New book explains the origins of March Madness

Long before it became a national phenomenon linked to a $11 billion television contract, obsessive office wagering, and another meaning to the name ‘Cinderella,’ the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament — more commonly dubbed March Madness — got its humble beginnings in modestly populated Midwestern gymnasiums to little fanfare and hype.

Gradually big-name coaches and big-city venues, plus a big-time point-shaving scandal, enveloped the tournament, directing it toward the more prominent stage it would eventually play upon today. It’s this early roundball history, when college basketball was fresh-faced and growing, that Dr. Chad Carlson recounts in his new book titled Making March Madness: The Early Years of the NCAA, NIT and College Basketball Championships, 1922-1951.

The book, published by The University of Arkansas Press and part of their Sports and Society series, is Carlson’s first.

“No one had written about the origins of March Madness previously, the greatest sporting event in my mind.”

“No one had written about the origins of March Madness previously, the greatest sporting event in my mind,” explains Carlson about the book’s formation. “We have a number of sports historians who have studied football, a lot who study the Olympics or baseball, but there are relatively few that study basketball and fewer still that study college basketball. So, I felt it was an area in need of study that naturally fit for me.”

Dr. Chad Carlson, author of Making March Madness

Carlson — a former Hope basketball player and now men’s junior varsity coach — weaves first a regional tale, then national story, about a game that went from baby steps to giant leaps. College basketball in the early 20th century was not the nation-wide sensation it is today. “There were definitely pockets of colleges in the country playing basketball in the 20s,” says Carlson. “It was a very regional game with no national oversight.”

For a sport that uses little equipment, there was little coordinated governance of the standard size of the ball, net on a rim, or use of a backboard either. “Refereeing and rules were regionally enforced, too,” explains Carlson.

Despite the game’s varied nature, the first attempt at a college basketball national tournament occurred in 1922 (hence the book starts there), and was organized by the Indianapolis Junior Chamber of Commerce. Six teams from across the country were invited and the finals featured two squads familiar to the region: DePauw University vs Kalamazoo College.

From there, the establishment of a national college tournament went about as smoothly as a fast break against a full-court press. Lack of good, fast national transportation stunted its growth, as did college administrations that were not quite ready to go all-in on college sports just yet. Finally in 1937, the NAIA hosted a national tournament that was followed by the NIT in 1938 and then last to the game, the NCAA in 1939. Each tournament started with only six or eight teams selected to vie for the national title.

Carlson’s research led him to other fascinating insights on the growth of March Madness such as the intervention of legendary Kansas coach Fogg Allen to keep the tournament ball bouncing in 1940 after the NCAA lost money the year before; the introduction of Madison Square Garden as the host venue in 1943; the widespread participation of players in a point-shaving scandal in the late 40s; and, the responsive way the sport gave back to a greater cause during World War II years when proceeds from the national tournament went to the American Red Cross.

“Had I not absolutely loved the topic, this book may have never gotten written,” Carlson says, and he’s only somewhat joking. “There was so much to research and write, so many details.”

Making March Madness will be a history that sport historians, students, reporters, and college basketball fans will want to consult on a regular basis,” reviews Chris Elzey, co-editor of DC Sports: The Nation’s Capital at Play. “It is a comprehensive, authoritative college basketball history … a great book.”

Making March Madness took Carlson four years to complete and involved multiple research trips to the archives at the Basketball Hall of Fame, Ohio State University, University of Kentucky, University of Kansas, and the NCAA. Carlson leaves off in 1953 before the advent of big-network coverage and UCLA and John Wooden’s rise. There’s been enough written about those histories, he says.

“Had I not absolutely loved the topic, this book may have never gotten written,” Carlson says, and he’s only somewhat joking. “There was so much to research and write, so many details. Plus I have a young family (he and his wife, Kathi, have two children, now ages 8 and 6). But it still was a blast to find things that no one had written about that I think are really important events in the history of college basketball.”

Making March Madness is 447 pages (“though about 100 of those pages are footnotes,” Carlson clarifies) and will be available at the Hope-Geneva Bookstore for purchase.

The Rivalry: Sport versus Religion?

Whenever Hope College faces Calvin College on an athletic court or field, an intense, decades-long rivalry gets renewed and, with it, the thrill and agony of heated competition as zero-sum. One will win; one will lose. One must take; one must give. And when rivals meet, neither likes to imagine the latter notions.

Long touted as one of the nation’s best college rivalries, most notably in men’s basketball, Hope versus Calvin fills every criterion for what makes any rivalry great – close regional proximity (like Michigan vs Michigan State), ongoing league and national success (like Duke vs North Carolina), similar size and academic mission (like Army vs Navy). But the Hope versus Calvin rivalry adds one more element that other high-profile rivalries don’t, an element that should bind but has over the years divided. It’s ironic really, for it is religion — noted for this adherences to compassion and love — that adds to the zealous nature of this rivalry for all who play and watch.

Hope versus Calvin rivalry adds one more element that other high-profile rivalries don’t, an element that should bind but has over the years divided. It’s ironic really, for it is religion that adds to the zealous nature of the rivalry for all who play and watch.

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A team of both Hope and Calvin professors and students presented their research on Christianity and the Nature of Sporting Rivalries (of course) in York, England this past summer.  From left to right, Dr. Chad Carlson, Eric Brower, Harrison Blackledge, Jason Zeigler, Ty VanWieren, Dr. Brian Bolt

And it is this last component – religion – that brought together two students and a professor from each school to attend and present at the Inaugural Global Congress on Sport and Christianity at York St. John’s University in York, England during the summer of 2016. With over 250 participants from 30 countries, the GCSC aims triennially to affect a ‘culture shift’ in modern sport by sharing ideas and practices from across academic disciplines and denominations of Christianity. Since Hope has ties to the Reformed Church in America and Calvin with the Christian Reformed Church, it naturally would follow that Dr. Chad Carlson and students Harrison Blackledge and Ty Van Wieren, from Hope, and Dr. Brian Bolt and students Eric Brower and Jason Ziegler from Calvin, would team up to lead a session on rivalry and Christianity at this collaborative conference.  In attendance were academics, journalists, politicians, clergy, coaches, administrators and athletes.

“Part of the value of working together on this presentation was just that – the value of working with Calvin folks on it,” says Carlson, associate professor of kinesiology, and a Hope men’s basketball coach, who emphasizes the “with” preposition strongly. “There was no point total to see who was going to be on top at the end of the day. We were just spending time together talking about Jesus and sports. The more we see each other’s humanity, the more helpful it will be to the heart of this rivalry.”

With that foremost in mind, both schools’ professors and students went to work to research the writings of multiple scholars who are both for and against the co-mingling of sport and religion. Their qualitative question to answer was this: How should we be competing in ways that can justify our participation as a Christian in sport?

It would seem that competition is unhealthy for Christians, especially in a passionately contentious atmosphere like Hope versus Calvin.

On the face of it, Carlson says, there are many normative elements that are incompatible between sport and Christianity. The killer instinct, the ways athletes treat their bodies in harmful ways, the development of negative moral values, and the elevation of individual pursuits all fly the face of Christ’s admonition that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. It would seem then that competition is unhealthy for Christians, especially in a passionately contentious atmosphere like Hope versus Calvin.

Well, not really, the six Hope-Calvin investigators would say — and did say at the conference. But there are some conditions. As long as Christians desire to mimic Jesus when they play (and watch) — offering respect and integrity and the best of their abilities as gifts to God —  then competitive aspirations are redeemed. This “mapping” of mimetic desire from Jesus onto others, a theory coined by French-American scholar Renee Gerard, “teaches us to be like him, to imitate him, and no one else, in everything we do, and in this case, even in rivalry,” says Carlson.

“Harrison and Ty are both senior captains on their teams and initially they were afraid to find that they should be holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ with their opponents. But I believe each of them came away realizing that we can be intense competitors as along as we are aware of where our hearts are at.”

“The biggest thing I learned (from this research) is how important it is to have the right goal in mind,” reflects Harrison Blackledge, a basketball student-athlete. “Rivalries and competitive athletics can help sharpen people on both sides, bring them together as a unit, and achieve success when the main goal of the contest is to glorify God in how we play.  Win or lose we can always do that.  What happens so often, though, is that we make winning our ultimate goal and that is what influences us to bend our ethics and convictions in order to win the game.”

“Working with Calvin was a unique opportunity,” adds Van Wieren, a baseball student-athlete. “So often we get caught up with the intensity of the rivalry that we forget that they are college kids just like us. It was fun to learn more about how rivalry shapes us with our greatest rival. We may be rivals on the court, but off it we can easily be co-workers.”

“Let’s make sure that when we step in between the lines that we understand we are children of God first and foremost. That always needs to be front and center.”

So now, the ball is in their court. Blackledge and Van Wieren will take these lessons and share them on the court and diamond with their teams as well with other Hope student-athletes in other sports. Because while more healthy than some other big-time national rivalries, Hope versus Calvin is still played by humans who are imperfect. Yet, no matter the sport, The Rivalry has the potential to be an exemplar of what any good rivalry can and should be.

“As Christians, we should not be afraid of sport and competition,” concludes Carlson, “but let’s make sure that when we step in between the lines that we understand we are children of God first and foremost. That always needs to be front and center.”

Team Hope Meets Team USA

As patriotic Americans, we’ve grabbed a seat to watch the Rio Olympics for the past week and half, anticipating that greatness and inspiration will blanket us with the Games-glow emitting through our tv screens. What with 75 U.S. medals won as of Monday, August 15, it’s blissful times like these — compliments of hard-working, awe-inspiring, fair-playing athletes — when many are proud to be American.

teamUSABut that pride and inspiration for U.S. Olympians grows exponentially when you’ve actually had the opportunity to meet, talk and play alongside some of them. Such is the case for 14 Hope students and two professors who spent a portion of a 2016 May Term, entitled Elite Sport Development in America, at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) in Colorado Spring, Colorado.

Led by Professors Chad Carlson and Becky Schmidt of Hope’s kinesiology department, students spent a week in Colorado — at the USOTC and at other professional sports venues like the Broncos Stadium of the NFL — to learn how elite athletes are developed and resourced. Carlson and Schmidt collaborated to create this first-time May Term to show students some ways that sporting pipelines fill and flow to produce wins and records for the United States.

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Senior Caitlyn Campbell shows off her extra access at the USOTC.

“We wanted our student to get an up-close look at the multitude of ways U.S. athletes are trained to reach their peaks by national governing organizations,” said Carlson. “We saw how the athletes, on both the Olympic and Paralympic teams at the USOTC, are trained physically, psychologically, nutritionally, technologically and medically. We also heard from post-participation experts who help athletes’ transition out of their sports worlds and into the ‘real world’ smoothly. Overall, our access to athletes and coaches at the USOTC was high, and we could not have asked for a better schedule and opportunities to rub shoulders with high-level people.”

Besides one awestruck highlight of meeting U.S. Swim Team captains Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt after lunch in the USOTC cafeteria, Hope students also got to watch a sparring match between American boxers and the Azerbaijan team, were befriended by the men’s gymnastics team, shot precision rifles on the shooting range, and learned a thing or two about judo and Paralympic volleyball. (They had related academic assignments to work on, too!) While all of the USOTC experiences were meaningful and educational, junior Bryanna Howard,  an athletic training major, was especially moved by her encounters with Paralympians.

USOC Phelps
U.S. Swim Team captain Michael Phelps (in hat) and Allison Schmitt, right of Phelps, meet Team Hope.

“The US Paralympic athletes that I met with are some of the most down-to-earth, passionate, kind, and strong-willed people I have ever met,” says Howard. “Most of them, I learned, were born able-bodied, and something happened to make them adaptive. But their courage and strength were evident as they talked about how they proved doctors wrong, and learned to adapt and still be successful with their new outlook on life. They were awesome to meet with, and now my new goal is to hopefully work with them one day. Especially because of the suggestions by the OTC staff to apply for their internships.”

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Getting a session and lesson by Paralympic coaches and athletes in sitting volleyball.

And that is one of the desired outcomes of this May Term. That Hope students interested in working in athletics would develop connections with folks in sports industries and find internships that would move them toward their dream jobs.

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“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Hope student Tim Pletcher flips a former judo Olympian (and now assistant coach) while Sam Jansen, left, and Nick Buursma, right, watch the action.

“One of the main mantras at the OTC is ‘bold wins gold,'” Schmidt explains, “but that doesn’t only mean athletically.  It was evident there that it applies to those who are bold to step up and do something when working behind-the-scenes with athletes. So many people apply for jobs at the OTC, and it’s people who are most bold who get them. It was great to see our students not waiting to reach out to OTC staffers.  They started to make connections by making introductions or sending out emails then and there.”

Now watching the Rio Olympics every second they can, these Hope students have a newer and deeper appreciation for what it takes to be an Olympic and Paralympic athlete.  And they also have a newer and deeper appreciation for what it means to be an Olympic and Paralympic human.

“Before going to the OTC, I had this idea that most Olympians were these specimen athletes who were designed by scientists to be elite,” says junior history and economic double major, Joey Williams. “What I found was that, despite the fancy equipment and scientists, these athletes are at the top level because they love their sport and are willing to work towards their goals…And (I learned) these athletes are young people just like us, except they happen to be really, really, really good at their craft.”

Howard concurs and adds:

“Seeing the athletes that I talked to now on the world’s biggest stage, I cheer for them in a different light. I got to see them train, away from the cameras and the limelight; I got to see their personalities and their work ethic, and their drive to perfect their skills before the world sees them. I feel like I know them, just a little bit, because I saw them, and I talked to them, not what the media writes about them, or what they say when the cameras are on. We saw these incredible elite athletes as just normal people: sharing a meal in the dining hall, walking in the same halls as them, watching them train, and taking pictures with them after a training session.”

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Members of the men’s gymnastics team quickly befriended many on the Hope May Term team.