A Brief History of March Madness

Every year, as winter wanes, a curious ailment spreads across the country. The thump of basketballs, the squeak of sneakers, and the roar of the crowd are sure signals that basketball fever is with us. It's a condition called "March Madness," and it afflicts millions of people with no known cure. Where did this malady originate?

A Tradition is Born

"March Madness" was born in Illinois. The annual tournament of high school boys basketball teams, sponsored by the Illinois High School Association, grew from a small invitational affair in 1908 to a statewide institution with over 900 schools competing by the late 1930's. A field of teams known as the "Sweet Sixteen" routinely drew sellout crowds to the University of Illinois' Huff Gymnasium. In a time before television, before the college game became popular with the average fan, before professional leagues had established a foothold in the nation's large cities, basketball fever had already reached epidemic proportions in the Land of Lincoln.

Giving It a Name

Henry V. Porter, assistant executive secretary of the Illinois High School Association, was so impressed by the phenomenon that he wrote an essay to commemorate it. Entitled "March Madness," it first appeared in the Illinois Interscholastic, the IHSA's magazine, in 1939. The term struck a chord with newspapermen, who used it throughout their pages. During the tournament's "Golden Era" of the 1940's and 1950's, "March Madness" became the popular name of the event. It was an era of some of Illinois' most legendary teams, including the undefeated 1944 Taylorville squad and Mt. Vernon's unstoppable back-to-back champions of 1949 and 1950. But the one champion remembered more than any other is tiny Hebron, a school of only 98 students, which won the tournament in 1952.

Making It Official

The IHSA tournaments continued to grow and develop. In 1963, the tournament moved to the huge new Assembly Hall on the campus of the University of Illinois and fans witnessed the most famous finish in history, when Chicago Carver beat Centralia on a last-second shot by a substitute named Anthony Smedley. "March Madness" grew as well. Beginning in 1973, the IHSA began using the term officially in its programs and on its merchandise. In 1977, the organization enlisted veteran Chicago sportswriter and Big Ten basketball referee Jim Enright to write the official history of the boys basketball tournament. The result was March Madness: The Story of High School Basketball in Illinois. As media technology advanced, the IHSA and KOST Broadcast Sales of Chicago produced March Madness: The Official Video History of the IHSA Basketball Tournament in 1989. Both the book and video were sold nationwide. During this period, the Illinois High School Association received trademark status for the term "March Madness" and registered the trademark "America's Original March Madness." The spirit of March Madness has subsequently spread from coast to coast, as other companies and organizations, including state high school associations and manufacturers, have been licensed by the IHSA to use these trademarks.

March Madness Today

Today's March Madness is different from the original version. Nowadays an "Elite Eight" of teams advances to the state finals, but there are eight tournaments — Class 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A versions, from the smallest schools to the largest, for both boys and girls, played in Peoria and Normal. "The Happening," a thrilling contest featuring the state's best three-point shooters and dunkers, is now a part of these tournaments as well. And starting in 1996, the "March Madness Experience," an exhibition hall full of fun, games, and good times, has allowed fans of Illinois high school basketball to join in the action.

The popularity of these events now allows the IHSA to provide more than just good entertainment for its fans. A significant portion of the fees generated from the licensing of the unified marks "March Madness" and "America's Original March Madness" are used to fund college scholarships for Illinois high school boys and girls.

The Origin of the Term "March Madness"

"March Madness," the term used to describe the excitement surrounding the Illinois state high school basketball tournaments, first appeared in print almost sixty years ago. It was coined by Henry V. Porter, who started his career as a teacher and coach at Athens High School in central Illinois. In 1924, Porter led the Athens boys basketball team to a second-place finish in the state tournament. He later served as assistant executive secretary of the Illinois High School Athletic Association (from 1929 to 1940) and executive secretary of the National Federation of State High School Associations (from 1940 to 1958).

Porter, who edited the IHSA's journal, coined "March Madness" in an essay that appeared in the Illinois High School Athlete in March of 1939. Soon thereafter the nation was plunged into World War II. The drama of March Madness provided a unifying force that brought the entire state together, and Porter again commemorated the event, this time with a poem, "Basketball Ides of March," which appeared in the Illinois Interscholastic in March of 1942.

March Madness

Homo of the Hardwood Court is a hardy specie. There are millions of him. He exists through summer and fall, shows signs of animation through the winter and lives to the utmost during March when a hundred thousand pairs of rubber soled shoes slap the hardwood in a whirlwind of stops and pivots and dashes on the trail to the state basketball championships. He is a glutton for punishment. When the March madness is on him, midnight jaunts of a hundred miles on successive nights make him even more alert the next day. He will polish his pants on sixteen inches of bleacher seat through two games or three and take offense if asked to leave during the intermission between sessions. He is happy only when the floor shimmers with reflections of fast moving streaks of color, when the players swarm at each end and the air is full of leather. For the duration of the endemic he is a statistical expert who knows the record of each contender, a game strategist who spots the weak points in a given system of offense or defense, a rules technician who instructs the officials without cost or request. Every canine has his day and this is Homo's month.

He is a doodler who, while conversing, scribbles free throw lanes with a hundred radiating alleys. In May the three symbols of the New York Fair will take on their intended meaning but in March the helicline is a ramp to the balcony, the trylon is the pyramid of hundreds of teams being narrowed down to the one at the state championship pinnacle and the perisphere has the traditional four panel basketball markings.

In everyday life he is a sane and serious individual trying to earn enough to pay his taxes. But he does a Jekyll-Hyde act when the spell is on him. He likes his coffee black and his basketball highly spiced. He despises the stall — unless his team is ahead. It is a major crime for the official to call a foul on the dribbler — unless the opponent was dribbling. His moods are as changeable as the March wind. He flies into a frenzy at some trivial happening on the court and before his vocal expression of disapproval is half completed he howls in delight at the humorous twist of a comment from a bleacher wit. He is part of the mass mind and is subject to its whims. He berates the center for attempting a long shot and lauds him when it goes in the basket. He is consistent only in his inconsistencies.

The thud of the ball on the floor, the slap of hands on leather, the swish of the net are music in his ears. He is a connoisseur in matters pertaining to team coordination and artistry in action. The shifting zone, the screen and the spot pass are an open book to him. He speaks the language.

He is biased, noisy, fidgety, boastful and unreasonable — but we love him for his imperfections. His lack of inhibitions adds a spontaneity that colors the tournaments. Without darkness there would be no light. A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.

The writer's temperature is rising. The thing is catching. It's got me! Gimme that playing schedule!

Basketball Ides of March

The gym lights gleam like a beacon beam
And a million motors hum
In a good will flight on a Friday night;
For basketball beckons, "Come!"
A sharp-shooting mite is king tonight.
The Madness of March is running.
The winged feet fly, the ball sails high
And field goal hunters are gunning.

The colors clash as silk suits flash
And race on a shimmering floor.
Repressions die, and partisans vie
In a goal acclaiming roar.
On a Championship Trail toward a holy grail,
All fans are birds of a feather.
It's fiesta night and cares lie light
When the air is full of leather.

Since time began, the instincts of man
Prove cave and current men kin.
On tournament night the sage and the wight
Are relatives under the skin.
It's festival time, sans reason or rhyme
But with nation-wide appeal.
In a cyclone of hate, our ship of state
Rides high on an even keel.

With war nerves tense, the final defense
Is the courage, strength and will
In a million lives where freedom thrives
And liberty lingers still.
Now eagles fly and heroes die
Beneath some foreign arch
Let their sons tread where hate is dead
In a happy Madness of March.