March Madness is one of the most popular traditions—sports or otherwise—in the United States.
Every March, 68 college and university basketball teams compete for glory in a single-elimination tournament that draws in millions of spectators and TV viewers.
But where did March Madness start? How did it become such a craze? And what kind of waves has it sent across the nation since its inception?
A Primer on the Origins of Basketball
Before talking about March Madness itself, it’s helpful to have a brief lesson on the history of college basketball.
If you’ve studied the history of basketball at all, you’d know that the sport has been around since 1891 and was invented in the United States. That’s not long in the grand scheme of things; people have been playing basketball for over half of its birthplace’s history!
It wasn’t long until basketball grew into a popular sport across the US, and subsequently the globe, thanks to efforts by the YMCA and numerous individuals.
Outside of the YMCA, basketball exploded most rapidly across colleges and universities in its early days, which lended itself naturally into March Madness.
March Madness: The Origins of the National Championship
The first recorded college basketball game happened back in 1895, and it was between two Minnesota schools by the names of Hamline University and Minnesota A&M (which later merged, becoming the University of Minnesota).
From there, many schools began putting together teams, and various governing bodies were created to take responsibility over intercollegiate basketball from the YMCA.
This culminated in the first NCAA Division I basketball tournament in 1939.
This first tournament had a total of eight teams participating, split between East and West.
In the East region, you had:
- Brown University
- Ohio State University
- Villanova University
- Wake Forest University
Then, over to the West, you had:
- The University of Oklahoma
- The University of Oregon
- The University of Texas at Austin
- Utah State University
On March 27th, 1939, the first-ever National Championship was played between the Oregon Webfoots from the West and the Ohio State Buckeyes in the East.
Oregon came out on top, beating Ohio State 46-33, and becoming the first NCAA Division I basketball champions in history.
So Where Did the Phrase March Madness Come From?
The registered trademark “March Madness” emerged in the same year that the first championship game was played. A high school coach in Illinois by the name of Henry V. Porter coined the terminology in 1939, likely due to the massive fanfare surrounding the first-ever NCAA college basketball tournament.
Porter actually published an essay about the tournament in 1939 called March Madness. Later, in 1942, he wrote a poem called the Basketball Ides of March.
In Illinois, it grew so much in popularity that high school basketball tournaments mostly used the term; however, it didn’t really stick in regards to college-level play. They mostly just called it generic names like the NCAA Basketball Tournament and whatnot.
Just a little bit over four decades later though, Brent Musburger—who’s still sportscasting today for the Vegas Stats and Information Network, as well as the Las Vegas Raiders—is recognized for popularizing the term.
Working as an affiliate CBS sports news broadcaster, covering local Illinois high schools, in the 1970s, Musburger took notice of the term when he saw a car dealer running ads during basketball season, calling it “March Madness.”
It was about 1982 when Musburger was working his way up through CBS broadcasting when he regularly started using the term March Madness to refer to the many upsets in the NCAA tournament.
From there, it just stuck.
March Madness: More History
Growing in popularity after WWII, the NCAA tournament grew to 16 teams in 1951.
From there, it just kept on growing through the decades, and the number of teams participating in the tournament expanded accordingly. Part of this was thanks to the advent and proliferation of cable TV, which made basketball easy to watch without buying a ticket and traveling.
As the tournament grew in popularity, so, too, did its importance to students at schools that made it to the tournament, eventually developing into different traditions throughout the decades.
Once again though, the 1980s saw basketball rocket to new heights. The sport, as well as the Men’s Basketball Championship both cemented themselves as cultural icons during this decade.
By 1985, just a few years after it officially became dubbed March Madness, the tournament had reached 64 total teams vying for national titles during their regular season play. With 64 teams, March Madness finally became the month-long craze it is today.
March Madness Brackets
Two years later, the famous song “One Shining Moment,” the anthem of March Madness, was released; right around the same time learning how to make championship brackets became popular.
But why did it take so long, you ask?
Well, at first, there weren’t a whole lot of teams in the NCAA tournament. Predicting the results of games and the eventual champion wasn’t that exciting of a prospect.
Additionally, brackets were confusing in the 1950s, given the 23 teams and nine byes during the tournament’s duration, which made brackets confusing to fill out.
The next hangup was that the UCLA Bruins dominated the tournament throughout much of the 1960s and 70s, making it easy to predict that Coach John Wooden would lead his team towards victory time and time again.
But in 1975, Wooden had to retire from his coaching position, and just a few years after that, the tournament expanded to 32 teams, making for a symmetrical bracket that wasn’t as confusing.
The defining moment for March Madness that changed it from a popular interest into a national event was Magic Johnson’s Michigan State vs. Larry Byrd’s Indiana State in 1979.
All of these events combined—with plenty of historic upsets included—are the reasons the tournament and bracketology became cemented in pop culture.
Modern March Madness
By 2001, the Mountain West Conference joined Division I, moving the total teams in the tournament up to 65. The tournament added a single game before the first round to accommodate.
Ten years later, as we know NCAA’s March Madness today, three more teams were added to a total of 68, each chosen by a committee on Selection Sunday to play the First Four games that would set off every Men’s National Championship after it.