To celebrate the beginning of March and Championship Fortnight, here is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of One Beautiful Season. This section covers the birth and evolution of the "conference tournament," in parallel to the fits and starts of the national overall title procedure. From regional challenges and scheduling normalization for far-flung leagues in the 1920s and 1930s, to profitable league gatherings in the 1960s, near-death in the 1970s, and new relevance in the 1980s as television events for smaller (and newer) Division I conferences. This chapter, as well as the other 41, is available for purchase in regular book form here.
Nearly two decades before the first true national tournament in college basketball, there was the first regional championship. In 1921, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association sponsored an open challenge. Any college from the southern states could come to Atlanta in late February to see who had the best team. Fifteen squads from Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and the Carolinas answered the call, eager to see where they stood.
The University of Alabama, previously thought to be the best basketball team in the Deep South, received a first round bye. The Crimson Tide went out quickly, losing 31-22 in the quarterfinals against a plucky Georgia Tech squad.
The winner of the championship that year was Kentucky. The Wildcats were led by a muscular forward named Basil Hayden, who'd go on to coach the team in the pre-Adolph Rupp era. Wearing tight shirts with fashionable vertical stripes, Kentucky beat Georgia 20-19, in what could only be referred to as a "football score."
The SIAA officially organized as a conference. That year of initial foundation remains printed proudly in the middle of the Southern Conference logo: 1921. The proto-SoCon held its regional tournament again the next year. With a loose league structure in place, the event had a very distinct purpose: to declare a true league champion, something the regular season could not do. Because of the wide mileages between member colleges, spaces often covered by intimidating mountain ranges, teams didn't play a uniform number of games.
Mississippi State, for instance, played 11 contests against league opposition and compiled an 8-3 record. Vanderbilt, trapped by the Appalachians and Smokies, played two and won both. The only way to truly and correctly measure what these records meant was to gather the teams together in one place, and then settle matters on the court. As it turned out, neither Mississippi State's or Vanderbilt's marks meant much. The University of North Carolina won the south that year.
It was still an open event back then, and would remain so until 1924. It's worth noting that the runner-up in the 1922 tournament was not a SoCon member at all, but a team that just showed up as a challenger. It was non-affiliated and future Atlantic Sun charter member Mercer, from Macon, Georgia. The Bears plowed through Kentucky, Chattanooga and Georgia Tech before losing to the Tar Heels 40-25 in the final. If they had won, there would probably be a movie about them.
A postseason tournament, a bracket, was the only way to decide which team was best. The Southern Conference had no central scheduling function, and teams played each other whenever they could, wherever they could. If they could at all. The University of Florida didn't play any regular season conference games during the 1924-25 season. Florida, 2-7 overall, didn't even bother showing up in Atlanta for the tournament, but the school still kept its membership.
Travel was the key issue back then, and it was fully responsible for the two major Southern Conference splits. Thirteen of the league's 23 members, the ones to the west and south of the mountain ranges, left to form the Southeastern Conference in 1932. In 1953, the seven eastern schools created the Atlantic Coast Conference, leaving a SoCon core of ten.
One habit that both breakaway leagues carried with them was the annual postseason tournament. When the SEC formed, the new splinter conference played out a bracket in Atlanta. The SoCon left for Raleigh, North Carolina. A similar displacement occurred when the eastern teams left. The first ACC tournament was held in Raleigh, and the parent league retreated further north. The SoCon's 1954 event was in Morgantown, home of the University of West Virginia. Teams gathered in Richmond for the next nine years. Like the ACC and SEC tournaments of those times, the sites rotated. The events were not just about basketball brackets anymore. They became big draws for students and rich alumni of all participating schools. It was prudent to spread that economic impact from one end of a conference to the other.
The NCAA Tournament, like the National Invitation Tournament before it, began as an exclusive affair. In national terms, conferences didn't mean as much back then. From 1939 to 1950, the NCAA summoned eight teams every year, and invitations had nothing to do with league affiliation. The SoCon only sent four teams to the Tournament during that 11-year era: Wake Forest in 1939, North Carolina in 1941 and 1946, and N.C. State in 1950. The SEC was a multi-bid league, even back then. The two powerhouse programs of the time, Arkansas and Kentucky, both went in 1945 and 1949.
City College of New York was considered an independent school. In 1950, CCNY won both the NCAA's "East-West Final" and the NIT. The Beavers were the first and last team to achieve the March double, beating Bradley University in both finals. It was a remarkable and unprecedented feat, but it was also the end of college basketball's innocence.
In February 1951, New York District Attorney Frank Hogan arrested three CCNY players as part of a widening point-shaving scandal. Several of the Beavers took four-digit bribes to hold winning scoring margins under the games' point spreads. Others from area schools were paid to make sure their teams lost by scores within the gambling margin. New York judge Saul Streit gave sentences and probation to players from CCNY, Manhattan College, Long Island University, and New York University.
The scandal that nearly ruined the game might never have come to light if Junius Kellogg, the first black player in Manhattan history, hadn't refused a $1,000 offer to throw a January 1951 game against DePaul. Instead, he alerted his coaches and the New York City police.
Kentucky head coach Adolph Rupp announced that point-shaving was a New York problem. It was confined to "Jews and niggers," as he put it. But Judge Streit put the finger on three Bradley players too. Rupp later found that three from his own team were indicted in October 1951 for taking $500 payments to hold down the score of a 1949 NIT quarterfinal against Loyola of Chicago. Loyola won that game, 61-56, though Kentucky went on to win that year's NCAA Tournament in Seattle. The NCAA banished Kentucky from the 1952-53 postseason. Then it gave New York a lifetime sentence, with no hope for parole.
Most historical accounts of the NCAA's growth don't have the time or use for such study, but it's important to identify the automatic NCAA bid for what it was. It was a weapon. The targets were the NIT, New York City, the Mafia, and point-shaving culture.
The NIT had expanded from eight to 12 teams in 1949. Two years later, the season the scandal broke, the NCAA Tournament doubled in size to 16. Bids became conditional and exclusive. Teams could not play in both events anymore. The NCAA made absolutely sure its event was clean, and that it hosted the very best teams in the country. In 1953, the NCAA Tournament expanded to 28. The invitees were the champions from the 15 recognized conferences at the time, as well as any independent teams deemed particularly worthy. During these times, the NCAA title became far superior to the NIT's: a true National Championship.
For a quarter century, with very few exceptions, the NCAA operated on a one league, one bid basis. Second place meant NIT. It was almost more desirable not to be in a conference at all. During the UCLA dynasty of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the second-best teams in the Athletic Association of Western Universities, later known as the Pac-8 and Pac-10, were lost and forgotten. Consider, for a brief moment, the fate of the Southern California team of 1970-71. The Trojans went 24-2, 12-2 in the Pac-8. Their only two losses of the year were against John Wooden, Sidney Wicks, and the National Champion Bruins. There would be no postseason at all for USC, not even the NIT.
The nation's premier college basketball tournament enacted an automatic bid system, and conferences were left to decide who to send. The SoCon, weakened by the departure of two major splinter groups, already had its system in place. So did the ACC and SEC, its prodigal children. Whichever team won the league tourney was the champion, and automatically proceeded to the NCAA Tournament.
The winner of the regular season usually backed up its title on a bracket, but there was a March surprise from time to time. In 1961, for example, West Virginia was 12-1 in the Southern Conference regular season, finishing two games ahead of the pack. But the Mountaineers were cast out in the quarterfinals by George Washington. That fourth-place team, at 6-7 and 9-15 overall, went on to beat The Citadel and William & Mary. Any debate about whether the SoCon had truly sent its best team to the NCAA Tournament was irrelevant. Some other leagues simply sent the squad that finished the season in first place, but GW won by house rules.
The NCAA Tournament grew from 25 to 32 teams in 1975, from 16 independent autobids to 20. There were new paths to the National Championship for teams in leagues like the ECAC, but the extra teams were at-large selections. The NCAA wanted the best second place teams from top conferences too.
The feebly encroaching NIT, which was up to 16 teams by then, saw its available pool shrink even more. The NCAA's new extra bids were just as exclusive as the old ones. The NCAA could now take Indiana and Michigan, UCLA and Oregon State, Alabama and Kentucky.
During this time, other conferences were taking the lead of the ACC and SEC, mixing basketball with commerce at annual league tournaments. In 1976, the Southwest Conference, later known as the Big 8 and Big 12, began an annual SWC Classic. Its old parent league, the Missouri Valley Conference, started its own postseason tournament in 1977.
But as the Dance became truly Big, as March went Mad, and as 48 became 64, the at-large pool grew larger and larger. The NCAA never much cared about conference formats, just as long as its Tournament received a league's best team, one that wouldn't go to the NIT. As the bracket grew, it was accepting as many schools from the I-A football conferences as it could. League tourney runner-ups, semifinalists and even quarterfinalists were getting in. It was hard to figure out what the purpose of a conference tournament was anymore. As such, many because little more than glorified alumni reunions.
In 1980, the ACC sent five of its eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. The SEC sent five to the 48-team national bracket of 1981, including quarterfinal losers Tennessee and Kentucky. The Big East, which began in 1979 as a collective for powerful Northeast basketball schools, was getting plenty of extra bids too. In 1983, when the Big East tournament moved into Madison Square Garden, the NCAA Tournament accepted five of the new league's nine teams. ESPN, a cable television network born in the same year as the Big East, broadcast the games live from MSG.
It was television that saved conference tournaments, and gave them new relevance. It was the little dance before the Big Dance, hours and hours of televised basketball programming, games stacked on top of games on top of even more games. In 1986, ESPN broadcast 27 elimination contests from all over the country. During the 1980s and 1990s, ESPN worked out agreements with nearly every Division I conference to broadcast their title games. By the turn of the century, ESPN had a second network called ESPN2. "Championship Week," as it was then called, was a 51-game blitz across the two channels. Nearly half of those were for championships, with automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
Many of them were true elimination games, dream-killers, the title games for one-bid conferences full of I-AA and I-AAA schools. The losers all went home. All the leagues that sprung from the football subdivision split started tournaments. This was often the only way they could get games on television. With hundreds of college basketball games available to be televised, ESPN's week of minor madness was the only time that Atlantic Sun or Southland basketball was compelling enough for a national audience. There were NCAA Tournament bids at stake.
For the major conferences, the ones with five, six and sometimes seven NCAA Tournament bids per year, tournaments in the TV era became more about exposure and cash than actual on-court results. Borderline teams, unsure of their at-large chances, could try to impress the selection committee one last time, but that wasn't why the events were held. The annual SEC, ACC and Big East events were opportunities to showcase all member teams in one building, on national television, then collect television revenue and gate receipts for redistribution to schools.
Even the old holdouts wanted a piece of that action. The Big Ten, the oldest Division I conference in the country, didn't start its own March tournament until 1998. The financial benefits were too big to ignore any longer. The Pac-10 began its own Los Angeles-based bracket in 1987, which may or may not have been the conference's first try at a postseason. From 1923 to 1955, the league known as the Pacific Coast Conference was split into south and north divisions. At the end of each season, the PCC's two division winners played a three-game playoff. It's up to individual historians to decide whether that was a tournament or not.
Only one of the 31 conferences never succumbed to tournament temptation, and still sent its first place team to the NCAA Tournament year after year. The Ivy League was full of well-endowed universities and profitable athletic departments, and no realistic chances for second bids. So what would have been the point of starting a conference tournament?
From out of 80 years of disjointed history - regional tournaments, a pair of competing national events, point-shaving, expansion, subdivisions, television and beyond - emerged the modern landscape of March Madness. There were mega-bid football conferences and one-bid basketball leagues. Between the two ranks of the haves and have-lesses, there was a barely existent middle class. Relentless gravitational downdrafts pushed two-bid leagues back down to one. During the late 2000s, the Colonial Athletic Association and Missouri Valley Conference were victims of those college basketball class struggles.
And then there was the SoCon, the unlucky star-crossed first innovator. The league that invented the conference tournament back in the 1920s had never, not once, sent more than one team to the NCAA Tournament.