Memories of March Madness
Every true basketball fan has his or her favorite memories of the feverish excitement of the NCAA basketball tournament. Believe it or not, the term March Madness originated when H. V. Porter, an official of the Illinois State High School Association coined the term in an essay in 1939. It became a popular name for the hoops hysteria surrounding high school tournaments in Indiana and Illinois during the next several decades. Fans of the NCAA tournament began associating the term with the college championships only in the 1980’s, and announcer Brent Musburger, who had worked in Chicago for many years, popularized the moniker during the broadcasts.
Cincinnati Bearcats and Ohio State
My earliest memories of broadcasts of the tournament are from the early 60s. A Google search reveals that the first broadcast on record of an entire game was in 1962. It was a one day tape delayed replay of the game on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports. I was fourteen at the time and remember watching the game between Cincinnati and Ohio State. With a rookie head coach (Ed Jucker) and without all-time great Oscar Robertson, who had graduated the year before, the Bearcats had won their first national title in 1960–61. Then to prove that its 1961 championship was no fluke, UC repeated as champion in 1961–62. And that Ohio State team was no slouch, having won the NCAA title in 1960 coached by Hall of Famer Fred Taylor with a lineup including Hall of Famers Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Bobby Knight, as well as future Tennessee and Florida coach Don DeVoe. The 1963 championship was broadcast on a regional basis by a group called Sports Network Incorporated, which for anyone interested in the history of sports broadcasting, is worth a look. The 1963 championship game was a ratings smash beating out the numbers for CBS’ hit western series Have Gun Will Travel and Gunsmoke.
The Legendary John Wooden
More on the 1963 tournament below. The next year caught my attention as well, as it featured the UCLA Bruins, coached by a guy named John Wooden. His zone trapping and up-tempo game was fun to watch. A guy on that team had also fired my imagination as a fledgling wannabe leaper. Kenny Washington was a 6’3 inside player who was reported to have a 36” vertical leap, which is still above average today in the era of inflated verticals in the 40s. Wooden would go on to win 10 national championships in his last 12 years of coaching, including 7 in a row, but perhaps forgotten is that he coached at UCLA for 15 years before ever winning his first. In 2002, Coach Wooden was asked by then-UGA coach Jim Harrick to come speak in Athens, and Wooden revealed that he had been offered the UGA job in 1946 by Wally Butts, though he turned down the offer because he would not have been able to recruit black players. One can only imagine how history might have changed….
One other championship game in the 60s that vividly stands out in my memory is the 1966 tilt between Kentucky and Texas Western (later to become UTEP – University of Texas-El Paso). The game was historically and culturally significant in that it featured the University of Kentucky with five white starters versus a starting five for Texas Western consisting of five black players. That was the first time that particular circumstance had occurred in the history of the championship game. The 2006 film Glory Road chronicles that season for the Texas Western team and the events surrounding the epic contest. Do yourself a favor and watch the video link of the game. It really was a supremely historical event in college sports and has a cultural significance even today.
Georgia’s Best High School Player – Probably Not
Most everyone I knew was pulling for UK because of geography and, no doubt, other considerations. My sentiments were overwhelmingly in support of Texas Western for one primary, very personal reason. I had just finished my senior season of high school basketball, and, in the final Atlanta Journal and Constitution Top Twenty-Five poll, I had been named the number one rated high school player in the state of Georgia. Quite an honor one might venture. But for me the honor rang hollow, as only white players from white schools were included in the supposedly state wide polling. I knew better.
Through fate and love of basketball, I had become friends by the summer of my freshman year with some black guys from Trinity High School, the black high school in Decatur, Georgia, where I grew up. Along with them, I spent my summers during high school playing in every inner city gym I could find. By my junior year, there were a few blacks playing in some formerly segregated rec centers around Atlanta, but the best games and competition were to be found at the all black gyms. Early on, not many white players availed themselves of the opportunity to “expand their horizons.” Those games forged me into the all-around player I would become over the next few years.
There are many stories worth relating about that period, but suffice it to say I was exposed to an entirely different game of basketball and players of ability at least the equal of mine, if not better.
See this Mark Bradley article in the AJC for a more complete backstory.
As most basketball fans and moviegoers know, Texas Western won the 1966 championship game that was to become a seminal moment in basketball lore. I include the following story only as a reflection of the times and tenor of that era and because I like and respect the man who related it to me.
I was sharing a beer at Allen’s bar in Athens one night after a UGA game with Larry Conley, a player on Rupp’s Runts, as that smallish Kentucky team was nicknamed, and a basketball analyst for SEC basketball telecasts for 20 years. The game in 1966 came up during our conversation, and Larry was telling me how the pressure was building to an unbelievable level leading up to the game. He said that the last thing Adolph Rupp said to the team as they were leaving the locker room was, “Boys, if we let those…….beat us, we can never go back to Lexington.” Now many will point to that statement as evidence of Adolph Rupp being a racist, and there is much debate about that subject. There is even a UGA connection with Rupp’s reputation through big Tim Bassett that makes an interesting read. I make no judgment. I believe Rupp was using the vernacular of his time and region to motivate his team. Another interesting note is that many players from the Texas Western team said they were feeling a very similar sentiment and pressure from the black community.
Loyola University of Chicago v. Cincinnati – 1963
However, the game that truly ignited and inflamed my already burgeoning passion for the game of basketball was played a couple years prior to the famous UK/Texas Western collision. In 1963, Loyola University, a small Catholic college from Chicago, took on the mighty Cincinnati Bearcats for the national title. The contest featured seven black starters, which was the most of any prior game. The Ramblers then made their indelible mark on sports history, and on my young mind, by defeating reigning, two year champion Cincinnati in the finals. Cincinnati had been to a then unprecedented 5 consecutive Final Fours. Even though Loyola came into the tourney averaging almost 92 ppg, nobody gave them much of a chance against the rugged, experienced Bearcats.
In the championship game, the Ramblers erased a 15 point second half deficit and won in overtime on a last second tip-in. The Loyola victory was a true Cinderella story, and I remember pulling for them all the way through the tournament, partly because they were such underdogs and partly because I was very Catholic at the time. I’ve won several bets over the years by being able to name their entire starting line-up: Vic Rouse, 6’7 (tipped in the winning basket), Les Hunter 6’7, Ron Miller 6’2 (made me delirious by dunking several times in the tourney), Jerry Harkness 6’2 (their all-American) and Johnny Egan. All but Egan went on to play pro ball. They each averaged more than 13 ppg during the season (the only championship team to ever achieve that), and overcoming the 15 point second half deficit to win remains a record. The most amazing fact about Loyola perhaps, and once again they are still the only team to do it, was that all five starters played the entire championship game. (ed. note – Yes, college players can play entire games if the coach allows it….)
Babe McCarthy, George Ireland and the “Game of Change”
An incredible but true side story to the championship was Loyola’s Midwest semi-final game with Babe McCarthy’s SEC Champion Mississippi State Maroons (as they were known at the time). Now dubbed “the game of change,” because it featured an all white State team taking the floor against Loyola’s 4 black starters, it perhaps had as much, if not more, cultural significance as the 1966 game. Loyola’s Coach George Ireland had been flaunting the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement,” wherein each coach would employ no more than two black players on the court at any given time. Ireland’s team endured as many, if not more, indignities as the Texas Western team did two years later, because the irascible Ireland was out to prove a point. He ran up the score against every southern team he played, pounding Loyola of New Orleans 88-53 and destroying unfortunate Tennessee Tech 111-42, which remains an NCAA tournament record victory margin. Ireland said, “I was twenty years ahead of my time, and I wanted them to wake up and smell the coffee.”
Those lop-sided contests still evoke mixed feelings from the Ramblers. “I felt it was important in those games to make a statement, especially because of the way the crowds were,” said Hunter, “but we disagreed with crushing Loyola of New Orleans.”
Mississippi State’s road to that historic cultural clash was harrowing and fraught with racial overtones as well. State had been SEC champions in 1959, 1961 and 1962. But, due to the staunch segregationist feelings of the political powers in Mississippi, they had not been allowed to accept the automatic bid to the NCAA tourney. The racial climate in Mississippi was literally in flames in February, 1963. A few months earlier, James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss and incited violence that led to tear gas, explosions and gunfire on campus that resulted in 2 deaths.
In 1963, State won the SEC title once again. Babe McCarthy, the strong-willed coach, had had enough and was determined this team would receive the opportunity it had earned and accept a bid to the tournament. Needless to say, an already boiling cauldron of hate began to bubble over. Politicians made rambling, racist speeches, newspapers featured editorials proclaiming the idea of whites playing blacks in a game of basketball would signal the end of the southern way of life. The Mississippi state legislature passed a proclamation forbidding the team to play.
Fortunately for McCarthy, the newly appointed President of Mississippi State University, Dean W. Colvard, shared the coach’s view. As the conflict swirled around them, McCarthy and Colvard concocted a strategy that legend says included the team sneaking out of town in cars at midnight to rendezvous at a rural airport. The true story is just as incredible and is detailed in Alexander Wolff’s March, 2003, Sports Illustrated article, “Ghosts of Mississippi.”
Loyola won the game, played in East Lansing, Michigan 61-51. State had virtually no fans, no cheerleaders and no pep band at the game. Players from both teams remember it as a hard fought, but cleanly played, game without incident. The mutual respect of the men involved, for what they endured and accomplished, is evident fifty years later.
Co-captains Jerry Harkness and Jo Dan Gold shook hands prior to the tip-off in what is now called “the game of change.” Gold died in 2011. Who should show up at his funeral? Harkness. “I went up to the front and the whole family embraced me,” Harkness said in a phone interview from Indianapolis. “Then I went over to the casket and to the left was the picture of me and Dan Gold shaking hands. I just lost it right there at the head of his casket. I went back to the family and we all cried. I wouldn’t have missed it. He would have made it to my funeral”.
Coach Babe McCarthy also had a UGA connection. He was hired in 1975, after a stint in the ABA, to take over the head coaching job in Athens from Ken Rosemond. Sadly, McCarthy passed away before he could ever coach a game for the Dawgs. Of course, had McCarthy lived, there may never have been a Hugh Durham, Dominique Wilkins or Vern Fleming in Athens and likely no 1983 Final Four.