It's March Madness time, that magical month of hoops hysteria that will see the nation's 64 leading college basketball teams get together for 63 heartbreaking losses and a single national champion. This is a year that is wide open, with at least 25 possible champions vying to take away the crown from the two heavy favorites -- Arizona and Kentucky.
This year the Final Four will take place in the Louisiana Superdome so late in March that it's actually April 5th and 7th. The ticket brokers are quoting $4,250 per seat for the good locations, and that's a month before anyone even knows who the participants will be. If it turns out to be Loyola of New Orleans, Tulane, LSU and Louisiana Tech then $4,250 will be dirt cheap.
The first NCAA tournament didn't quite get this kind of hoopla. In fact, the first tourney was so poorly attended that a net loss of $2,500 was posted. Actually, it was $2,531 (for the sake of accuracy) or 59.5% of the cost of a single ticket in 2003.
Turn back the pages to 1939. The first tournament saw the Oregon Ducks come out of the West by defeating the California Bears for the North-South Crown, then win the Western playoffs by dispatching Texas and Oklahoma. At the same time Ohio State was defeating Wake Forest and Villanova to win the East, so it was the Quack Attack against the Buckeyes for all the marbles. There was no Final Four as we know it today, but the final two were set to meet on the Northwestern University campus near Chicago.
Oregon opened a 21-16 halftime lead, saw their advantage slip to a single point as the second half started, then pulled away for a 46-33 win. The previous season Stanford had been declared as "probably the best team in the country," but in 1939 the national champion was decided on the court for the first time. Go Ducks!
Whoosh! It's the Hurryin' Hoosiers!
The Indiana Hoosiers were 17-3 in 1939 but finished behind the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten race. In 1940 they were 17-3 once again, and this time it meant a shot at the national championship because Purdue didn't want to go (!). The Indiana players were known as the Hurryin' Hoosiers because of superb conditioning and the fact that they seldom dribbled the ball. It was fast break all the way, sort of Phi Slamma Jamma 1940s style.
Once again the "Final Four" was actually a two-team, one-game match-up. Indiana's opponent was the mighty Kansas Jayhawks, whose coach Phog Allen had arranged for the big game to be in nearby Kansas City. The Jayhawks were riding high after a last-second 43-42 win over powerful Southern California.
Kansas jumped to a 10-4 lead and the Hoosiers called time out. The rules of the day stated that huddling with the coach was a no-no, so the Indiana players just stood there and breathed hard for a minute. Why not four minutes or so, as there is today? There were no Nike commercials in 1940, no Gatorade and no Energizer bunny. There was nothing else to do, so let's play ball!
The time out was perfectly timed; the Hoosiers regrouped and forged a 32-19 halftime lead. Indiana went on to win, 60-42, and become the second national champions in the world of college hoops.
On, Wisconsin, on, Wisconsin, oh please make one shot!
What can be said about the 1941 Wisconsin Badgers? They were coming off a 5-15 season in 1940. In their first Big Ten encounter in 1941 they were a little on the cold side in the second half. How cold? They didn't make a single field goal! The team's center summed it up pretty well: "We were just awful," he said. After that clanking start only the most ardent fan could have envisioned a national championship on the horizon.
After the opening disaster the Badgers refused to lose. They won the rest of their conference games, including a 38-30 win at Indiana in an era when the Hoosiers lost in Bloomington once every three years.
The Badgers were going to the big dance (it was probably called the "little dance" back then) and it was decided that the playoffs would be in Madison, Wisconsin. A home court advantage? Yes, and no. The Badgers barely won, 51-50, against Dartmouth and had to come back in the second half to stop Pittsburgh, 36-30.
The Final Four -- oops, Final Two -- was once again in Kansas City. Washington State was the opponent, featuring a 6'8" giant (by the standards of the day) named Paul Lindeman. The game was tight all the way, but the Badgers won it 39-34 with a strong stretch run.
The Road to the Final Four is a nightly recap show on CBS that keeps the nation posted on the latest events in the unfolding drama that is college basketball today. In the early years it was not nearly as big a media event, but interviews with the players show that it meant just as much to win it all.
"It meant everything to us back then," one former player recently recalled, "and it still does today."