Archive for Sunday, March 28, 2004

Mayer: KU greats elevated NCAA to top tourney

March 28, 2004


From the time basketball's National Invitation Tournament debuted in 1938 it was doomed because of gambling influences in and around Madison Square Garden and the dedication of Kansas icons Phog Allen and Dutch Lonborg.

Phog was the coaching legend at Kansas University while Dutch was the basketball coach at Northwestern after a brilliant career as an all-sports athlete at KU. They'd long been trying to get the colleges to set up an annual championship tournament. When the NIT stepped onto the scene, their dedication grew. They felt the seamier aspects of the Garden and some of its minions would only do college basketball harm, and that there needed to be a more savory atmosphere for the sport they loved.

Doc and Dutch began a major sales job, Phog from here and Dutch from the Chicago area. In '39, a year after the NIT began to attract the most outstanding teams available, the NCAA had a modest beginning. Oregon beat Ohio State, 46-33, for the title in Evanston, Ill., Lonborg's home digs.

The NCAA lost money, attendance was embarrassing, each winning team took home a token $100 while the NIT was chortling about its financial successes. But the Kansas Kombo wasn't about to let it ride.

Next year, Phog and Dutch convinced the college coaches to hold their annual convention in Kansas City, at the time unaware his Jayhawks would be playing Indiana for the title there. Attendance was up because of support of Kansas fans in Municipal Auditorium, the NCAA came out something like $12,000 to the good, and the winners were given $750 each.

The NIT, however, continued to lure top-flight teams for its tourney. All the while Allen and a lot of other non-New Yorkers said there was too much gambling and pandering around Madison Square Garden and that it would come back to haunt the tournament.

World War II soon put the kibosh on a lot of athletic ventures, and the NCAA struggled, yet the NIT continued to use the glamour lure of "a trip to New York" to sign up the dandies.

There were postwar fits and starts, but things began to change when another visionary, Walter Byers, took over as NCAA mahatma and realized fully the potential of television. The NIT saw the NCAA gaining momentum and tried hard to compete. But guys like Byers and Wayne Duke, Walt's right-hand genius, refused to lose and paved the way for the yearly carnival, the best package in sports, to grow and flourish.

By the time Kansas won the NCAA Regional in Kansas City in 1952 and moved on to Seattle to win it all, the NIT was reeling from serious body blows. The major villain, beyond Phog, Dutch, Byers and the NCAA, of course? Gambling scandals.

Phog did a little gloating, sure, but the main concern of the "hick puritans," as one NIT aficionado described them, was the damage inflicted on college ball.

The fecal matter hit the fan, heavily, in 1950 when City College of New York, coached by Nat Holman, won both the NIT and NCAA titles, something nobody did before or since. Some considered CCNY the team of the century. The glow soon faded when it was learned, with indictments to follow in '51, that at least three CCNY guys had been guilty of point-shaving and game-fixing. Not long after that, some Kentucky luminaries were ticketed -- leading to the destruction of professional hopes for the likes of Alex Groza, Ralph Beard and Bill Spivey. Ever heard much about CCNY since the scandals hit?

It's interesting the NCAA All-America listings include not one City College player from that banner 1950 season, although Groza and Beard can be found in 1948 and '49.

Every time Phog took his Kansas teams East, he goaded the writers about the den of thieves they had helped create in 1938; never shy, Doc always was hot copy. The Garden tournament had been originated by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Assn., but later the management was shifted to five city schools -- Fordham, Manhattan, New York U., St. John's and Wagner. Wonder if they had doubts about City College even then.

Doc was forced to take his Jayhawks to the "Sodom and Gomorrah" Garden in 1952 to beat LaSalle and fall to the Peoria Caterpillars in the Olympic playoffs. But he was always good for painful zingers about the dangers for youngsters in such an environment. If you ever got to the Garden in the 1940s and 1950s, you could sense in an instant what Phog meant. The greasy torpedoes were all over the smoky premises. They weren't there for player autographs.

So look what's happened to the NCAA Tournament with its billions-of-dollars intake and fantastic appeal; note that the NIT has become an also-ran. The NIT stages early games on campuses and takes awhile to get the winners to New York. Coaches who miss the 65-team NCAA Quo Vadis enter their teams to get more shots at winning something, anything, and to be able to legally practice longer than stay-at-homes.

Yet if you think college basketball is as wholesome as legends such as Allen, Lonborg, Byers and Duke hoped and worked for, forget it. There will be at least twice as much betting on pro and college ball this month as there was on the Super Bowl and four times more than the NBA playoffs. Gambling has exploded.

Las Vegas and bookie joints around the world are deeply entrenched in the proceedings -- not caring a damn who wins or loses but only who beats or gets beaten on the point spread. Players are more vulnerable than ever.

To be sure, the NCAA tourney has achieved the greatness that our visionaries thought it could and is making far more millions than even Phog and the guys ever dreamed. But while the NIT has been put in its place, as they intended, the threats of such activities as gambling, payoffs, grade-fixing, whore-mongering and substance abuse are more severe than ever. Everywhere.

College basketball, and sports in general, have come a long, long way since the 1930s, but not all the mileage has been beneficial.

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