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In 1939, the Oregon Webfoots, coached by the visionary Howard Hobson, stormed through the first NCAA basketball tournament, which was viewed as a risky coast-to-coast undertaking and perhaps only a one-year experiment. Seventy-five years later, following the tournament's evolution into a national obsession, the first champions are still celebrated as "The Tall Firs." They had astounding height along the front line, but with a pair of racehorse guards who had grown up across the street from each other in a historic Oregon fishing town, they also played a revolutionary fast-paced game. 
Terry Frei's track record as a narrative historian in such books as the acclaimed Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming, plus a personal connection as an Oregon native whose father, Jerry, coached football at the University of Oregon for seventeen seasons, make him uniquely qualified to tell this story of the first tournament and the first champions, in the context of their times. Jerry Frei was the former World War II fighter pilot who, as the Ducks' head coach, requested his teams be called the Fighting Ducks -- a nickname that now often appears on the basketball team's uniforms.
Plus, Terry Frei long has been a fan of another central figure in this drama -- Clair Bee, the Long Island University coach who later in life wrote the Chip Hilton Sports Series books, mesmerizing young readers who didn't know the backstory told here. In 1939, the Bee-coached LIU Blackbirds won the NCAA tournament's rival, the national invitation tournament in New York -- then in only its second year. Frei assesses both tournaments and, given the myths advanced for many years, his conclusions in many cases are surprising.    
Both events unfolded in a turbulent month when it was becoming increasingly apparent that Hitler's belligerence would draw Europe and perhaps the world into another war . . . soon. Amid heated debates over the extent to which America should become involved in Europe's affairs this time, the men playing in both tournaments wondered if they might be called on to serve and fight. Of course, as some of the Webfoots would demonstrate, the answer was yes.
It was a March Before the Madness.   



There's much more to this book than the Oregon Webfoots, but for

those intrigued by the Oregon angle, please consider Terry Frei's novel based on 

being raised in Eugene as the son of the University of Oregon's

head football coach in tumultuous campus and national times.

The Witch's Season 

"Carefully crafted, fast-moving and refreshing ... Frei's study is quite memorable."
-- Publishers Weekly (Full review)  
"Terry Frei has told an amazing, riveting story of how a group of basketball coaches started a loosely organized tournament that Oregon won that first year. Of course, it eventually would grow into an even that captures the nation's attention each March. As a young NCAA administrator, I was the tournament director in the 1960s -- and I have to say this taught me a lot I didn't know."
-- Chuck Neinas, president, Neinas Sports Services; former executive director, College Football Association; and former commissioner of Big Eight and Big 12 Conferences
"From humble beginnings, Oregon's ‘Tall Firs’ became the best basketball team in the country, helping to break the New York monopoly on an increasingly national game, and the NCAA tournament became an unstoppable financial juggernaut. Once again, Terry Frei has vividly captured a pivotal moment in history, for the world of college basketball and for a world about to go to war. The exploits on the court are enthralling not only for their drama, but held up for comparison against what the tournament has become today—as well as the danger lurking only a few years away."
-- Luke DeCock, sports columnist, Raleigh News & Observer  
"Few writers are able to put sports into real-world context like Terry Frei. Reading March 1939 is like crossing ESPN with the History Channel. Frei brings the '39 Oregon Webfoots to life and takes us inside their victory in the first NCAA basketball tournament -- played as Germany and Japan marched the world (including a hesitant United States) to the brink of war."
-- Steve Luhm, Salt Lake Tribune
"What is unique about Frei's account is that he places the reader solidly in the world of 1939. This is basketball history, for sure, but also world history."
-- Heidi Shayla, Under Our Wing (Full review)
"Frei bookends March 1939 with the history, before and after 1939, of the young men and coaches who made up the Oregon squad. Frei depicts these 'Tall Firs' as charming small town Americans (David to the national power Goliaths) through skillful word play and research. There's a sense of pride at the end of the book for these gentlemen who went on to make their world a better place." 
-- George Krieger, Washington Independent Review of Books (Full review)   
"Frei is untouchable in his niche of researching and writing glimpses of sports history that would otherwise have been forgotten. His Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming and Olympic Affair: A Novel of Hitler's Siren and America's Hero are on my list of favorite sports books and Before the Madness is right alongside them."
-- Dwight Jaynes, Comcast Sports Northwest
"Well written and thoroughly researched . . . [T]hose interested in basketball’s early years and the origins of the NCAA Tournament will find much to interest them and a lot of new information."
-- Library Journal




           2015 Oregon Spring Game 






Webfoots' pre-season team photo. Back row: Manager Jay Langston, Wimpy Quinn, Earl Sandness, Laddie Gale, Slim Wintermute, Archie Marshik, John Dick, Coach Howard Hobson. Front row: Ted Sarpola, Ford Mullen, Toivo Piippo, Red McNeeley, Wally Johansen, Bobby Anet, Matt Pavalunas, George Andrews. Not pictured: Bob Hardy, Don Mabee.



Visionary coach Howard Hobson

Guard and captain Bobby Anet on cover makeshift media guide, using the alternative team nickname


Hall of Fame forward Laddie Gale

Center Slim Wintermute

Forward John Dick as the student body president in 1939-40


Bobby Anet, the Webfoots' pacesetter and leader

Guard and law student Wally Johansen. He and Anet had been inseparable since childhood in Astoria.

Starters and Hobson on cover of Old Oregon, March 1939


Leaving Eugene for regionals in San Francisco

Wally Johansen, Bobby Anet, Laddie Gale in championship game locker room

Bobby Anet with the (broken) trophy at Eugene celebration