A Brief History of March Madness
Every year, as winter wanes, a
curious ailment spreads across the country. The
thump of basketballs, the squeak of sneakers,
and the roar of the crowd are sure signals that
basketball fever is with us. It's a condition
called "March Madness," and it afflicts
millions of people with no known cure. Where did
this malady originate?
A Tradition is Born
"March Madness" was born
in Illinois. The annual tournament of high school
boys basketball teams, sponsored by the Illinois
High School Association, grew from a small invitational
affair in 1908 to a statewide institution with
over 900 schools competing by the late 1930's.
A field of teams known as the "Sweet Sixteen"
routinely drew sellout crowds to the University
of Illinois' Huff Gymnasium. In a time before
television, before the college game became popular
with the average fan, before professional leagues
had established a foothold in the nation's large
cities, basketball fever had already reached epidemic
proportions in the Land of Lincoln.
Giving It a Name
Henry V. Porter, assistant executive
secretary of the Illinois High School Association,
was so impressed by the phenomenon that he wrote
an essay to commemorate it. Entitled "March
Madness," it first appeared in the Illinois
Interscholastic, the IHSA's magazine, in 1939.
The term struck a chord with newspapermen, who
used it throughout their pages. During the tournament's
"Golden Era" of the 1940's and 1950's,
"March Madness" became the popular name
of the event.
It was an era of some of Illinois'
most legendary teams, including the undefeated
1944 Taylorville squad and Mt. Vernon's unstoppable
back-to-back champions of 1949 and 1950. But the
one champion remembered more than any other is
tiny Hebron, a school of only 99 students, which
won the tournament in 1952.
Making It Official
The IHSA tournaments continued
to grow and develop. In 1963, the tournament moved
to the huge new Assembly Hall on the campus of
the University of Illinois and fans witnessed
the most famous finish in history, when Chicago
Carver beat Centralia on a last-second shot by
a substitute named Anthony Smedley.
"March Madness" grew
as well. Beginning in 1973, the IHSA began using
the term officially in its programs and on its
merchandise. In 1977, the organization enlisted
veteran Chicago sportswriter and Big Ten basketball
referee Jim Enright to write the official history
of the boys basketball tournament. The result
was March Madness: The Story of High School
Basketball in Illinois. As media technology
advanced, the IHSA and KOST Broadcast Sales of
Chicago produced March Madness: The Official
Video History of the IHSA Basketball Tournament
in 1989. Both the book and video were sold nationwide.
During this period, the Illinois
High School Association received trademark status
for the term "March Madness" and registered
the trademark "America's Original March Madness."
The spirit of March Madness has subsequently spread
from coast to coast, as other companies and organizations,
including state high school associations and manufacturers,
have been licensed by the IHSA to use these trademarks.
March Madness Today
Today's March Madness is different
from the original version. Nowadays an "Elite
Eight" of teams advances to the state finals,
but there are four tournaments — a Class A (small
school) and Class AA (large school) version for
both boys and girls, played in Peoria and Normal.
"The Happening," a thrilling contest
featuring the state's best three-point shooters
and dunkers, is now a part of these tournaments
as well. And starting in 1996, the "March
Madness Experience," an exhibition hall full
of fun, games, and good times, has allowed fans
of Illinois high school basketball to join in
The popularity of these events
now allows the IHSA to provide more than just
good entertainment for its fans. A significant
portion of the fees generated from the licensing
of the unified marks "March Madness"
and "America's Original March Madness"
are used to fund college scholarships for Illinois
high school boys and girls.