Jan. 28, 2010

By Gary Brown
Champion Magazine

Alabama had just completed a sizzling 22-4 season as co-champions of the Southeastern Conference and was awaiting its postseason destination. A No. 1 seed? Hardly. An easy path to the finals? Nope. The Crimson Tide stayed home.

In a scenario that would be preposterous today, coach C.M. Newton’s 1974 squad had nowhere to go. The Men’s Basketball Committee instead chose Vanderbilt, which had swept the Tide during the regular season, as the SEC’s automatic qualifier to the 25-team NCAA tournament field. Meanwhile, the 16-team NIT looked the other way.

Ten years later, all of that changed, along with college basketball itself. In what at the time was considered merely the next step in the evolution of the NCAA tournament, the basketball committee made what turned out to be a landmark decision by approving a 64-team bracket.

It was a breath of fresh air to some and a sigh of concern for others.

Ironically, Newton was a member of the committee in 1984 when he and his colleagues approved the jump from 53 to 64 teams.

“Many people don’t realize how hard it was at the time to get into postseason play,” said the man who has coached, administered and grown up with the game for four decades and now chairs the National Invitation Tournament selection committee. “It was an era where you had a relatively small percentage of Division I go into postseason. The membership wanted more.”

They got it, and then some.

Building blocks

These days, a large percentage of the population doesn’t recall anything other than a 64-team tournament, including the players currently playing in it.

“Funny how since then, people have been trying to find a better solution,” said Arnie Ferrin, a former Utah star and a member of the 1984 basketball committee. “They haven’t found one, have they?”

Ferrin, who in 1944 was the first of eventually only three freshmen to be named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, also finds it humorous that the 1984 committee’s decision to expand could have been regarded as a finishing touch.

“The tournament had changed so much in a relatively short time that many of us thought such change would simply continue,” he said.

To Ferrin’s point, there had indeed been plenty of change:

• The Thursday-Saturday format for the semifinals and final shifted in 1973 to the Saturday-Monday schedule that lives on today. That same year, NBC televised the Final Four for a rights fee of more than $1.16 million, the first time that the contract had exceeded $1 million.

• Expansion from 25 to 32 teams in 1975 represented the largest bracket increase in more than two decades (the bracket fluctuated from 22 to 25 teams from 1953 to 1974).

• A seeding process was used for the first time in 1978 in which a maximum of four automatic-qualifying conference teams were seeded in each of the four regional brackets. Teams were seeded, though, based on their respective conferences’ won-lost percentages in tournament play during the previous five years. At-large seeding for the other teams in the bracket was based on won-lost records for the year and strength of schedules.

• The bracket grew to 40 teams in 1979 and 48 in 1980, the latter of which featured 24 automatic qualifiers and 24 at-large berths (a policy would be adopted a year later to devote no more than 50 percent of the bracket to automatic qualifiers). A limit on the number of teams being selected from the same conference (two) also was lifted.

• Seeding and team-placement policies were expanded in 1981 to balance the tournament, regardless of geographical proximity of teams and sites.

• CBS took over broadcasting the tournament in 1982, and the selection show was televised live for the first time. A year later, the bracket grew to 52 and then 53 for the 1984 tournament.

For the committee’s Wayne Duke, bracket expansion was perhaps the most critical of about a dozen building blocks that the committees of the late 1970s and early 1980s considered part of the tournament’s architecture. Other improvements during that time included adding the Rating Percentage Index as a selection tool, using three-man officiating crews for the games and setting a minimum seating capacity that in effect put future Final Fours in domes.

“But it was most important that we got to the 64-team bracket,” said Duke, an NCAA staff member in the 1950s and ’60s before becoming commissioner of the Big Eight and then the Big Ten (he represented the Big Ten as a committee member from 1976 to 1981). “I always felt this was among our most significant goals. We had to maintain a delicate balance, and 64 maintained that balance by adding the second-place teams and beyond for the AQ conferences. All of these building blocks fit right into the pattern of a 64-team field.”

Access or excess?

But not everyone thought expansion was a good idea. For one, the Davids of the day thought the Goliaths would get too many at-large berths. Other people worried that a 64-team field would turn the tourney into an all-comers event. Still others thought there wasn’t enough parity in the game to carry such a big bracket.

Dave Gavitt, who chaired the 1984 committee as commissioner of the Big East Conference, said the modern era brought about more access and opportunity. He said the committee believed 64 positioned the tournament as truly a national event, while also accommodating membership interests.

“The larger conferences wanted more of their teams,” said Gavitt, who went on to become CEO of the Boston Celtics and president of the fund-raising NCAA Foundation in the 1990s. “They thought some of their stronger teams in their leagues were staying home while some weaker AQs were getting in. And the weaker conferences didn’t want to be left behind, either. We felt 64 was the right number to provide access to both. It took care of everybody.”

It also intensified the committee’s proceedings. Dick Schultz, who was the NCAA’s executive director from 1987 to 1993 and a member of the 1984 basketball committee while athletics director at Virginia, said the decision to go to 64 teams caused college basketball “to explode.”

“Because now,” he said, “every community, every state that had a team with 17 or 18 wins or close to 20 by the time the selection process came around thought their team was going to be in the tournament for the very first time. That just created all kinds of publicity. It was on everybody’s mind, and it just kind of exploded the whole thing.”

In a panel discussion on events that helped shape the NCAA at the Association’s Centennial Convention in 2006, Schultz said he and other committee members at the time had no idea of the dramatic impact the decision to expand would have on the tournament.

“When we made that decision, always in about late February or March 1, the media started speculating who’s going to be in the tournament. And when that happened, I was overwhelmed,”
Schultz said. “My telephone started ringing about two or three weeks before the selection committee met, and actually I couldn’t do anything else until we went into that selection but talk to reporters, because at that point every school in the nation that had 17 or 18 wins thought their team now was going to be part of that 64-team field.”

The frenzy was so intense, Schultz said, that he and other members proposed periodic conference calls in subsequent years on which there would often be more than 100 reporters.

“That just seemed to raise the whole perception of the tournament, and now it became a real national event, and a real interest focus,” he said. “And of course, that led to the expansion of television and the rights fees that the NCAA enjoys now.”

A perfect storm

The tournament benefited from some magic finals just before the bracket expanded. One was literally magic.

The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird showdown in the 1979 championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State set a ratings record and became regarded as a standard by which future Final Fours would be judged.

They did not disappoint.

In 1981, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief through the Indiana-North Carolina final after learning that President Ronald Reagan would recover from wounds suffered in an assassination attempt earlier in the day.

The 1982 final had Michael Jordan’s last-minute shot to beat Georgetown, followed by North Carolina State’s win over Houston. Immediately after expansion came the Villanova upset, the dramatic Indiana win in 1987, the Danny Manning (Kansas)-Wayman Tisdale (Oklahoma) game in 1988 and the one-point Michigan win over Seton Hall in overtime in 1989.

The nation was hooked.

“The story lines were simply unbelievable,” said NCAA Executive Vice President Tom Jernstedt, who has been involved with the tournament for more than three decades. “The 64-team bracket also firmly established the David-Goliath element that helped make the tournament what it is today.”

Ironically, that actually concerned some people at the time the expansion decision was made. Newton said some were horrified that a non-league-champion could win the title. “Well, that has happened quite a few times,” Newton said. “That’s the nature of the beast.”

CBS also increased the tournament’s exposure in the 1980s, broadcasting a record 40 hours of the 1986 tournament and showing the regional semifinal games in prime time by 1988, all of which led to the network’s seven-year, $1 billion contract in 1991.

Just as important perhaps as expansion itself, according to Gavitt, was the committee’s move to balance the bracket in the four regions to ensure that every team’s road to the Final Four would be equally difficult.

“As great as those UCLA teams were in the 1960s and ’70s, they were never asked to leave LA to advance to the finals,” Gavitt said. “The idea of moving teams from one region to another really took hold. We were playing first- and second-round games like NC State against BC or Duke against Michigan – and those games were getting on TV.”

NCAA Senior Vice President Greg Shaheen, who has been with the championship since 2000, called the Final Four the first “appointment television” of his generation.

“There’s no immediate gravitational hook that I can find as much as what the Final Four experienced in the 1970s and ’80s,” Shaheen said. “It occurred simultaneous with the introduction of ESPN and moving the tournament from NBC to CBS, which had made a substantial promotional commitment. What made the tournament so big was the strategy the committees deployed at the time and then a lot of unprecedented story lines in consecutive years.”

When 64 became 65

The basketball committee made one adjustment to the size of the field when it added an opening-round game in 2001.

The decision became necessary when several members of the Western Athletic Conference formed the Mountain West Conference, which upped the total number of conferences from 30 to 31. The membership did not want to decrease the number of at-large berths in the tournament; thus, it voted in the opening-round game.

That hasn’t disrupted the tournament at all, though it does lead to occasional discussion about adding more opening-round games. Those proponents see 68 total teams (and four opening-round games) as manageable. But few who casually mention expansion understand the logistical dominoes such growth would set off. Impact on planning involving participating institutions, competition venues, travel and media are just a few of the considerations that would have to be handled.

Some people wouldn’t mind it, though. At the 2006 Final Four, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said he supported expansion on a reasonable scale. Many followers of the game contend there are logical reasons to consider expansion, some which ring familiar to the discussions of a quarter century before. Among their arguments is that the number of Division I teams has increased significantly since the last major expansion. The field went from 48 to 64 teams in 1985, when Division I comprised 285 institutions.
Today, that number has grown by more than 20 percent. Many also point to George Mason’s run to the 2006 Final Four – when it was one of the last at-large teams to make the field – for proof that parity in college basketball is real and meaningful. The combination of scholarship reductions and prominent programs losing underclassmen at faster rates has helped midmajor schools become more competitive. The coaches believe they deserved to be rewarded accordingly.

Others, however, understand that conference postseason tournaments serve essentially as a national first round.

“Any way you slice it, there certainly is less chance of a deserving team staying home,” said Newton, who had one of the best teams in 1974 and did stay home.

“All the thought people put into finding a better way, yet no one has found a better alternative,” Ferrin said. “It validates that, at the time, it obviously was the right decision.”