These days, the March Madness tournament is one of the most popular sporting events in the United States. In fact, it’s the second-most-wagered-on event of the year behind only the Super Bowl. But what you might not know is that March Madness in some shape or form has existed for over one hundred years.
You may be surprised to learn that the earliest use of the term “March Madness” was not used to describe NCAA events. It was actually an immensely popular high school tournament in Illinois that coined the phrase, along with “Sweet Sixteen.” From there, the tournament eventually evolved to include college teams exclusively, but it was still not done changing.
The earliest NCAA March Madness tournaments only included eight teams. Over the years, the field began to expand, and the competition gained prominence, although it was still the secondary event behind the NIT. The National Invitation Tournament was the premier basketball tournament in the land, and its brackets were actually responsible for crowning college basketball’s national champion.
This guide is meant to give you an overview of the history of March Madness. We will tackle the origins of this great tradition and follow its growth to the present day as one of the favorite sporting events in the entire country.
In 1908, the Illinois High School Association founded a basketball tournament for high school students. This invitational event would take place in March, and although it started as a small competition, it eventually grew to a statewide affair. By the end of the 1930s, over 900 schools were competing, which is when Henry V. Porter penned this essay in the Illinois High School Athlete, which gave us the famous title, although it would not yet be used for collegiate hoops:
The NCAA tournament was established in 1939. It originally consisted of only eight teams and was the brainchild of Harold Olsen, the coach for the Ohio State University. The first tournament was won by the University of Oregon, who beat Ohio State 46-33. That first championship team was nicknamed the “Tall Firs” thanks to the height of their starting frontcourt, and they have been immortalized as the tournament’s inaugural champions ever since.
By 1951, the tournament had doubled in size, reaching a field of sixteen competitors. It was also a year marred by controversy. The champions from the prior season, the City College of New York, won both the NIT and the NCAA tournaments. However, it was soon found out that they had been taking bribes and point shaving, leading to the arrest of several players. The scandal hit seven colleges and involved over thirty players, four of whom played for the City College of New York.
Although the NCAA tournament was still secondary to the NIT at this time, the field continued to grow. In 1953, it had expanded to twenty-two teams. The number of participants would fluctuate between twenty-two and twenty-five for the next twenty years.
1966 was a hugely momentous year for racial diversity in NCAA basketball. It’s the year that Texas Western (now known as UTEP) played an all-black starting lineup. They went on to defeat Kentucky, who exclusively allowed white players on their team, in the national championship.
1970 was one of the last years the NIT was direct competition for the NCAA March Madness tournament. This year Marquette chose to participate in the NIT rather than the NCAA’s championship. As a response, the NCAA barred teams that passed on their tourney from playing in any other post-season events from this point forward.
This was also the year that the single-game tournament scoring record was set, which still stands to this day. Notre Dame’s Austin Carr put up sixty-one points against Ohio. In his very next game, he scored another fifty-two points versus Kentucky, although the Fighting Irish ultimately lost that matchup.
The NCAA tournament continued to expand and in 1975 grew to include thirty-two programs. This meant that sixteen conference champions were eligible for the tournament, while another twelve would receive at-large bids. The remaining four spots were awarded to schools that won various regional tournaments throughout the season. This was the first year that the term “Final Four” was used to describe the regional semi-finals.
In 1977, bracketology as we know it was born. Jody Haggerty, a bar owner in Staten Island, New York, created the first-ever March Madness pool. Haggerty ran the pool out of Jody’s Club Forest, with the first pool including eighty-eight people, each of whom contributed $10 per bracket. The winner took home $880.
1978 was the first year the NCAA began seeding the contestants. A team’s seed was based on their conference record over the course of the last five years and their strength of schedule. Four teams in each region won automatic bids, while the remaining participants were granted entry with at-large bids. At-large bids were determined based on their record and strength of schedule as well, much like they are today.
In 1979, the field was expanded once again, this time to forty teams. Due to the uneven size of the field, twenty-four of the teams received first-round byes. Which teams received these byes were decided based on their end-of-season conference tournaments.
In 1981, the NCAA found a new way to rank teams. The Ratings Percentage Index, often simply called RPI, was implemented as a more objective way to gauge which teams performed the best in a given season. RPI quantifies how well a team has played by factoring in winning percentage, opponents’ winning percentage, and the winning percentage of those opponents’ opponents to determine strength of schedule. These new rankings then became another criterion in seeding teams.
By 1982, the public’s interest in bracketology was growing. With the increased attention on the selection process, a selection show was broadcast for the first time this year. From this point forward, the selection show was a staple of the March Madness tournament.
In 1983, the field of participants was expanded once more. This time, five additional teams were added, bringing the total to fifty-three programs.
March Madness began to resemble its current form in 1985. The field expanded to include sixty-four teams across four regions. Without requiring bye rounds anymore, the playing field was evened out, meaning every team in the competition would need to win six consecutive games in order to win the whole thing. Thirty teams qualified automatically, while another thirty-four were given entry with at-large bids.
When the Mountain West conference was created, there was a need to allow one more team into the tournament. The NCAA was hesitant to give up one of the at-large bids, and so a sixty-fifth team was added to the competition. Rather than rework the entire bracket, the play-in game was created. Two teams from lesser conferences would play an additional game before the start of the Round of 64 to earn the last sixteenth-seed spot.
In 2011, the last adjustment was made to March Madness. Year after year, certain “bubble teams” were feeling snubbed, with deserving teams being left out of the tournament. In response, three more play-in games were added, bringing the total number of participants to sixty-eight. The “First Four” now play for two sixteen seeds and two eleventh-or-twelfth-seed spots before the official Round of 64 begins.
As you can see, March Madness has gone through many iterations over a long, storied history. The term “March Madness” itself wasn’t even coined for college basketball. Instead, it was used to describe a high school tournament in Illinois in the early 1900s. From there, it grew in popularity, eventually including over 900 schools, inspiring essays and poems that invented the famous title.
Eventually, the NCAA started a tournament of their own. The early versions of the competition included only eight teams. Furthermore, this event was not the premier tournament in college basketball and actually played second fiddle to the National Invitational Tournament. Over time, as March Madness grew, the NCAA tourney surpassed the NIT, which is now merely a consolation tournament for teams that aren’t selected for the NCAA bracket.
The NCAA tournament began to take its current shape in 1985 when it finally reached sixty-four participating programs. This would last sixteen years before the creation of the Mountain West conference required an additional automatic bid. Not wanting to lose an at-large bid, the NCAA decided to include a play-in game which solved this problem. Lastly, three extra play-in games were added in 2011, bringing the total number of entrants to sixty-eight, which is where March Madness has evolved to today.
Throughout its long history, many of the most celebrated moments in sports have occurred. March Madness gave us Christian Laettner’s dagger shot against Kentucky. It also provided an enormous platform for superstar teams like the early-nineties Running Rebels and the unmatched UCLA dynasty of the sixties and seventies. With the immense population and incredible betting participation, you can expect more history to be written as the years go on.