reflected on his playing days:

"In 1960, our Ohio State team with Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek won it all. But public awareness and media attention were a fraction of what they are today. In San Francisco, where the Final Four was played, we went up against Cal in the championship game, and still a big percentage of Bay area people didn't know or care what was going on. After winning, we went out to celebrate. I was with Havlicek, (Larry) Siegfried, and (Gary) Gearhart. We were young, so night spots wouldn't let us in. We said, 'Hey, we just won the national championship.' They asked: 'Championship of what?' We showed them our national championship wrist watches and finally got in. Can you imagine that happening now?"

So, when did the NCAA Tournament become "March Madness"? When did the semifinals become the "Final Four"? When did the NCAA men's basketball championship tournament arrive as an Event, on a par with the World Series, even surpassing the NBA playoffs, and deserving to be mentioned with the Super Bowl?

Many believe it was March 26, 1979, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird.

Subscribers to the "great man" theory of history would have us believe that the 1979 matchup between Johnson and Bird, the catalysts for the NBA's spectacular rise in the '80s, made March mad. After all, it was the highest-rated game in college basketball history. And it still is.

The game itself was anticlimatic, as Johnson's Michigan State Spartans easily beat Bird's Indiana State Sycamores, 75-64. The Spartans' matchup zone defense, which double-teamed Bird moments after he touched the ball on offense, effectively shut down the Sycamores. But the buildup was incredible.

"At the time, it was as much hype as you could get," said Hank Nichols, who officiated the contest. "All the sports pages around the country were writing about it."

But the conventional wisdom that these two great players changed the course of college basketball history forever, on that one night, is not entirely true. It's only part of a much more complicated explanation.

March Madness: The Early Years
The term "final four" was first printed in an official NCAA publication in 1975, and became a proper noun -- "the Final Four" in 1978.

"March Madness" goes back much further: it was the title of a 1939 article in Illinois Interscholastic magazine, describing the frenzy surrounding the high school basketball playoffs in that state. March Madness stuck as the unofficial, and then the official, name of that high school tourney.

The first NCAA basketball tournament, in 1939, lost money: $2,531, to be exact. But college hoops became pretty big business as early as the 1930s and 1940s, and the profits came quickly, and rather easily. Regular-season sellouts were common at the old Madison Square Garden in New York.

Fan interest was high enough to sustain two major post-season tournaments -- the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) was even bigger than the NCAA tourney in the 1940s, but was reduced to a consolation prize when the NCAA changed its rules in the mid-1950s to make it mandatory for conference champions to compete in the playoffs. In 1970, Al McGuire's Marquette rejected an NCAA tourney bid in favor of the NIT (which Marquette won), and the NCAA responded by making the rules even more authoritarian: if you don't want to play in the NCAA tournament, you can't play in any other post-season tournament, either.

In some circles, the NCAA championship game was a big deal very early on. Horace "Bones" McKinney, who played for a UNC team that lost in the final, 43-40 to Oklahoma State in 1946 at Madison Square Garden, said, "Maybe the final four hadn't come of age back then, but it couldn't have been bigger for us. That old Garden was packed with 19,000, and the smoke was so thick I couldn't even see the upper deck. It was New York, and we were big stuff."

Big stuff, indeed. That 1946 game was the first title game televised, broadcast to about 500,000 viewers in the New York area over CBS. The first nationally televised final came in 1954 -- the broadcast rights sold for $7,500 -- gathered a respectable audience, and the championship game remained a reliable high-ratings Saturday staple for almost two decades.

On January 20, 1968, the sports world was startled to learn just how popular college basketball could be. All of the sudden, it seemed, college basketball was an Event that would fill huge arenas.

The Astrodome was the scene, and 52,692 fans -- a sellout and 4,000 standing-room-only fans -- showed up for a regular-season game headlined by UCLA star Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes of the Houston Cougars, who upset the mighty Bruins, 71-69.

But did the game lead to March Madness?

Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book, The Tipping Point, suggests that some social change fits an "epidemic model," where, says Gladwell, "things generally go from being at a very low level of equilibrium to a dramatic spike in a short period of time." That is, they "tip."

But the game in the Astrodome was not the "tipping point" for college basketball. Rather, it is a convenient landmark on the historical journey to March Madness and the Final Four, a journey accelerated by a number of developments over the past three decades.

Monday Night Roundball
In 1973, the NCAA moved the semifinal games to Saturday, and the final to Monday night.

It had worked for football -- Monday Night Football was a surprise hit for ABC when it debuted in 1970. The Monday-night matchup worked for college basketball, too. More viewers tuned in, and many of those viewers weren't season-long fans. But they enjoyed a good game, and a party, and a respite from Spring reruns. The Gathering of the Non-Fans was essential to the making of The Event.

In 1984, five years after Bird vs. Magic, the NCAA expanded to 64 games, after having already eliminated the cap on the number of teams that could compete from each conference.

Dave Gavitt, then chair of the tournament selection committee, says that these technical innovations in the tournament made the difference: "Those two things created all those great matchups you see now," he said in 1991. "From there, the sport's popularity went through the roof."

Terry Holland, chair of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee, says, "With 64 teams, it's nearly impossible not to have someone to root for, or a relative who went to one of the schools & or two & or three."

But this expansion would not have mattered as much without ESPN and CBS.

In March, football season is long over and still far from beginning. The NBA and NHL seasons are in the dog days, still weeks from the playoffs. Spring training is a welcome respite for baseball fans, but preseason tuneups aren't much to get excited about. So, what else is there besides college hoops?

Furthermore, says Gladwell, "It's not yet full-blown spring, so you don't feel guilty about spending your entire weekend indoors. That may sound trivial, but I'm always struck by just how much time investment the tournament requires. That wouldn't be possible in the summer."

Bob Frederick, who was tournament chairman in 1995 and 1996, says ESPN stepped into the void and helped the tournament's popularity grow tremendously with its morning-to-midnight telecasts: "I think a lot of it was the result of ESPN's coverage of the first- and second-round games in the mid-1980s. A 16th seed might be ahead of a No. 1 seed, and ESPN would be switching back and forth between that and other games."

And, says CBS basketball analyst Billy Packer, it helps that the tournament is "the perfect vehicle for television. Games fit a nice two-hour time block and there's an appropriate championship path, in which you've got 64 teams, then 32, 16, eight, four, and two."

This dramatic, single-elimination format is easily represented on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, introducing the word "brackets" into the national vocabulary. Fans and non-fans alike fill out their brackets each year at home and in office pools, where a $5 ante can get the most prescient prognosticator a small pot of gold.

Adding to the drama, the NCAA grew out of the UCLA era and featured greater parity: in the 1980s, the average margin of victory in the finals was four points. Unlike the Super Bowl, which often produced disappointingly lopsided games, fans came to count on close, tense matchups and multiple upsets and near-upsets throughout the tournament.

While the tournament may not have had a tipping point, Gladwell says, it did have an element crucial to the creation of an "epidemic," or, in this case, a madness: it had "stickiness," by which an idea sticks, or holds one's attention.

"The genius of the tourney, in TV terms, is that every single game counts," Gladwell said in an e-mail interview. "It narrativizes the conclusion of the basketball season in a way that, say, the bowl system in college football does not. Narrative is a key part of stickiness."

The Players
The tandem of Johnson and Bird was an anomaly -- a rare pair capable of drawing the attention of a general audience to a game. Even Michael Jordan was not a huge draw in college. When he made the game-winning shot in the 1982 finals, he was a relatively obscure freshman who gave little hint of becoming the brand name he is today. For the most part, the college game itself was more important than any players.

However, during the next two decades, as Jordan carried the torch for Bird and Johnson, fans kept a close lookout for "The Next Michael Jordan," and naturally they looked to the college game. As the NBA zoomed up in popularity, partly on the heat generated by these megawatt names, the NCAA rode its coattails.

Furthermore, the college game maintained a veneer of amateurism and school spirit that the pro game couldn't claim. For all of the problems of big-time college sports -- early departures by players, dubious academic standards, and fishy recruiting tactics -- fans have tended to see college basketball as a relatively wholesome pastime.

Last year's final four of Duke, Arizona, Maryland, and Michigan State -- all high seeds -- couldn't have been more different from the 2000 final four of Michigan State, Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin, which represented, on the average, the lowest-seeded batch of teams ever to play on the final weekend. But, in terms of popularity, it doesn't matter who's playing -- 45,406 packed the Metrodome for the 2001 final, and the big domes (the Georgia Dome this year and in 2007, the Superdome next year, San Antonio's Alamodome in 2004, the Trans World Dome in St. Louis in 2005, and Indianapolis' RCA Dome in 2006) hosting the finals through 2007 will also be filled, even if most fans can barely see what's happening on the floor.

In 2002, the suspense will be as thick as ever, the pageantry at full force. Gamblers, including the millions of office pool devotees throughout the land, will be watching closely over the estimated $2.5 billion they've wagered on the tourney. And March will again spill its particular brand of madness into April and millions of homes.

Jeff Merron is a contributing editor for ESPN.com and former executive editor of SportsJones.