When Was the First NCAA March Madness Tournament?

March Madness is such a staple in the world of not only college basketball, but sports in general, that it can be hard to think of a time when it was not the ultimate goal of college basketball teams. However, as with everything from the Super Bowl to the World Series, there had to be a first to get the ball rolling. But it’s so far removed that not many people may know of or remember the history of the very first March Madness tournament.

When did March Madness start?

March Madness was the name of an eight-team tournament that began in 1939. This was a fascinating time in the world of professional basketball. While there were professional leagues around the country, basketball had yet to find a home in the way that football and baseball did. Players were truly playing for the love of the game and no aspirations afterward. 

An eight-team tournament may seem small, but basketball was still a growing sport, with many schools not offering a place for aspiring athletes to play. Without television, this March Madness tournament was less about the spectacle and the magic moments and more about what was happening on the court in front of a small group of people. 

As far as the name “March Madness,” its origins go back to Henry Porter, the assistant executive secretary of the Illinois High School Association. Speaking about the March tournaments that happened across the country in high school, Porter reportedly said that a “little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.” Porter later took this term to another level with a poem called “Basketball Ides of March” that he published in 1942.

Who won the first March Madness?

The original tournament was broken into east versus west, and its participants contained many teams that still stand atop the world of college basketball. In the east, there was Ohio State, Wake Forest, Brown, and Villanueva. Ohio State easily got through its side of the bracket with a pair of decisive victories. 

In the west, there was Oregon, Texas, Utah State, and Oklahoma. Like Ohio State did in the east, Oregon wiped the floor with the competition, and the two teams met in the Finals. The names who played are mostly forgotten to even the most die-hard basketball fans, but they set the table for what would happen for years to come. 

When the game tipped off, it was all Oregon. Led by John Dick with 13 points, Oregon came out on top and never looked back, winning the game 46-33. A grainy video exists of the game that could be shown in highlight packages, but viewers will notice an archaic presentation that is both shockingly similar and quite different from today. 

The evolution of March Madness

March Madness underwent several changes throughout its lifetime. For starters, when the tournament was first began, it was predated by the NIT tournament, which at the time was the preeminent tournament in college basketball. The NIT didn’t become the secondary tournament until decades later, with Marquette choosing the NIT tournament over the NCAA tournament in 1970. The women’s tournament was added in 1982.

Starting with the initial eight-team field, the tournament expanded to 16 by 1952 before switching between 22 and 25 teams from 1953 to 1974. In 1975, the number once again expanded to 32 until 1985, when the field doubled to 64. The most recent change came in 2011 when 68 teams were awarded berths to the tournament thanks to a play-in game for lower seeds. 

March Madness might be the single biggest event in basketball. While the NBA Finals might be the ultimate goal in professional basketball, many of those players would not be where they were if not for March Madness. The game has changed and the tournament will continue to change with it, but March Madness shows just how much a simple idea can grow into a far greater phenomenon.