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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | April 2, 2022

The origin of the term 'blue bloods' in college basketball

The top 10 storylines in New Orleans for this Final Four, ranked by Andy Katz

You could feel the weight of them, assembled together, displayed horizontally on the same banner that was hung on the outside of the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans for the 2022 NCAA Men's Final Four โ€” the logos of Duke and North Carolina, Villanova and Kansas. They're four of the eight schools that have three or more men's basketball national championships, with 17 titles between them.

When their teams arrived in New Orleans, they were guaranteed to add an 18th to their collective total.

Call them the Final Four, the Fantastic Four or any other adjective that leads with "f" โ€” fabled, fabulous, familiar, famous, etc.

Or, as many observers have done, you can opt for another alliterative phrase: blue blood. The phrase's definition โ€” one that generally relates to prominence and history โ€” and its exact parameters are hotly debated in some corners of the Internet, and surely in and around the Superdome in early April 2022.

Has Villanova become a blue blood, after winning two championships in three seasons in 2016 and 2018, and then making a third Final Four appearance in a six-tournament stretch?

In 2022, has Indiana by now lost its blue blood status, as it's two decades removed from its last Final Four appearance, three decades separated from its second-most recent run to the national semifinals and 35 years away from its last championship?

What does it mean that all five of Duke's national championships have come since the start of the '90s? Where does UConn fit in, with only one fewer title than Duke, but they're jam-packed in a span of eight fewer seasons?

These are the questions that are so often asked. We're here to help provide answers.

When was 'blue bloods' first used in a basketball context?

The oldest example I could find in newspapers.com's database was from Jan. 3, 1927, when the Times Union of Brooklyn, New York, featured a sub-headline that read, "Centrals Made Up of Basketball Blue Bloods," in reference to specific, talented players, rather than teams. This usage of the phrase wasn't uncommon in the early and mid-1900s.

Another early example of the phrase came from the March 9, 1942, edition of The Indianapolis News. The Indianapolis News' W.F. Fox, Jr. appeared to have a flair for the dramatic. His lede to the story read, "The enchanted basketball Empire of Ihsaa (Indiana High School Athletic Association) having been reduced to the Sweet Sixteen, dress rehearsals for Act III of the play called 'Championship' began today." Seven-hundred and sixty-nine teams were in the tournament field when it started, as every division was represented.

Just like today, the definition of 'blue blood' was fuzzy

The oldest reference I found that was specific to college basketball was from Feb. 1, 1946. A man named Dick Dunkel had a men's basketball rating system, which The Charlotte News described as "his basketball blue-blood list," and this wasn't the only decades-old newspaper story I found that equated a blue-blood status to simply being ranked.

The Charlotte News detailed how Dunkel had recently dropped Duke to the No. 16 team in the South, its worst position of the season, after it had lost to Maryland in its most recent game. However, the day after Dunkel released that version of his ratings, the Blue Devils defeated a team called Wright Field, which was No. 1 in Dunkel's rating system with a rating of 81.9, although it was not a college team.

Oklahoma A&M was the No. 1 college team, according to Dunkel, who had given the school a rating of 78.1.

Similar to The Charlotte News contextualizing blue bloods as programs that were included in national rankings, in February 1953, the Associated Press reported how Murray State โ€” simply called "Murray" by the AP โ€” had climbed to No. 17 in the AP poll. "Murray, a new member of the nation's 'top 20' basketball bluebloods, moves into the Midwest's hotbed of the hoop sport tonight to test its survival as a ranking giant," the AP reported.

The AP poll only featured 20 teams then, rather than the current number of 25, and the 20 schools were broken down into the top 10 and the second 10. Eleven of the 20 schools received at least one first-place vote, which could reflect several factors, such as the lack of widespread information and ability to follow teams from throughout the country, or even the lack of groupthink that could exist today among AP voters.

In a December 1951 edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bill Ford previewed an upcoming matchup between Xavier and Ball State, writing, "The Muskies have trimmed Hanover, Chase and John Carroll at home, to account for their three victories in seven starts. Losses were dished out by Eastern Kentucky, Indiana, Kentucky and Western Kentucky, all of whom are numbered in college basketball's 'blue blood' directory."

That last phrase, "'blue blood' directory," shows another example of blue blood being used in reference to ranked teams. At the time of the Enquirer's story, Kentucky was ranked No. 2, Indiana was No. 6 and Western Kentucky was No. 16, according to College Poll Archive. Eastern Kentucky appeared in the first AP poll of that season.

However, the three descriptions of blue bloods shown above were much, much more general than today's application, which is typically reserved for no more than a half-dozen schools, depending on who you ask. In the 2021-22 men's basketball season, 46 schools were ranked in the AP Top 25 poll at some point in the season, so if we applied this old, casual use of "blue blood," then perhaps Auburn, ranked No. 1 for the first time in program history, is a blue blood. Maybe Colorado State, ranked for roughly a third of the season, is a blue blood.

Of course, this extra-inclusive definition of blue blood isn't used today.

No, you โ€” the reader โ€” are here for hard and fast answers, and maybe a quick history lesson, too.

Let's take stock of who has been considered a blue blood through the years

There's no ancient stone โ€” at least none that we know of โ€” that's buried on the side of a mountain and that lists each blue blood by name, answering these questions for once and for all. But read through the sport's history and familiar names show up time and time again in association with the label.

Kentucky

In 1981, The El Paso Times' Vince Langford referred to Kentucky as "basketball's blueblood," almost as if it was the sport's one and only. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Gil LeBreton called Kentucky "the ultimate college basketball blue blood" in 1998, a year in which The Baltimore Sun's Paul McMullen said of the Wildcats, "this is the bluest of college basketball's blue bloods."

The same year, the Los Angeles Times' Robyn Norwood also called Kentucky the "bluest of the basketball bluebloods."

In '87, the AP reported that former Purdue-to-Kentucky transfer Kyle Macy "willingly traded in his Indiana basketball blue blood for a transfusion of Kentucky bluegrass." Kentucky, with eight championships won in five different decades under five different head coaches, might have the most unassailable claim to being a blue blood, yet in that sentence the AP referred to Indiana โ€” the state, not the university โ€” as having blue-blood qualities.

Villanova

The Big East appeared to potentially receive a blanket blue-blood label from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's David Moore in March 1983, when No. 1 seed Houston defeated No. 3 seed and Big East regular-season co-champion Villanova by 18 points in the Elite Eight. "By now, people might be wondering if the East is as strong as many basketball bluebloods would like for people to believe," he wrote, later referencing the "Big Beast" nickname for the Big East. It took two more years for Villanova to win its first national championship.

With three national championships โ€” its first as a true Cinderella, a No. 8 seed in the 1985 NCAA Tournament, and its other two coming in the last five NCAA tournaments โ€” Villanova offers perhaps that most intriguing blue-blood case.

Duke

Perhaps surprisingly, Duke was considered a blue blood by some before the program won its first national championship in 1991. In November 1990, The News and Observer's Chip Alexander wrote, "Duke...is one of college basketball's blue bloods." At the time, the Blue Devils were coming off of a third consecutive Final Four appearance, the latest being a national runner-up finish to UNLV. For reference, all five of Duke's national championships have come since Indiana won its fifth and most recent championship.

Indiana

Virginia's Final Four run as a No. 7 seed in 1984 earned the Cavaliers the Cinderella label, as they won four NCAA tournament games by a combined 13 points, including wins over No. 2 seed Arkansas, No. 3 seed Syracuse and finally, No. 4 seed Indiana in the Elite Eight. "The Cavaliers did it in style, whipping up on one of college basketball's blue bloods, the Indiana Hoosiers," wrote The News and Observer's Mickey McCarthy. Indiana had relatively recently won its third national championship, in 1981.

When Indiana met Kansas, another blue blood, in the 1993 NCAA Tournament, The Baltimore Sun noted (below) that Kansas was the third-winningest program at the time, one spot ahead of Indiana.

North Carolina

When the Hoosiers and North Carolina Tar Heels met in the NIT in 1988, The News and Observer reported, "(Dean) Smith and (Bob) Knight in a preliminary? That's like sticking Gable and Hepburn in a 'B' movie. But that's the way it will have to be tonight as UNC and IU, two of college basketball's real blue bloods go head-to-head for the first time since 1984."

When North Carolina only had three national championships, back in 1998, the Anderson Independent-Mail's Randy Beard wrote, "that leaves us with two bona fide NCAA championship-caliber teams, complete with snazzy nicknames, ready to rock the Alamodome in San Antonio this evening. There's Kentucky. There's North Carolina. Both have plenty of Final Four history. Both the Wildcats and the Tar Heels are also rather partial to the color blue, seeing as how the two proven powers are among this nation's basketball blue bloods."

Of course, UCLA, with its record 11 national championships, and Kansas, with three championships and six runner-up finishes, also fit into this class, although there weren't as many explicit blue-blood references in the newspaper archives I examined.

Who else?

Today's debates about who is and isn't a men's basketball blue blood aren't new. Not even close.

In a March 2006 story headlined "Basketball blue bloods stumbling to NCAA tourney" that was written by Gannett News Service's Mike Lopresti, who now writes for NCAA.com, Lopresti wrote, "We interrupt the musings about bubbles and brackets to mention how uncertain life has been lately for many of the bluebloods of college basketball. What kind of season is it, when the newest top 25 coaches' rankings carry no Indiana, Kentucky, Arizona, Louisville or Michigan State...but three of the top six are Memphis, Gonzaga and George Washington?"

So, does Arizona's lonely 1997 national championship and Michigan State's pair of prizes mean one or both of the schools is worthy of an invite to the exclusive club? Arizona is 15th in all-time winning percentage among current DI programs. Michigan State is 45th.

Like Arizona, Wisconsin has one national championship โ€” back in 1941, remember that? โ€” and when the Badgers were in the midst of their national runner-up finish in 2015, The Post-Crescent's Tom Oates wrote that "despite its hugely successful run under coach Bo Ryan, UW hasn't been one of college basketball's blue bloods since early in the century. Last century," suggesting both that one national title could be enough to merit blue-blood consideration and that a school can theoretically lose its blue-blood status over time.

But no one's in charge, of course, so there are no cut-and-dried rules.

The Lexington Herald-Leader's Jerry Tipton, a longtime Kentucky beat writer, knows what a blue blood is, given his proximity to the 'Cats. In 2011, he wrote, "Kentucky, UCLA, Michigan State, Florida ... Basketball blue bloods representing more than 20 national championships are playing in this pod of the NCAA Tournament this week."

Florida's first national title came in 2006. Sure, another one came a year later, but how do Florida's two championships weigh against Oklahoma State's two from 1945 and 1946, or San Francisco's two from 1955 and 1956?

That's up to the authors of history to decide and history suggests that the notion of blue-blood programs in men's basketball has gained popularity this century, as a way to elevate the haves from the have-nots or to stoke sports-related debate. Below is a graph of the search results for the phrase "basketball blue blood" in newspapers.com's database, showing how rarely the phrase was ever published in newspapers prior to the first national championships won by Duke (1991), Arizona (1997), UConn (1999) or Florida (2006).

While the definition and membership list of men's basketball's blue bloods are in flux, depending on who you ask and when you ask them, whichever 2022 NCAA Men's Final Four participant adds a fourth, sixth or seventh national championship to its trophy case, it'll certainly renew its membership application to the sport's club of blue bloods, thanks to a shiny, new trophy.

That, we can all agree upon.

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