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The following is excerpted from March 1939: Before the Madness.

The material explains how the first NCAA Tournament was 

quickly put together by the National Association of Basketball 

Coaches as the response to the Metropolitan Basketball Writers' first

invitational tournament at Madison Square Garden in 1938.

Contrary to myth, the NIT was not deeply entrenched at the time.

Please credit if pertinent. 

 

 

Meanwhile in New York, the first national invitation tournament

was played on March 9, 14, and 16, 1938. It definitely was an outgrowth

of the regular-season college doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden

and involved the type of conflict of interest for writers

that wouldn’t have been tolerated later. Although Ned Irish’s

fingerprints were on the tournament, too, the Metropolitan Basketball

Writers Association, made up of New York scribes, founded,

sponsored, and promoted it—and promoted it to the point where

they sometimes came off as carnival barkers imploring passersby to

enter the tent. The writers’ group was founded in 1934, and Irving

T. Marsh and Everett B. Morris, both from the Herald Tribune, were

its ringleaders. Morris also was the paper’s boating writer.

 

The plan was to follow Irish’s doubleheader formula in putting

together tournament fields, mixing New York–area teams

with intriguing squads from other parts of the country. One of the

goals was to confirm New York’s primacy in the college basketball

world, and the tournament did that, but there was some confusion

because nobody seemed to know what to call it. Most often, it was

“the national invitation tournament,” with the informality of lowercase

letters, but it also was labeled the Metropolitan Basketball

Writers’ tournament, the New York writers’ invitation tournament,

and several other combinations. Capital letters and/or the

NIT acronym didn’t come into play right away.

 

The participants in that six-team 1938 inaugural invitation

tournament were Colorado, Oklahoma A&M, and Bradley Tech,

joining eastern entrants Temple, New York University, and LIU. As

those with the farthest to travel, Colorado and Oklahoma A&M

had byes, and the writers probably were second-guessing the bracketing

that matched two New York teams, NYU and LIU, in the

March 9 quarterfinals, which guaranteed the early elimination of

one local draw. In a shocker, NYU knocked off Clair Bee’s Blackbirds

39-37. The Blackbirds finished the season with a 23-5 record,

disappointing given the expectations and a soft schedule, with the

other losses coming to Marshall, Minnesota, Stanford, and La

Salle. In the other quarterfinal, Temple beat Bradley Tech 43-40.

 

Colorado had won the Rocky Mountain region’s Big 7 league,

but the Buffaloes were sought because they had the biggest star in

the tournament—an event its home-state Denver Post, by the way,

called “the first national Invitation Intercollegiate tournament.”

 

That star was a scholarly fellow from Wellington, Colorado.

Byron “Whizzer” White was an All-American halfback for the

Buffaloes and a solid starter for Colorado in basketball. The New

York scribes couldn’t get enough of him, just as they had enjoyed

building up Luisetti when he came through with Stanford during

the regular season. The Colorado hero was the toast of Manhattan

from the time he arrived with the Buffaloes’ traveling party. He

had eight points in the March 14 semifinals as the Buffaloes edged

NYU 48-47 on Don Hendricks’s late basket. In the other semifinal,

the Oklahoma Aggies, coached by 33-year-old Henry “Hank” Iba,

lost a 56-55 heartbreaker to Temple. The New York scribes puffed

out their chests as they typed, knowing the nip-and-tuck semifinals

had been exciting, and hoped for a reprise in the March 16 championship

game.

 

Instead, they and the fans got a stinker. Temple routed Colorado

60-36 to win the tournament title, and Whizzer White bowed

out of his college basketball career with a 10-point night. Minutes

after the championship game, he again was being asked which he

would choose—the outlandish $15,000 contract from franchise

owner Art Rooney to play for Pittsburgh in the NFL or a Rhodes

scholarship to study in Oxford. “There are about 500 people trying

to make up my mind,” he said in the Madison Square Garden

dressing room. One way to tell that White already was an extraordinary

celebrity was that at least one scribe actually talked to him

after the game instead of following the usual procedure of typing

eyewitness accounts of the game and not seeking comment from

anyone involved.

 

Temple, the tournament champions, finished the 1937–38 season

with a 23-2 record. Many in the east advanced the Philadelphia squad

as the nation’s best, and it wasn’t unreasonable. Their head-to-head

victory over Stanford, the west’s top team, bolstered the claim. There

were scattered references to the Owls as “national champions,” but

for the most part, the national attitude—at least among those who

noticed in other areas of the country—seemed to be that the Owls

had won a new tournament for New York teams and invited guests,

no more suited to select the best team in the land than, say, a holiday

tournament. It was a tournament for select (and selected) teams, but

not a national championship, and Stanford wasn’t there. After beating

the Webfoots for the 1937–38 PCC title, the Indians didn’t go

anywhere, except perhaps to their homes during spring break. They

already had made two cross-country trips to New York and beyond

in the previous sixteen months. That was enough.

 

Considered an experimental venture that first year, the invitation

tournament was pronounced a success. The catch, though, was

that organizers couldn’t count on having a Whizzer White–type

drawing card every year from among the teams brought in from

outside the New York area or the East Coast.

 

Stanford coach John Bunn was one of many in his profession

who began to wonder if there might be a way to both combat the

national invitation tournament and determine a national champion,

perhaps as soon as the upcoming 1938–39 season.

 

*   *   *

 

Two weeks after the first national invitation tournament,

the nation’s coaches gathered for their convention at Chicago’s Morrison

Hotel. Stanford’s John Bunn brought up the idea of a tournament

involving teams from all areas of the country, with the selections

made by men who knew what they were doing. Other coaches

joined in the chorus.

 

In a sense, the tournament idea can be tied to the coaching tree

of longtime Kansas coach Phog Allen. Allen was a proponent, too,

and so were three of his former players-turned-coaches—Bunn,

Adolph Rupp (at least judging from his 1935 comments proposing

a national tournament), and Northwestern’s Dutch Lonborg. Also

outspoken in support of the idea was Ohio State’s Harold Olsen.

 

These weren’t coaches from obscure programs, in outpost parts of

the country, whining about the potential to be overlooked by the

New York tournament. These were coaches from prominent programs,

wanting to prevent the post-season spotlight from shining

only in Manhattan.

 

Bunn was certain his 1938 Stanford team would have won a

genuinely open national tournament, whipping Temple in any rematch,

plus any other teams the Indians found themselves matched

up against. He was about to give up coaching to become Stanford’s

dean of men before the next season, but he remained involved with

and passionate about the game.

 

Because the tournament would stretch from coast to coast,

the initial skepticism among many members was understandable.

[Oregon coach] Howard Hobson later said of the membership reaction: “Interest

was not great.” The majority of the 205 NCAA programs probably

wouldn’t contend for either the national invitation or the NCAA

tournament, so they weren’t going to be whipped into frenzies during

the debate. The enthusiastic supporters of an NCAA tourna-

ment might not have had huge numbers; they had major influence,

and others came around.

 

The NABC membership endorsed passing along the proposal

for a tournament to the NCAA. The catch was that the national

body then was barely 30 years old after its founding as the Intercollegiate

Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) in early

1906, and it still had limited resources and power. It was formed

as part of the response to President Theodore Roosevelt’s call for

rules changes in football to protect players—the “Flying Wedge”

repulsed him—and his summons of college presidents to the White

House for discussion of possible reforms. Sixty-two schools signed

up as charter members of the IAAUS in late 1905, and it officially

opened for business in March 1906. The name change to NCAA

came in 1910, and the organization began sponsoring a national

track and field championship as soon as 1921. But that was conducting

individual competition among athletes who made it to a

single-site meet and then tallying team points, and it was relatively

uncomplicated compared to team tournaments involving a series of

games. While the coaches could argue to the NCAA that a national

tournament wasn’t an unprecedented project for the organization,

its scope and ambition certainly were.

 

The NCAA was wary and officials essentially told the coaches:

Let us think about it. Back in Eugene, Coach Hobson at least mentioned

the possibility of a new national tournament to the Webfoots.

They didn’t get too excited, but they filed it away.

 

It wasn’t until October 3 that the NCAA went along with the

inception of a national tournament, and with a significant caveat.

The NCAA agreed to sanction the event, to be held at the end of

the 1938–39 season, but declared that the NABC assumed all the fi -

nancial risk. In addition to not being convinced of the tournament’s

fi nancial viability, the NCAA had minimal staff and didn’t want to

get in over its head, administering a far-flung national championship

on short notice.

 

Ohio State’s Olsen was named chairman of both the tournament

and selection committees. The Wisconsin native and former Badgers

star player started his coaching career at Ripon College in his

home state, but took over the Buckeyes’ program in 1922, when he

was only 27. He was one of the major voices behind picking up the

pace of the game through the early 1930s implementation of the

rule calling for teams to have no more than 10 seconds to advance

the ball past a center-court line. Also, the first tournament was going

to be held as part of only the second season without the jump

ball after every basket, and already some coaches were complaining

that the innovation made the game far too strenuous and even

potentially risky for the young athletes.

 

After the NCAA gave the go-ahead for the tournament, it wasn’t

put together overnight. The coaches involved had their own teams

to worry about, their own seasons to play, and the first tournament

always had a bit of an impromptu, by-the-seat-of-the-pants feel

to it. Once that approval came, Hobson and many other coaches

made their players aware that while they didn’t know all the details,

there would be a new tournament played at the end of the

1938–39 season.

 

“From that moment on, winning the national title became our

primary focus,” John Dick said.

 

*   *   *

 

While the Webfoots were on their way to New York [in December], Ohio State

coach Harold Olsen in Columbus announced that his National Association

of Basketball Coaches committees had roughed together

an outline for the fi rst national tournament. Notably, the December

14 Associated Press story about Olsen’s announcement began: “The

National Collegiate Athletic Association’s plan to select America’s

undisputed college basketball champion advanced a step today . . . ”

 

Declaring it to be the case, whether from the Ohio State campus

or from an Associated Press bureau, didn’t make it so, of course,

but it nonetheless seemed significant that the “undisputed college

basketball champion” phrase made it onto the national wire without

significant qualification or paying homage to New York as the

true center of the basketball universe.

 

Olsen announced plans for two four-team “sectionals,” one for

teams east of the Mississippi River and one for teams west of it. In

the ensuing months, those events also were called “regionals,” the

variations were numerous, and the most common was “Eastern (or

Western) championships.” One thing the new tournament and the

year-old New York national invitation tournament had in common

was a lack of uniformity in what they were called, whether in print

or anywhere else.

 

The Ohio State coach said those NCAA sectionals would be

played on March 10–11 or March 17–18, in New York or Philadelphia

in the East, and in Kansas City, Denver, or Los Angeles in the

West. Then the two surviving teams would meet for the national

championship at an as-yet undetermined site. Also, Olsen said one

team from each of eight districts would be in the tournament. His

statement gave geographic specifics for each of the eight districts,

listed the teams in each one, plus named district chairmen and committees.

 

That much seemed to be straightforward and sensible. It

truly would be a national tournament.

 

Olsen said it was up to each district to select its entrant, and

there were no set rules. He indicated it was preferable if each

committee could simply select a team as its representative in the

eight-team national field, but said they also could hold qualifying

playoffs, if they felt it necessary.

 

So this was the Ohio State coach issuing a statement in Columbus

that drew national attention, with the wire stories running in

many newspapers.

 

This was the Ohio State coach bringing up a plan that almost

certainly would involve the Big Ten champion—if not the Buckeyes,

then someone else from the league.

 

It’s inconceivable that the Buckeyes players didn’t get wind of

this.

 

Yet . . .

 

More on that later.

 

*   *   *

 

Eventually, Olsen named John Bunn, in his fi rst months as

Stanford’s dean of men, as chairman of the tournament’s Pacifi c

Coast district.

 

Because there were some “play-in”-type games when the tournament

was played the next March, it’s at least misleading to call the

inaugural tournament an eight-team event. Later, that most often

was brought up by those trying to say the NCAA tournament was

no more inclusive than the national invitation tournament. That’s

not true. The committee’s mistake arguably was not formalizing

the “play-in” process and making it the same in all eight districts,

essentially making the NCAA tournament a 16- or 32-team event

from the start. That would have flaunted how much more national

and democratic it was than the New York writers’ tournament.

 

Again, it’s amazing that so many of the NCAA tournament details,

including the sites, still were up in the air three months before

the tournament began. Even those vague plans changed considerably

before the first tournament began.

 

*   *   *

Ohio State’s coach, Harold Olsen, occasionally tended to duties

as the NCAA tournament chairman, checking in with the committees

in the eight districts and making sure all were prepared to

select the teams in the tournament. Since his original announcement

of vague plans in December, the schedule and sites had been

changed and firmed up. The four-team Western championships

were scheduled for San Francisco’s Treasure Island on March

20–21, in conjunction with the Golden Gate International Exposition,

which had opened in mid-February. That was the 1939–40

world’s fair, and the games were going to be played in the 12,000-

seat, multi-use pavilion—officially, the Golden Gate International

Exposition Coliseum—built for the fair. The Monday and Tuesday

dates for the Western games were designed to lessen competition

with the weekend crowds and attractions at the fair.

 

The Eastern and Western champions would head to Chicago

and meet in the NCAA’s national championship game on March

27 at Northwestern’s Patten Gymnasium in conjunction with

the NABC convention in Chicago. The theory was that

Chicago was centrally located and likely would be suitable neutral

ground for the two finalists—especially if the teams, as seemed entirely

possible, were from the opposite coasts.

 

[And that's the way it played out.]