Saturday, April 1, 2017

Thank the Marquette Warriors for March Madness

Only fifteen teams have won multiple national titles.  In this year’s Final Four, Oregon will be going for its second, North Carolina for its sixth.  But March wasn’t always Mad, and the tournament was always “the tournament.”  When Oregon won its first title in 1939, the Big Dance was anything but: it was an eight-team field played in a tiny gym with only a couple thousand fans in attendance.  And for many decades, the NIT was the more prestigious tournament.  The NIT fielded more teams and better teams, and it was played in a high-profile venue at Madison Square Garden.  Well into the 1970s, getting much-desired media coverage and good recruits depended on getting into the NIT and being seen in New York.

In fact, NCAA tournament titles didn’t really mean much until 1971.  (Sorry, Oregon.)  Until that year, the best teams played in the NIT and not in the NCAA tournament.  So what changed in 1971?  The NIT’s fall from grace—and the birth of March Madness and the Big Dance—was actually triggered by the Marquette Warriors (now Golden Eagles) and legendary coach Al McGuire.  Mike Klingaman and Bill Free from the Baltimore Sun explain:

The NIT's last hurrah came in 1970, when eighth-ranked Marquette snubbed the NCAA for the NIT. Upset with his team's NCAA seeding, Marquette coach Al McGuire packed it off instead to New York, where he had family and recruiting ties. . . . Marquette won. A year later, the NCAA tightened the noose, passing legislation known as the “McGuire rule.” Now, if a school receives an NCAA bid, it can't turn it down to participate in another tournament.

After that, “the NIT had lost nearly all of its glow.”  That’s right, when the NCAA lost Marquette to the NIT in 1970, the NCAA realized it couldn’t compete.  So it effectively shut down the better tournament.  Or, at least, the NCAA used its undeserved monopoly power to crush the NIT and render it essentially meaningless.  The NCAA couldn’t beat the NIT, so it simply redrafted the rules to its advantage. 

What’s interesting is that people still talk about Christian Laettner as being a bully for his intense play and the so-called “stomp” of another player—right before hitting the most clutch and iconic shot in college basketball history.  It’s strange how the tiniest indiscretion—a tap with the foot that induced laughter from the "victim"—gets magnified, while the exercise of monopoly power to put a competitor nearly out of business goes largely unnoticed.  Well, the NIT would have been out of business until the NCAA later bought it for a song to dispense with the antitrust lawsuit, thus expanding its vast power even further.  Now that’s bullying on a massive scale.

In any case, just as Laettner’s so-called bullying led to great success at Duke, it’s undeniable that the NCAA’s bullying has produced an incredibly popular and profitable product: the Big Dance.  So as you watch the remaining games in the tournament, just remember to say a thank you to the Marquette Warriors and Al McGuire.  Seashells and balloons.  

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