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The NCAA News -- November 8, 1999

The NCAA Century Series -- Part I: 1900-39

NCAA 'convinced' that basketball championship would prosper

What would become Association's primary championship event was in the red on first attempt


The championship that may have had the most impact on the NCAA in the long run -- basketball -- was born to humble means in 1939.

The event debuted March 17, 1939, in Philadelphia's Palestra, where the eastern half of the tournament was played. Three days later, the western half of the tournament began in the San Francisco Coliseum. On March 28, 1939, the University of Oregon became the first NCAA basketball champion.

There was no RCA Dome, no Final Four and no March Madness. But a variety of observers, perhaps looking into a crystal ball, reported that they thought the event would one day become the most successful of all amateur basketball championships.

Ironically, the NCAA had to be persuaded that interest in the sport was sufficient to hold the basketball championship in the first place. Harold Olsen, coach of the Ohio State University basketball team, suggested the formation of a national championship when he sent a letter to George Edwards, president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC).

Olsen noted the success of the 1938 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in New York, as well as the success of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) tournament in Kansas City, Missouri.

Olson was then charged with investigating the feasibility of the tournament. He was assisted by John Bunn, the basketball coach at Stanford University, and Forrest "Phog" Allen, the basketball coach at the University of Kansas. They all reported back positively, and the trio suggested that the NCAA be responsible for administering the tournament in the spring of 1939. The NCAA agreed.

Selection procedures

Olsen then appointed a selection committee for each of the eight districts to select the best team from that district. At the time, the selection committees were composed of three or four coaches, newspapermen or business leaders.

Rather than having the entire tournament in one location, the NCAA organized it so as to give more people a chance to see the teams play and also cut down on traveling time.

At the time, players traveled by train or by bus, which could be both exhausting and expensive. So, the eight regions were divided in half and the opening rounds were held in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

The regional selections for that first tournament were Brown University, Villanova University, Wake Forest University, Ohio State, the University of Oklahoma; the University of Texas at Austin, Utah State University and Oregon.

Let the games begin

Ohio State defeated Wake Forest and Villanova to emerge the eastern NCAA champion. En route to a 64-52 victory over Wake Forest, Ohio State broke the all-time scoring record at the Palestra. Ohio State's Richard Baker broke the Palestra individual scoring record with 25 points. The combined score of the two teams also was a record.

The western playoff featured a run by Oregon, which defeated Texas, 56-41, and Oklahoma, 55-37.

The western games were sponsored by the San Francisco International Exposition, which provided trophies and paid the teams' expenses.

The championship game, held at Patten Gymnasium at Northwestern University, featured a near-capacity crowd of 5,500. It was preceded by a contest between two Northwestern teams, which demonstrated the original rules of basketball, at one point playing with nine players on a side and using peach baskets.

Oregon, using the fast break extensively, led at half time, 21-16. Early in the second half the Buckeyes came within three, but they ultimately lost, 46-33.

Reports of the game credit the win to Oregon's tall players and strong defense, as well as to its strenuous 34-game national schedule, which also included some non-college teams such as Signal Oil, an industry-sponsored amateur team.

The first NCAA basketball championship was not televised, of course, and it even lost money. Because the NABC's treasury could not cover the $2,531 loss, it asked the NCAA to underwrite the deficit and to assume full responsibility for all future tournaments, which it did.

Later that year, the basketball community mourned the death of James Naismith, inventor of the game, who died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas.