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How March Got So Mad: The Story Behind the NCAA Basketball Tournament

As we power through the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA basketball tournament, we may want to take a minute to contemplate how we got here. Basketball is a relatively recent sport, invented in 1891 by PE teacher James Naismith as a safer alternative to football. Within just a few years, it had spread to YMCA teams, the military, high schools, colleges, and even spawned professional teams. An end of the year tournament first occurred between Indiana high schools in 1908. The idea went to college when the NAIA held a tournament in 1937, and the NIT followed in 1938.

Ohio State coach Harold Olsen, who was the president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches at the time, knew his association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), had to devise a tournament to keep pace with their rivals. On March 17, 1939, the NCAA tournament was born with eight teams vying for the top spot. It ended with a championship game at Patten Gymnasium on Northwestern’s Evanston campus between the Oregon Webfoots and Olsen’s Ohio State Buckeyes. In front of an almost sold out crowd of 5,500, plus James Naismith himself, the Webfoots beat the Buckeyes, 46 to 33. The whole tournament actually left the NCAA in the hole financially about $2500 (or about $35,000 today), but no matter. They did it again the next year, 1940, and it turned a profit. The NCAA tournament has been turning March mad ever since.

But where did the term March Madness come from? That's even more complex, as it was used for things other than basketball long before it became associated with the NCAA tournament. Read the origins of the phrase along with the tournament history at Today I Found Out.


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