Archive for Saturday, March 30, 2002

s history with NCAA tourney long, storied

March 30, 2002


Pardon the awe and pride this Kansas native feels each March about the monumental footprint that Kansas University and its people have planted on the fabric of the NCAA basketball tournament. The more you learn about it, the more prominently it looms.

No matter whether the current Jayhawks win or lose at the Final Four in Atlanta, there forever will be huge splashes of crimson and blue paint all over the NCAA bandwagon. Faithful Jayhawk followers feel sure their 2002 favorites will further enrich the legacy of KU's countless contributions to college basketball.

Long before any college tournament could evolve, somebody had to invent the game. A guy did that at Springfield, Mass., then shifted to Kansas for a long education-oriented tenure prior to his death in 1939. James Naismith in 1898 arrived as a physical education instructor, was KU's first coach and later had a pupil named Forrest C. Allen. So unenchanted was Dr. Jim about the game that he told Allen, "Forrest, you don't coach basketball, you just play it."

The low-key Naismith didn't make some road trips with his teams and now and then officiated when a referee didn't show up. When he turned the team over to Phog Allen in 1907, Naismith's record was 55-60, establishing him as the only losing coach on the Mount Oread books. No matter, the devout Naismith preferred a role as a teacher and spiritual adviser.

Phog Allen coached here awhile, took time off to become an osteopath and also coached at Haskell, Baker and Central Missouri State. He could tutor any sport, including football, and often did. This incomparable individual wheeled-and-dealed his way to greatness in coaching and was one of the finest all-around citizens (draft board, community chest, you name it) this area has ever known. He also served as KU athletics director.

Phog long felt basketball should be an Olympic sport. In 1936 Allen was the key man in getting it accepted as such. His KU team was upset by Utah State in playoffs so no Jayhawks made the U.S. team sent to Berlin. Phog still was supposed to help coach the Yanks, but he had a falling out with Olympic tyrants, one of many, and dropped out.

Then Allen got the notion college basketball not only needed a championship tournament but that the NCAA could make money from such. Folks often doubted Phog and wound up with egg on their face. The early going made the skeptics look good.

Total attendance, at all sites, for the first tourney in 1939 was 15,025; the title game in Evanston, Ill., drew only 5,500. There was only about $100 each for the finalists. (Oregon beat Ohio State.) Bottom line, the initial tournament lost $2,531. One of the other Sunflower State kingpins in organizing the tourney was Dutch Lonborg, onetime four-sport athlete at Kansas and later KU athletics director. He was head basketball coach at Northwestern from 1928 through 1950.

From small beginnings

For 1940, Phog the incomparable promoter helped convince coaches they ought to have a national convention. They staged the first of many in Kansas City, where Indiana beat Phog's Jayhawks 60-42 for the national title, KU's first Final Four appearance.

Total attendance at all the 1940 tourney venues was 38,880. There were 10,000 in KC's Municipal Auditorium for the title game with KU the main lure, and each team took home $750. But, just as KU's famed Forrest Allen had promised, there was an overall profit. That first formative year had been the only time there ever was a tourney deficit.

Nowadays, teams notch something like $260,000 for each game they play, thanks mainly to a $1.75 billion (that's "b") contract with CBS that runs through 2002. A new TV contract recently was signed that will pay out a grand total of $6 billion (again, that's billion) through 2013.

Working together

The Kansas-born Lonborg, first as Northwestern basketball coach and after 1950 as Kansas athletics director, was one of the main functionaries on the NCAA Tournament Committee. Dutch, from Horton, was one of the greatest all-around athletes KU ever turned out and worked wonders with Phog on behalf of the tournament.

Too often overlooked in the assignments of praise is NCAA boss Walt Byers, who was a visionary like Phog and Dutch, dreamed big and laid the groundwork for today's Circus Maximus. Byers, Phog and Dutch had their differences but knew how to get things done. Also figuring prominently in the growth and success of the NCAA Tournament was Wayne Duke, now 74.

Duke was the first NCAA employee hired in 1952 by Byers, a former news wire reporter. Duke's influence was also huge even after he moved on as commissioner of the Big Eight Conference and then was 18-year commissioner of the Big Ten. Duke has a son with a KU background and has always stayed in touch with this area.

Kansas connections

There's no way in one article to cite all the KU influences on the tournament. But Jayhawks and ex-Jayhawks pop up every time you turn a corner. And Kansas State with its Jack Gardner, Tex Winter, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Jack Hartman, Lon Kruger, et. al., contributions has had 22 years of tourney time with a 27-26 record. Kansas State finished second in 1951, against Kentucky, and was in many eyes the No. 2 best team in the land in '52 when Kansas won the title for the first time. At the time, though, only one team could represent a league. In '51, it was Kansas State, in '52 KU's title-bound Jayhawks, seven of whom also became Olympic gold medalists. Kansas was runner-up to Indiana by one point in 1953.

Bluegrass Baron Adolph Rupp left Halstead and KU for Kentucky and became a legend, winning four titles while establishing a reputation as one of the fiercest competitors who ever lived.

Phog and KU won in 1952; came to within a point in 1953. Wilt Chamberlain, coach Dick Harp and Co. were one point shy in triple overtime in 1957. That gut-wrencher in Kansas City drew the greatest media horde in college history, 64 newspaper guys, an 11-station television hookup and live radio broadcasts on 73 stations in 11 states. You think Kansas' clout and Chamberlain had anything to do with it?

While some say the 1979 tournament featuring Magic Johnson and Larry Bird really projected the NCAA to big-time television wealth, those longer in the tooth say it was the KU-Chamberlain-North Carolina excitement in 1957 that really opened the eyes of video producers and advertisers.

Meanwhile, there was a one-time KU substitute named Dean Smith about to burst upon the scene and become, at North Carolina, the winningest coach in college annals  passing en route, would you guess it, Kansas-oriented megastars Phog Allen and Adolph Rupp.

Danny Manning, Larry Brown and The Miracles came home with the gold in 1988. More beak-marks.

You could write all night about players such as Wilt, Clyde Lovellette, B.H. Born, Manning, Bobby Allen, Ralph Miller, Howard Engleman, Al and Dean Kelley  counting this year's squad, more than 120 Jayhawks have taken part in the tournament. So many have contributed so much, and Roy Williams and his teams have kept the Kansas flavor strong. Roy's clubs have Final Four-ed in 1991 and 1993, and his 2002 crew is a strong favorite with many oddsmakers to go all the way. So, even more positive KU influence on this ballyhooed sporting event.

KU's Dean Smith and Dick Harp are two of only six men ever to head-coach and play with teams in the Final Four. There are countless other indelible influences.

Almost anywhere you look, you see feathers indicating that Jayhawks, like the mysterious World War II Kilroy, have been there.

Why shouldn't Kansans get a little puffed up with pride during March Madness? Some mighty sane Sunflower guys did so much to bring madness to its annual boiling point.

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