History of March Madness

by Conor on March 24, 2009

Interestingly enough, the term March Madness has been around to describe basketball tournaments since 1939. However, it initially described the Illinois State High School tournament, not the NCAA tournament. Over the years, it has become associated with the NCAA tournament to the point where it overshadows its true roots.

Illinois Roots

Peoria HS, 1908 State Champs

Peoria HS, 1908 State Champs

“March Madness” was born in Illinois. The annual tournament of high school boys basketball teams, sponsored by the Illinois High School Association, grew from a small invitational affair in 1908 to a statewide institution with over 900 schools competing by the late 1930′s. A field of teams known as the “Sweet Sixteen” routinely drew sellout crowds to the University of Illinois’ Huff Gymnasium. In a time before television, before the college game became popular with the average fan, before professional leagues had established a foothold in the nation’s large cities, basketball fever had already reached epidemic proportions in the Land of Lincoln.

The term March Madness is actually a registered trademark held jointly by the NCAA and the Illinois High School Association.  Illinois, and the rest of the world, can thank a man named H.V. Porter for coining the term.

“Porter was born in Manito, Illinois and grew up on a farm near Washington, (Illinois). Graduating from Illinois State Normal University, Porter taught at high schools in Mount Zion, Keithsburg, and Delavan. From 1919 to 1928 he served as principal of Athens High School. But it wasn’t until 1928, when Porter was hired as assistant manager of the Illinois High School Association, that his career blossomed.”

“A gifted writer, Porter published an essay named March Madness in 1939 and in 1942 used the phrase in a poem, Basketball Ides of March. Through the years, the use of March Madness picked up steam, especially in Illinois. During this period the term was used almost exclusively to the state high school tournament. In 1977 the IHSA published a book about its tournament titled March Madness.”

“Becoming a member of several influential committees including the National Basketball Committee, Porter helped develop the fan-shaped backboard that was used at the high school level from the 1930s through the 1990s and the molded basketball that, free of the laces that made dribbling difficult, revolutionized the game. Porter also spearheaded the effort to write basketball and football rule books specifically for high school competition.”

Porter’s Words

Most importantly, though, Porter became editor of the IHSA’s magazine. Nearly every magazine contained an article or essay from the editor himself. The Illinois state high school basketball tournament grew to become a statewide icon in the 1930′s. It was in 1939 when Porter wrote an affectionate essay in the IHSA’s magazine titled “March Madness“.  The term itself is thought to have come from the old English saying, ‘Mad as a March Hare.’   The essay’s punctual line was,

When the March madness is on him, midnight jaunts of a hundred miles on successive nights make him even more alert the next day.”

After that Illinois position, Porter left the IHSA to become the executive secretary of the National Federation of State High School Associations. In 1942 he wrote one last literary contribution to the IHSA’s magazine, a poem titled “Basketball Ides of March“. The poem, below, is truly inspirational:

Basketball Ides of March

The gym lights gleam like a beacon beam
And a million motors hum
In a good will flight on a Friday night;
For basketball beckons, “Come!”
A sharp-shooting mite is king tonight.
The Madness of March is running.
The winged feet fly, the ball sails high
And field goal hunters are gunning.

The colors clash as silk suits flash
And race on a shimmering floor.
Repressions die, and partisans vie
In a goal acclaiming roar.
On a Championship Trail toward a holy grail,
All fans are birds of a feather.
It’s fiesta night and cares lie light
When the air is full of leather.

Since time began, the instincts of man
Prove cave and current men kin.
On tournament night the sage and the wight
Are relatives under the skin.
It’s festival time, sans reason or rhyme
But with nation-wide appeal.
In a cyclone of hate, our ship of state
Rides high on an even keel.

With war nerves tense, the final defense
Is the courage, strength and will
In a million lives where freedom thrives
And liberty lingers still.
Now eagles fly and heroes die
Beneath some foreign arch
Let their sons tread where hate is dead
In a happy Madness of March.

During the tournament’s “Golden Era” of the 1940′s and 1950′s, “March Madness” became the popular name of the event. It was an era of some of Illinois’ most legendary teams, including the undefeated 1944 Taylorville squad and Mt. Vernon’s unstoppable back-to-back champions of 1949 and 1950. But the one champion remembered more than any other is tiny Hebron, a school of only 98 students, which won the tournament in 1952.

It wasn’t until the early 1980′s that fans of NCAA basketball began to use the term to describe the playoff series that takes place at the college/university level. Most historians would agree that March Madness was popularized in the college arena by Brent Musburger, a CBS sportscaster who had worked in Chicago for many years prior to joining CBS.

March Madness Essay

Homo of the Hardwood Court is a hardy specie. There are millions of him. He exists through summer and fall, shows signs of animation through the winter and lives to the utmost during March when a hundred thousand pairs of rubber soled shoes slap the hardwood in a whirlwind of stops and pivots and dashes on the trail to the state basketball championships. He is a glutton for punishment. When the March madness is on him, midnight jaunts of a hundred miles on successive nights make him even more alert the next day. He will polish his pants on sixteen inches of bleacher seat through two games or three and take offense if asked to leave during the intermission between sessions. He is happy only when the floor shimmers with reflections of fast moving streaks of color, when the players swarm at each end and the air is full of leather. For the duration of the endemic he is a statistical expert who knows the record of each contender, a game strategist who spots the weak points in a given system of offense or defense, a rules technician who instructs the officials without cost or request. Every canine has his day and this is Homo’s month.

He is a doodler who, while conversing, scribbles free throw lanes with a hundred radiating alleys. In May the three symbols of the New York Fair will take on their intended meaning but in March the helicline is a ramp to the balcony, the trylon is the pyramid of hundreds of teams being narrowed down to the one at the state championship pinnacle and the perisphere has the traditional four panel basketball markings.

In everyday life he is a sane and serious individual trying to earn enough to pay his taxes. But he does a Jekyll-Hyde act when the spell is on him. He likes his coffee black and his basketball highly spiced. He despises the stall – unless his team is ahead. It is a major crime for the official to call a foul on the dribbler – unless the opponent was dribbling. His moods are as changeable as the March wind. He flies into a frenzy at some trivial happening on the court and before his vocal expression of disapproval is half completed he howls in delight at the humorous twist of a comment from a bleacher wit. He is part of the mass mind and is subject to its whims. He berates the center for attempting a long shot and lauds him when it goes in the basket. He is consistent only in his inconsistencies.

The thud of the ball on the floor, the slap of hands on leather, the swish of the net are music in his ears. He is a connoisseur in matters pertaining to team coordination and artistry in action. The shifting zone, the screen and the spot pass are an open book to him. He speaks the language.

He is biased, noisy, fidgety, boastful and unreasonable – but we love him for his imperfections. His lack of inhibitions adds a spontaneity that colors the tournaments. Without darkness there would be no light. A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.

The writer’s temperature is rising. The thing is catching. It’s got me! Gimme that playing schedule!

*source: Wikipedia, MarchMadness.org, 1-800-sports.com

VN:F [1.9.7_1111]
Rating: +9 (from 9 votes)

Share |

{ 1 comment }

todd March 29, 2009 at 10:41 am

I had no idea of the history. Great article.

Previous post:

Next post: