How The NCAA Overtook Its Rival, The NIT
Hosting its games at New York City’s prestigious Madison Square Garden (MSG), the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was historically a more glamorous basketball event than the NCAA’s post-season tourney known today as 'March Madness'. Though, by the 1970’s, that hierarchy would flip and the NIT would drop to second class status.
Founded in 1938 by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association, the NIT held its championships at “The Garden”, the Mecca of college basketball in the 1930’s and 1940’s and the country’s premier venue for showcasing and recruiting basketball talent.
The 18,000+ seats at MSG filled up with nightly double and triple-headers that generated windfall gate receipts for the arena and for the teams. The NIT’s success inspired the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) to launch their own post-season contest in the American heartland.
Spearheaded by Harold Olsen, head coach at Ohio State University, eight teams representing eight national regions took to the court on March 17, 1939. With 5,000 fans in attendance at the Final in Northwestern’s Patten Gymnasium, the Oregon Webfoots defeated Olsen’s Buckeye’s 46-33 to hoist the competition’s first trophy.
Though many of the seats were given away and the tournament lost $2,500, the NABC felt confident that their collegiate championship had great potential to become a preeminent sporting attraction.
The second year saw the Indiana Hoosiers prevail over the Kansas Jayhawks 60-42. No longer in the red, the series now showed a profit of $9,500 and the NABC handed over the administration of the games to the NCAA. The battle lines between the NCAA and the NIT were drawn.
But next to the NIT, the NCAA still fell short on attendance and earnings. In New York, schools were compensated for their expenses and given a large percentage of the tournament profits. Meanwhile, the NCAA could barely meet the costs of its invitees.
The winner of the NIT was also generally regarded as the “true” national champion. Local schools like St. John’s, NYU, LIU and City College of NY (CCNY) had produced many of the top players, coaches and teams in the early decades of college basketball.
But that test came in 1943 when the NCAA moved its East Regional and the Final to MSG. A year earlier, an official close to the Red Cross had also suggested that the NIT and NCAA go head-to-head for a national championship. The Red Cross at the time was deeply involved in charity games to raise funds for the war effort.
On April 1, 1943, 18,000 fans packed MSG to watch the NCAA winner, Wyoming, defeat its NIT counterpart, St. John’s. The NCAA would win two more of these faceoffs and reign supreme in three of the Red Cross “mythical national championships”.
Money and prestige kept the NCAA in New York until revelations emerged of game-fixing activities and mob influence. In 1951, authorities uncovered a point-shaving scandal that went back years and which involved mostly, but not exclusively, New York area schools.
The NIT’s reputation was badly damaged and the NCAA decided to abandon ‘Gotham’, forever stripping New York of hosting an NCAA Final. The following year, the collegiate association also doubled its field from 8 to 16 teams and implemented a new policy that widened the invitations to include not just automatic champions, but at-large bids and “also-rans” (conference losers).
Representing an increasing number of university athletic departments, the NCAA grew in influence and was able to dictate stricter terms to its participants and independents. It also ran negative campaigns disparaging the big-city, off-campus, privately-run model of the NIT.
By the early 1960’s, the NCAA had outmaneuvered its rival for first dibs in invitations. The NIT was left powerless and even if teams refused to abide by the arrangements and opted for the NIT, they risked being sanctioned or reprimanded by the NCAA.
Relegated to the NIT after being denied a post-season berth at the national collegiate championship, North Carolina State University’s David Thompson referred to the NIT in 1975 as “a loser’s tournament”. The label stuck and over time, it became euphemistically branded as the ‘consolation’ tournament.
Even court battles couldn’t hold back the NCAA juggernaut, which was increasingly fueled by the popularity of ‘March Madness’ and lucrative prime-time television contracts that the NIT lacked. By 2005, the decades-old battle between the two tournament associations was over when the NCAA settled all litigation and took over the NIT.
RUGBY March 20, 2010 France defeats England 12-10 to complete a Grand Slam and win the Six Nations Rugby Championship. Claiming all 5 matches of the tournament, France also routed Italy 46-20 to take the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy. Defending champions Ireland were runner-up with 6 points behind France’s 10. It was the 17th title for the blue, white and red national team, who first entered the contest in 1910 when the Home Nations tournament became the Five Nations.
GOLF March 27, 2000 Hal Sutton wins the PGA Players Championship held in TPC at Sawgrass. Sutton led all four rounds and was on the 12th hole with Tiger Woods on Sunday when the game was called off due to heavy rain. He ended up winning the delayed tournament on Monday by a single stroke ahead of Woods, shooting 278 (-10). Sutton reached his highest ever ranking (#4) that year and his career would see 14 PGA Tour wins, including the PGA Championship (1983).
BASKETBALL March 20, 1990 The Los Angeles Lakers retire Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s #33 jersey. The 7’2” star center spent 15 seasons with the Lakers, winning 5 national championships with the West Coast team. Coming out of UCLA, he first joined the Milwaukee Bucks and was awarded the NBA Rookie of the Year. A 19x NBA All-Star by the time he retired, Jabbar is regarded as one of the greatest basketball players with career stats of 24.6 ppg, 11.2 rpg and 2.5 bpg.
BOXING March 31, 1980 Larry Holmes TKO’s Leroy Jones in the 8th round to retain his WBC heavyweight title. It was his 34th undefeated professional bout since he turned professional in 1973. Seven months later, the Georgia native would take out Muhammad Ali in the same venue at Caesar’s Palace in Nevada to win The Ring and lineal heavyweight titles. Holmes boxed until 2002 and retired with a record of 75-69-6. He lost twice to Michael Spinks, in 1985 & 1986.