March 11, 2003
By Mike Douchant
As college basketball ushers in another NCAA Tournament, we are reminded anew how the playoffs are akin to walking a tightrope, playing Russian roulette or participating in a crapshoot. When March arrives, it's time for Madness while witnessing postseason competition fraught with sentiment and punctuated by compelling drama. In every region of the country, the playoffs become a zany period with surprises galore.
Selection Sunday when the NCAA Division I Basketball Committee announces the bracket is anything but a peaceful Sabbath for devotees of "on the bubble" at-large teams all across the country. The nerve-wracking tension includes all fans during the competition as the zest for pressurized basketball in a one-loss-and-you're-out format spirals to its zenith at the NCAA semifinals and championship game known as the "Final Four".
It's difficult to believe now, but the Final Four hasn't eternally been the final word in national postseason competition. The initial reference to "Final Four" in an NCAA publication was an offhand comment in the national preview-review of the 1975 Official Collegiate Basketball Guide. The first time Final Four was capitalized occurred a mere quarter century ago in the 1978 NCAA guide.
In the last 20 years of the 20th Century, the reference emerged as a two-word icon of American sports, ascending to a spotlight previously reserved for marquee events such as the Super Bowl, World Series, Indianapolis 500, Kentucky Derby and major New Year's college football bowl games. No sporting event duplicates the Final Four's ambiance moments before tipoff of the first game of the Saturday doubleheader when four groups of loyalists in the same facility are consumed with hope that they are just two evenings away from witnessing firsthand their school capture a national title.
The fanfare created by March Madness, when alumni all across the country don their school sweaters and "return" to college, is contagious. What is the genesis of this exhilaration? Well, not everyone was so enthusiastic in the early years.
Actually, the NCAA's crown jewel wasn't the NCAA's idea and was literally dumped into the governing body's lap by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. A collection of New York sportswriters staged the first major college tournament, the National Invitation Tournament in 1938 in New York. But a group of NABC members, especially coaches from the Midwest, felt if there was to be national tourney, it should be sponsored by a collegiate organization and not scribes, particularly those with a "biased" Eastern influence.
Harold Olsen, a former Wisconsin player and coach at Ohio State, is given much of the credit for bringing the NCAA Tournament to the American sports scene. The first NCAA Tournament was conducted in 1939, sponsored not by the NCAA but by the NABC. Oddly, Olsen's Ohio State team reached the final of the eight-team event (one from each district) before losing to Oregon, 46-33.
Total attendance for the inaugural NCAA playoff was a paltry 15,025, and the venture produced $2,531 worth of red ink. Because the NABC was out of funds, it asked the NCAA to assume responsibility.
"We were darn lucky to get out of debt," said former Wisconsin coach Harold (Bud) Foster, a past president of the NABC. "When the NCAA bailed us out, they provided tickets for all our members.
"It was interesting that Wisconsin played a major role in pulling the basketball tournament out of debt. We had the NCAA boxing tournament in Madison in '39 and drew packed houses. The university turned over $18,000 to the NCAA, and that was the biggest amount the NCAA had received from any source up to that time."
The NCAA Tournament is a source of thrills, but certainly not cheap thrills as the monetary picture changed dramatically over the years. Consider: The average price per playoff ticket in 1978 was under $8. Less than 15 years later, the cost of an average ticket escalated almost 175 percent to about $22. In 1991, ticket sales generated $14,400,000.
The first public draw to fill oversubscribed orders for Final Four tickets was administered for the 1974 championship. The public "lottery" for the drawing of Final Four game tickets regularly receives in excess of 100,000 applications, with a high of 267,498 for the 1994 semifinals and final in Charlotte, nearly doubling the previous high of 143,829 for Indianapolis in 1991. In all, 533,193 tickets were requested for Charlotte, and a computer selected the winners of the 2,014 public tickets.
Of the general public applications for the 1994 Final Four, hoops-crazy North Carolina led the way with 53,977 applications. North Carolina's figure represented more Final Four ticket applications from one state than what was received by the NCAA from the entire country in 1980 when Indianapolis was host to the event.
The NCAA's luck of the draw includes selecting only one application per household. Applicants can apply as many times as they want, but only one application will be selected. Applicants can only request one or two tickets. Mail orders must be received (not postmarked) by no later than midnight April 30. Applicants can also use a 900 telephone number from March 1 to April 30. Interest income generated by ticket application funds are used to support NCAA youth programs and drug education efforts.
The NCAA can't completely control the scalping of Final Four tickets. One drastic option discussed was eliminating the lottery and just giving the tickets to the four participating institutions, coaches attending their national convention, NCAA membership and the host organizing group. The NABC Board of Directors has adopted a policy to try to curb abuse of Final Four tickets among its members.
Presumptuous scalpers seem to be everywhere at the Final Four festival and stand out as the sole snag in the NCAA's sure-footed system. The crafty profiteers relish their role, thinking they have a perfect job with great pay, flexible hours, no licenses, no dress code, no heavy lifting, and no real responsibility other than protecting the most precious pieces of small cardboard in all of sports.
What credentials do you require to excel at the scalpers' paradise? No special skills, just access to tickets, a keen sense of seat location and scalping regulations, and the ability to repeat a three-word question: "Need a ticket?"
The demand for Final Four tickets is principally for the semifinals on Super Saturday. Championship game tickets aren't as much of a problem for out-of-towners to procure because a good percentage of disgruntled fans from the two losing teams on Saturday leave before the final on Monday evening. Scalping remains a problem despite the NCAA going exclusively to larger domed stadiums. The top 5,000 or so lower-level seats in domes commanded as much money as tickets in smaller arenas in cities such as Dallas (1986), Kansas City (1988) and Denver (1990). Selling tickets above face value in many states is illegal, but a pair of premium tickets can go as high as $2,000 to $2,500.
TV ratings and revenue also increased exponentially over the decades. The 1992 NCAA championship game between Duke and Michigan was the most-watched basketball game in television history. An estimated 53 million viewers took in all or part of the final in the United States' TV homes covered by the Nielsen ratings. CBS estimated an additional 10 percent of the total audience watched the 1992 final away from home--in taverns, dormitories and other venues Nielsen doesn't survey. That's more than 100 times the initial viewing audience estimated at 500,000 in 1946, when the championship game (Oklahoma State defeated North Carolina, 43-40) was televised locally for the first time in New York by WCBS-TV. Eight years later, the first NCAA final was televised nationally for a broadcast rights fee of $7,500.
The staggering dollars CBS put on the table to gain contract extensions from the NCAA make previous deals pale in comparison. CBS began a new seven-year, $1 billion contract in 1991, including live coverage of all sessions of the tournament. In three previous three-year contracts, CBS was awarded the rights for 16 exposures (starting in 1982), 19 exposures (1985) and all regional semifinal games carried in prime time (1988).
An era came to a close at ESPN when CBS gained exclusive rights to the playoffs in 1990. The cable network, the home of early-round tournament games during the 1980s, developed a cult following of sorts and many believe the increased exposure given Cinderella teams helped revolutionize recruiting, making it easier for coaches at lesser-known schools to lure high school prospects. But the largesse put on the table by CBS knocked ESPN out of the picture although the all-sport channel had ballooned from a few hundred thousand households in 1979 to more than 60 million.
Television rights exceeded $1 million for the first time in 1973, when the Thursday-Saturday format for semifinals and final was changed to Saturday-Monday, allowing the championship game to be televised in prime time by NBC. Television rights exceeded $500,000 for the first time in 1969, when NBC was awarded the rights to televise the championship. The first major network television announcer was Curt Gowdy, the radio broadcaster for Oklahoma State's 50-station state network for the aforementioned 1946 title game.
A syndication, Sports Network, was involved in the first six live national telecasts of the NCAA Tournament from 1963 through 1968 for rights totaling $140,000. The announcer for the first six national broadcasts was Bill Flemming, a fixture on ABC's Wide World of Sports.
"NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers pleaded with (syndicator) Dick Bailey to carry the tournament," Flemming said. "Certainly, Roone Arledge was the pioneer of the Olympics. But Bailey was the same way for college basketball. What got the event over the hump was the 1968 (national semifinals) rematch between Houston and UCLA in Los Angeles after the Bruins had their long (47-game) winning streak snapped by the Cougars earlier in the season at the Astrodome. We had 253 stations pick up the semifinals and final that year (compared to an 11-station network in 1957)."
The worth of one rating point, the percentage of television households overall, escalated to 930,000 TV households in the fall of 1992 compared to 745,000 homes in 1979, when the ballyhooed matchup between Indiana State's Larry Bird and Michigan State's Magic Johnson aroused fans and generated the largest ever TV share (the percentage of televisions in use at the time).
Of course, the number of media credentials is also an accurate barometer to determine the popularity of a sports event. A total of 64 newspaper writers, the largest media group up to that time, assembled for the 1957 NCAA finals in Kansas City. In recent years, the robust Final Four regularly has in the neighborhood of 1,000 media representatives with credentials.
Media purists frequently bemoan the cosmetic appearance of games conducted in cavernous domed stadiums, but the magnitude of the playoffs is such the NCAA doesn't have much of an option. An NCAA decision to abandon intimate settings and establish a minimum seating capacity of 30,000 for Final Four sites reduces the field of potential candidates to nine because there is limited hotel lodging near Syracuse's Carrier Dome.
Some believe the NCAA Tournament has lost perspective and taken on too much importance. Stanford coach Everett Dean took home a meager check for $93.75 to cover his team's stay in Kansas City after the Cardinal (they were the Indians then) won the 1942 title. That was an era when the NCAA playoffs had more naivet, and was, above all, an opportunity to compete against the best squads across the nation. As time passed, the postseason competition lost its innocence and became a trip to the bank. Has the tourney gotten too big?
"I think money has brought that about," said former UCLA coach John Wooden. "The big money made from television has allowed many schools to survive since the advent of Title IX. Women's athletics doesn't bring in money, but it costs an awful lot.
"Television has been the worst thing that's happened to intercollegiate basketball, but there's two sides to it. It's also been the savior of women's sports and other intercollegiate sports. But it causes too much time missed from school, too many games and too much showmanship--not only from the players but from the coaches and from the fans, too.
"My coach at Purdue, Ward (Piggy) Lambert, who had higher principles than anyone I knew, would be upset with all the games played off campus today. He always felt intercollegiate athletics were for the students and the alumni. He wouldn't take his team (to the postseason tourney) in 1940 even though it won the Big Ten. Indiana (after handing the Boilermakers their only two league losses that year) won the NCAA title although it had finished second in the conference."
Wayne Duke, the tourney's first director and former Big Eight and Big Ten commissioner, assembled the event's first handbook in the early 1950s when entrants found out about their spot in the tournament by mail.
Duke remembers the time in the mid-1970s when he was committee chairman and an unsedated coach named Dick Vitale blasted him over the telephone after Dicky V's University of Detroit team wasn't selected as an at-large entrant.
"I was dumbfounded," Duke said. "Vitale blistered the hell out of me. I found out he was on a speakerphone and did it in front of the Detroit press. He was putting on a show. He's still putting on a show."
The rapid growth of "The Big Show" since television became a key factor and the revenue a school can generate are incredible. Each Final Four participant in 1990 received more than $1.47 million, a whopping increase of about 2,870 percent in just 20 years.
Trying to minimize emphasis on the intrinsic dollar value of "six-figure shots" taken by players, the NCAA implemented a new revenue-sharing formula, beginning with the 1990-91 tournament competition.
There was just a fraction of that kind of revenue to share by the NCAA when the NIT was a superior event. It was an era where airplanes didn't dominate the transportation industry, television was in its infancy and New York's Madison Square Garden was the place to be if a team wanted extensive national exposure.
During the formative stage of postseason play, the NIT was an extravaganza so hot the NCAA playoffs were actually scheduled after the NIT to prevent the lukewarm reception given the NCAA from turning completely frigid by going head-to-head against what was clearly basketball's showcase event. Such schedule modifications allowed City College of New York to become the only school to win both titles in the same year (1950) and permitted Utah to win the 1944 NCAA crown after the Utes were eliminated in the opening round of the NIT by eventual third-place finisher Kentucky (46-38).
The NCAA, making it mandatory in the mid-1950s for any team winning its conference to participate in the NCAA playoffs, methodically set in motion the forces pressuring the majority of major schools into selecting its national tournament over the NIT. The issue of "choice" came to a head in 1970 when Marquette, an independent school at the time coached by fiesty Al McGuire, won the NIT after rejecting an NCAA at-large invitation because the Warriors were going to be placed in the NCAA Midwest Regional (Fort Worth, Tex.) instead of closer to home in the Mideast Regional (Dayton, Ohio). McGuire's snub led the NCAA to decree any school offered an NCAA bid must accept it or be prohibited from participating in postseason competition.
It's unthinkable that any of the current 320-plus NCAA Division I schools would reject an NCAA invitation. There were 145 schools classified as major colleges in 1950. Forty years later, the number of Division I institutions more than doubled. The NCAA Tournament has increased accordingly to its present 65, although the bracket never included more than 25 entrants until expanding to 32 teams in 1975 when teams other than the conference champion could be chosen on an at-large basis from the same league for the first time.
Seven of the 10 NCAA champions from 1988 through 1997--Kansas '88, Michigan '89, Duke '91, North Carolina '93, Arkansas '94, Kentucky '96 and Arizona '97--and Maryland in 2002 wouldn't have been invited to participate in the playoffs prior to 1975. The other three teams at the 1989 Final Four also would not have qualified for the national tourney in the old days--Michigan (finished in third place in Big Ten Conference), Seton Hall (lost in Big East Tournament semifinals after finishing runner-up to Georgetown in regular-season standings), Duke (lost in ACC Tournament final after finishing in three-way tie for second place behind North Carolina State in regular-season standings) and Illinois (runner-up in Big Ten to Indiana).
The NCAA Tournament format included just two regionals (East and West) until going to four in 1956 (East, Midwest, West and Far West). The next year, the four regionals were designated East, Mideast, Midwest and West and stayed that way until the Mideast was dropped in favor of the Southeast in 1985. The national semifinal matchups pitted the East vs. Mideast and Midwest vs. West until the playoff format started rotating the brackets in 1973.
Regal regular-season records persuade pollsters, arm alumni with arrogance and impress Division I committee members dispensing seeds in the NCAA Tournament. They don't guarantee postseason success, however. Since the last undefeated team (Indiana '76), a total of 17 schools entered the playoffs unbeaten or with one setback. None went on to win the national title. Only five teams in this group--Indiana State '79, UNLV '87, UNLV '91, Massachusetts '96 and Duke '99--reached the Final Four.
A total of 11 NCAA champions through 2002 won all of their playoff games by double-digit margins but most titlists are severely tested at least once on the serpentine tournament trail. In 1997, Arizona became the only one of the last 49 champions to win all of its playoff contests by single-digit margins.
Forty champions won a minimum of one playoff game by four points or less, including 18 titlists to win at least one game by just one point. Wyoming '43 would have become the only champion to trail at halftime in every tournament game if the Cowboys didn't score the last three baskets of the first half in the national final to lead Georgetown at intermission (18-16). Four titlists trailed at intermission in both of their Final Four games--Kentucky '51, Louisville '86, Duke '92 and Kentucky '98.
UCLA '67, the first varsity season for Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul- Jabbar), set the record for largest average margin of victory for a champion when the Bruins started a dazzling streak of 10 consecutive Final Four appearances. They won their 12 NCAA playoff games with Alcindor manning the middle by an average margin of 21.5 points.
Former North Carolina mentor Dean Smith is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Tournament history (65 victories) with Duke's Mike Krzyzewski on his heels (58). But nothing compares to Wooden's achievements. UCLA won 47 of its last 52 NCAA playoff games under Wooden, with four of the five losses by a total of just eight points. The Bruins prevailed in all of their 10 championship games with the Hall of Famer at the helm, winning seven of the 10 finals by more than 10 points for an incandescent 13.4-point average margin of victory. Incredibly, Wooden's base salary was a modest $32,500 in his final season in 1974-75.
Which of Wooden's 10 national champion UCLA teams did the Wizard of Westwood perceive as his best?
"It would be hard to pick a team over the 1968 team," Wooden said. "I will say it would be the most difficult team to prepare for and play against offensively and defensively. It created so many problems. It had such great balance.
"We had the big center (Alcindor) who is the most valuable player of all time. Mike Warren was a three-year starter who may have been the most intelligent floor leader ever, going eight complete games once without a turnover. Lucius Allen was a very physical, talented individual who was extremely quick. Lynn Shackleford was a great shooter out of the corner who didn't allow defenses to sag on Jabbar. Mike Lynn didn't have power, but he had as fine a pair of hands around the boards as I have ever seen."
The three Lew-CLA teams rank among the seven NCAA champions with average margins of victory in a tournament of more than 19 points per game. It's no wonder a perceptive scribe wrote the acronym NCAA took on a new meaning during the plunderous Alcindor Era--"No Chance Against Alcindor."
As expected, the majority of all-time NBA greats such as Abdul-Jabbar performed exceedingly well in the NCAA Tournament if they were fortunate enough to play in the event. Among those to average over eight points more per game in NBA postseason competition than their NCAA tourney scoring mark (minimum of NCAA playoff five games) are Michael Jordan (33.6-point average in the NBA playoffs), Hakeem Olajuwon, Dolph Schayes, John Havlicek and Patrick Ewing.
Jordan's NBA playoff scoring average with the Chicago Bulls more than doubled the NCAA Tournament scoring average he compiled for North Carolina. Jordan averaged 16.5 points per NCAA playoff outing with the Tar Heels, scoring 20 or more in just two of 10 postseason games from 1982-'84.
You've been living in a closet if you don't know Jordan hit the game-winning basket as a freshman in the 1982 national final against Georgetown. But do you remember his inauspicious playoff debut when he collected six points, one rebound, no assists and no steals in 37 minutes of a 52-50 opening-round victory against James Madison in the East Regional? Jordan's final NCAA Tournament game before he left school early for the NBA was nothing to brag about, either. The college player of the year was restricted to six points in the first 35 minutes of the 1984 East Regional semifinals against Indiana and finished with 13 points, one rebound, one assist and one steal in 26 foul-plagued minutes when the top-ranked Tar Heels were eliminated (72-68).
Generally, the most prolific scorers in NCAA Tournament history have learned it's not a picnic in postseason play. For instance, Clyde Drexler averaged more than 17 points per game each of his last 13 seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets but scored more than 17 points in just one of 11 NCAA Tournament games for the University of Houston from 1981 through 1983.
The only school to reach the Final Four in its one and only NCAA Tournament appearance in the 20th Century was Larry Bird-led Indiana State. Bird collected a total of 54 points and 29 rebounds in two 1979 Final Four games, but he also committed a Final Four-record total of 17 turnovers when Indiana State edged DePaul in the national semifinals, 73-71, before bowing to Michigan State in the final, 75-64.
Duke's Christian Laettner, the all-time playoff scoring leader with 407 points from 1989 through 1992, tallied fewer than 15 points in six of his first seven tournament games. Just four of the top 20 in career scoring in the NCAA playoffs accumulated more than 10 points in every tourney game they participated--UCLA's Alcindor (1967-68-69), Princeton's Bill Bradley (1963-64-65), Arizona's Sean Elliott (1986-87-88-89) and Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson (1958-59-60).
The spotlight frequently shines on unlikely heroes who rise to the occasion. Nothing compares to the version of Washington coming "out of the valley forge" when UCLA's Kenny Washington was instrumental in helping Wooden secure his first NCAA Tournament championship in 1964. Washington, the only player with a single-digit season scoring average (6.1) to tally more than 25 points in a championship game, scored 26 points in a 98-83 triumph over Duke in the final. Teammate Gail Goodrich contributed 27 points as he and Washington became the only duo to each score more than 25 in an NCAA final.
The NCAA Tournament hasn't been exempt from social issues. Naturally, there are ramifications when discussing the issue of race and it would be nice if we were all color blind. It's impossible, however, to evaluate the NCAA playoffs properly without broaching the sensitive topic. The first NCAA champion to have black players in its starting lineup was City College of New York in 1950, with Floyd Layne, Joe Galiber and Ed Warner. CCNY also won the NIT that year, clobbering 12th-ranked San Francisco (65-46) and third-ranked Kentucky (89-50) in the first two rounds.
Later, San Francisco captured back-to-back NCAA crowns (1955 and 1956) during an era when the Dons' dominating roster featured African-American stars Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. "It was never said, but you knew as a coach that you had to be aware of the quota thing," said USF's Phil Woolpert, who also started black guard Hal Perry.
Texas Western, now called Texas-El Paso, put the finishing touches on dismantling the prejudiced myth that black athletes couldn't play disciplined basketball by capturing the 1966 title. The Miners' Don Haskins was a demanding coach who wouldn't let forward-center Nevil Shed ride back to the hotel with the team after Shed was thrown out in the first half of their 78-76 overtime victory against Cincinnati in the second round.
UTEP, featuring an all-black starting lineup with three players 6-1 or shorter in the NCAA final, stunned top-ranked and all-white Kentucky (72-65). Junior college transfer Bobby Joe Hill, one of the Miners' tiny trio, converted steals into layups on consecutive trips down the floor against flustered Kentucky guards to give them a lead they never relinquished. In the wake of UTEP's sterling performance, major Southern schools started modifying their unwritten directives by recruiting more African-American players.
"Young black players told me that it (the championship) gave them confidence and courage," said Harry Flournoy, a starter for Texas Western. "Some of them, before that game, had been afraid to go to white schools."
Only three years before the Miners' success, Mississippi State Coach Babe McCarthy had to sneak out of town in the middle of the night to participate in the 1963 NCAA playoffs. He left before he was served injunction papers stemming from two segregationist state legislators seeking to prohibit the team from leaving Mississippi and using state funds to travel to the tournament. Billy Mitts, one of the "Jim Crow" state senators, was a former Mississippi State student body president, but his influence waned when a county sheriff apparently sympathetic to the players' plight graciously left an airport in time for them to board their plane and evade an unpleasant scene. Mississippi State, an all-white school at the time, had captured SEC championships under McCarthy in 1959, 1961 and 1962. But the Bulldogs--then more popularly known as the Maroons--declined automatic bids to play in the NCAA Tournament those three years because of an unwritten bigoted policy forbidding Mississippi State or Ole Miss athletes to compete in racially integrated contests.
Eventual 1963 champion Loyola of Chicago, featuring four black starters, fell behind Mississippi State 7-0, but wound up winning the Mideast Regional semifinal game (61-51) in East Lansing, Mich. Even some teams outside the South adhered to an accepted standard of "start no more than two blacks at home, or three on the road." When Loyola upset Cincinnati and the Bearcats' three black starters in the championship game, it was the first time a majority of black players participated in the title game. By the way, the next time Mississippi State appeared in the NCAA playoffs was 1991, when the Bulldogs' 13-man roster had 10 blacks.
As for coaches, Georgetown's John Thompson took umbrage to depictions of him as the initial black coach to direct a team to the Final Four (1982) and first to win a national championship (1984). The injustices in the past against his race, however, were sufficient reason for placing emphasis on Thompson's achievements with predominantly black rosters.
Since most fans live and die with the achievements of their heroes, they recognize they'll spend a significant portion or all of March sensing as though they're tiptoeing along a ledge atop a skyscraper. One moment, you think you can see forever. The next second, you're frantic as the end of a titillating adventure looms. The adrenalin flows as never before because just one misplaced step can make people forget all of the good ones.
The 17 NCAA Division I men's champions to win at least one playoff game by only one point know exactly how tenuous the journey can be. It doesn't seem quite fair, but many teams' entire seasons are measured by their playoff performances, as are the entire careers of countless coaches and players.
There is no doubt that March is a showcase month for college athletics. It's an invigorating time for college enthusiasts as they watch the countdown to coronation unfold. It's the annual ritual when the cards are dealt, the hands are played, and whomever plays them best prevails. We can't wait to add to our memories.