The origins of March Madness: What’s the madness all about?

There’s drama. There’s suspense. Superstitions and shocking moments abound. Some might go as far as to argue (in the case of Sister Jean) that even God takes a side. There are all the trappings of a juicy Hollywood blockbuster. But what we are talking about, friends, is this thing that happens every March—this spectacle that keeps Americans glued to their TVs and on the edges of their seats for weeks

This is a thing—a holy basketball ritual, if you will—they call March Madness.

Just how did it become, well, so mad? We’re glad you asked. We were curious too, so we did a little digging, and here’s what we found out. 

The origin

March Madness is the annual college basketball tournament the NCAA hosts that spans from mid-March to early April (consider this a refresher because we know this isn’t new to you). It got its start in 1939, when a series of single-elimination games whittled eight teams down to two, and Oregon beat Ohio State to take home the first-ever tournament title.

Over the years, the tournament has grown from featuring 8 teams to 16 in 1951, doubling to 32 teams in 1975, and then doubling again in 1985 to the 64-team format we are familiar with today. Today, there are actually a whopping 68 teams that make it (almost) into the tournament, with eight teams participating in play-in games to make the official first-round field of 64. 

It might surprise you to know that March Madness wasn’t actually the first postseason college basketball tournament ever started. You may have heard of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) because it’s still played today. It began in 1938, a year before “The Big Dance” tipped off, and was for a while the more popular tournament. But, clearly, March Madness has long since overtaken the NIT as the top college basketball tournament. We’d argue it’s the top basketball tournament, period. 

Where did the term “March Madness” come from?

There’s no need to ask, “Why March?” We all have calendars. But why the name “March Madness”? Turns out, the phrase "March Madness" was first coined in 1939 when Henry V. Porter, assistant executive secretary of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), referred to the annual IHSA basketball tournament by that moniker. 

In a March 1939 issue of the IHSA magazine, Illinois High School Athlete, Porter described the way fans looked forward to the annual high school basketball tournament, writing, “a little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.” (Coincidentally, that’s also the same month and year that Oregon beat Ohio State to win the first NCAA basketball championship.)

In 1942, Porter elaborated on this March Madness phenomenon in the form of a poem called “Basketball Ides of March,” which appeared in the Illinois Interscholastic. We won’t go into the whole thing here, but if you’re curious or just really into basketball poetry, you can read it here. But we digress…

Moving on, the term “March Madness” didn't become associated with the NCAA Tournament until 1982, when CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger took it for a spin during his college basketball coverage. The story goes that Musburger first heard the term in car dealership commercials he saw while broadcasting an annual IHSA tournament. He started using the term and later brought it over to CBS when he started broadcasting the NCAA tournament. 

And the rest is history.

What’s up with the “Big Dance?”

Although March Madness is the most widely known nickname for the NCAA tournament, there are a few others we wondered about. What’s the deal with “The Big Dance?” Cinderella what?

The nickname “The Big Dance” apparently comes from Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire, who explained to a reporter in 1977 that “you gotta wear the blue blazer when you go to the big dance.” And wear a bright blue blazer he didall through Marquette’s winning season, in fact. And McGuire deemed it so effective (or perhaps lucky) that he committed to wearing it all throughout his team’s tournament run. (Sidenote: What’s the deal with blazers and sports traditions? Read about the infamous Master’s green jacket here.) 

One can always appreciate superstitious behavior when it comes to sports. However, why did McGuire call the tournament “The Big Dance?” And why did “The Big Dance,” specifically, stick? We have no idea. That’s all we got…but we like it!

Perhaps there is some kind of relationship between “The Big Dance” and another noted tourney term, “Cinderella” or “Cinderella team.” These “Cinderellas” looking for their “One Shining Moment” at The Big Dance sort of makes sense. Maybe? (It also makes you wonder if Disney was ever a March Madness sponsor. Perhaps this has the makings of a follow-up blog…)

But, there you have it. It’s clearly all a bunch of madness indeed, and we love everything about it. The traditions. The drama. The tears. The triumphs. The glory. The buzzer beaters. The confetti. The net cutting. March Madness has it all, and we’re here for every moment of it.

As you prepare for this year’s festivities by properly stocking up your fridge for your March Madness watch party, check out the results of our 2021 Snack Bracket Challenge. Fans across America voted on the best Big Dance snacks, and we must admit they make for excellent party menu inspo. 

And don’t forget! Selection Sunday comes around a bit earlier this year! Brackets drop Sunday, March 13. We challenge you to put away those pencils.

This is a pens-only affair. 


 Image credit: NCAA photos/Getty Images


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