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March 15, 2007
Dick Davies can still remember the days when the NCAA men's basketball tournament wasn't a major reason for American workplace productivity to plunge every Thursday and Friday in the middle of every March.
In fact, Davies can recall the days when the NCAA Tournament wasn't even the country's most prestigious college basketball tournament.
The National Invitation Tournament (NIT) held that honor well into the 1950s. And really, says Davies, a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno and one of the country's foremost experts on sports in America, it wasn't until a watershed moment in 1979 when the Earvin "Magic" Johnson-led Michigan State Spartans defeated the Larry Bird-led Indiana State Sycamores, that the NCAA Tournament truly arrived as a major American sporting event.
"The big turning point was when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird duked it out in the finals on television in ‘79," says Davies, whose most recent book, "Sports In American Life: A History," was released in 2006. "It had all the elements of a memorable game. Michigan State, the powerful team from a powerful conference, the Big Ten, against the underdog, the so-called ‘mid-major' team that no one had ever heard of before, Indiana State. It was a black superstar in Magic Johnson versus a white superstar in Larry Bird.
"The game drew a huge TV rating (still the most-watched championship game in tournament history), and the tournament was off and running into becoming what it is today: the NCAA's big television cash cow."
Today, Davies says, the tournament not only catches the imagination of most Americans, it means big money for the NCAA to the tune of a 10-year, $6 billion contract with CBS.
Davies says that imprint on ESPN on the tournament has also been significant. ESPN commentators from Dick Vitale to Jay Bilas to so-called "bracketologists" such as Joe Lunardi have been building the tournament's "storyline" for days. He says the sports cable network's impact truly began in the mid-1980s, when it televised Thursday and Friday first-round games live, during the average workday.
"The then-upstart network ESPN showed some of the early-round games, and they were able to show off some of their new technology," Davies said. "All of a sudden, you weren't just stuck watching one game. If the game was a blowout, they would switch to another game, or they would go to a split-screen, or back and forth between a No. 15 or No. 14 seed in the process of upsetting a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed. The first-round games suddenly became very exciting. And that's why the office pools became so popular. People were watching the games at work, or slipping out at lunch to watch them in a restaurant or a sports bar."
Davies says that in his research of the NCAA Tournament, he has uncovered a number of interesting historical tidbits, including:
Media coverage in major magazines such as Sports Illustrated never mentioned the fact that Texas Western University's starting five in the 1966 championship game against Kentucky was the first all-black starting lineup in college basketball history. The milestone moment in college basketball was made into a movie 2006 movie, "Glory Road."
Legendary coach John Wooden's run of seven straight championships from 1967-73 and 10 tournament titles overall in 12 seasons, though remarkable, needs to be placed against the context of the tournament's size in the 1960s and 1970s. The 64-team field wasn't enacted until 1985. In 1951, the tournament was 16 teams; in 1969, the tournament's size was 25 teams, with a West regional that included the likes of Wooden-coached UCLA, Morris "Bucky" Buckwalter-coached Seattle University, and Lou Henson-coached New Mexico State.
"With a 16- or 24-team field, a team did not have to play as many games on the road to the championship," Davies says. He adds that today's 65-team bracket, set to begin in the middle of each March, is perfect in size and time of year. "It fills a void," he says. "Football has long since been gone, baseball is still in spring training, so it's become the big deal in March. It's the second-biggest cash cow for the legal sports books in Nevada, behind only the Super Bowl. It's become big business."