One of these days, I would love to write a book. I love March Madness, and the subject of my book would be when March Madness was born for me. There have been a number of excellent books already written on the subject (When March Went Mad by Seth Godin, A March to Madness by John Feinstein and How March Became Madness by Eddie Einhorn and Ron Rappaport). Godin's "birth" was 1979 Bird/Magic and Einhorn/Rappaport's was the epic 1968 Houston and UCLA game in the Astrodome. But my birth goes back to 1985, and it all started in Dayton, Ohio. I was a high school Freshman, and that year at the University of Dayton Arena marked the beginining of a 15 year or so run that my father and I attended NCAA Basketball tournament games together throughout the Midwest, including several in Dayton.
The 6 games we watched in 1985 were all special, and there so many great side stories that could make up the various chapters in my book, such as:
We watched the eventual National Champion Villanova barely survive their first game. They went on to beat a heavily favored Georgetown Hoya team 69-64 by playing a nearly perfect game, and to this day they remain the lowest seed to ever win the National Championhip.
This was the first year the tournament was expanded to 64 teams, which helps cement my claim of this being the true birthdate of March Madness as we know it (i.e. the hope of the 16 seeds winning, the epic 8/9 seed games, the upset special 5-12 games...).
Why Dayton Ohio as the birthplace? There is actually a lot of precedence for calling Dayton the birthplace. The University of Dayton Arena has hosted more NCAA tournament games by far than any other venue (by 42). They hosted the first NCAA tournament games in 1970, the year after UD Arena was built. I remember my father telling me about schools like Dayton, Duquesne and other smaller Midwest/Mid Atlantic Catholic schools dominating in the 50’s and 60’s - especially Dayton. Dayton had 435 wins during the 50’s and 60’s (228 in the 50’s and 207 in the 60’s). For perspective, this was more than the college basketball bluebloods UCLA (427) and Kentucky (421).
Michigan was the number 1 seed - and in the first year of 1-16 matchups, we almost witnessed our first upset! They had a star studded cast with Roy Tarpley, Gary Grant, Antoine Joubert, Richard Rellford. Fairleigh Dickinson nearly won, and the entire arena, including my father and I, were on our feet cheering for FDU. It would take another 33 years before a 16 seed beat a 1 seed with UMBC upsetting Virginia. This is the type of game that fueled March Madness as we know it today. The entire crowd seemed to be rooting for FDU that day and it was electric – I will never forget that feeling and it is what fueled my passion for March Madness.
Navy was there as a 13 seed and upset a strong Dale Brown led 3 seed LSU that had 4 future NBA players. Navy won behind the play of a little known Sophomore by the name of David Robinson, who had grown 7 inches since his arrival on campus at Annapolis. This was before he was known as the "Admiral" that went on to unbelievable success in the NBA and the Olympics. But on this day, nobody had ever heard of him.
In an overtime thriller, Maryland barely beat a Miami of Ohio team just down the road from Dayton that featured future NBA star Ron Harper. Maryland had a legendary coach in Lefty Driessel and their star player was Len Bias. A little more than a year later, Bias died of a drug overdose the day after he was drafted #1 by the Boston Celtics in the NBA Draft. I remember where I was when I heard of Len Bias’ death on Thursday June 19, 1986 - at the Verne Payne Big Man camp on the Campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Camp was wrapping up for the week and we were all in the gym watching my fellow class of ’88 Sean Kemp from Concord High in Elkhart Indiana putting on a dunk show.
Villanova played Dayton in their opening game. With the home team fans (and most of the other fans) going crazy, this also shaped what March Madness means – the classic 8-9 rivalry, with Villanova winning by 2 points. The game featured one legendary coach (Don Donoher) vs. another future legend (Rollie Massimino). Eventually, the NCAA stopped the practice of allowing teams to play in their own gyms in the tournament, but I remember the energy in the building like it was yesterday.
A week later, my high school team that went 8-12 that year continued the season on an improbable playoff run making it to the final 8 in the state and played in the UD arena of all places. Can you see why this was this was such a good memory and why I stake Dayton, Ohio in 1985 as the birthplace of March Madness? There are a ton of other chapters that I could write about including legendary coaches at those games, drug addiction that impacted 3 star players from that bracket, and the Big East/ESPN coming of age party. This tournament in 1985 was right in the middle of the best 6 year run ever of NCAA March Madness tournaments, which included the intimidating Georgetown teams, a dominant Ralph Sampson that never won the title, the ultimate underdog NC State and their enthusiatic coach Valvano, Freshman Michael Jordan sinking the game winner, Phi Slamma Jamma and many more stories. I would love to hear the stories of your favorite March Madness tournaments.