Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday Flashback: The 1939 Final Four

As noted every year by countless talking heads, Northwestern has never been to the Final Four. However, Northwestern did host the very first Final Four 70 years ago. That connection might seem somewhat dubious considering the Wildcats lack of postseason history, but at least it makes NU the answer to an annual trivia question. What’s interesting to me, considering the sports world’s love of alleged cruses (especially in Chicago), is that nobody has ever declared NU to suffer from the curse of Patten Gym or some such thing. At was at Patten Gymnasium on March 27, 1939 the Oregon Ducks defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes to win the first even Final Four title game in Evanston. Of course, the Patten Gymnasium which hosted that historic contest has since been torn down. Still, I wonder if Northwestern where to let a Billy goat walk around Patten if it would eliminate the problems of the both the Wildcats and Cubs. Think about it. With all the suffering Chicago fans have to endure each year—well—it might at least be worth considering.

As far as the actual contests which took place back in 1939, I guarantee nobody figured on the magnitude of the event which they were creating. What stated as an eight team tournament moved to the final two when Oregon defeated Oklahoma to reach the final game and Ohio State advanced by defeating Villanova. The tournament itself consisted of two regions (East and West) and drew a total of 15,025 fans. This year, that attendance total would be paltry for a single game. It is amazing to me to think the biggest sporting event in college athletics, maybe the biggest sporting even in the world outside of the Super Bowl, started in Evanston on Northwestern’s campus. Of course, those who organized this first tournament, the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), obviously had no idea of the future event to which they were giving birth. How could they? The NCAA Tournament is currently the biggest money maker for the NCAA, but the first tournament lost $2,531. That was a pretty hefty total in 1939. In fac,t it was this large cash loss which caused the NABC to hand over the running of the tournament to the NCAA. The NABC might very well regret that choice now. Think of the convention they could put on with the NCAA Tournament funds.

In the final game of the 1939 tournament, Oregon beat Ohio State by the score of 46-33. That state of Oregon went crazy when they heard the win over the radio, but nobody else really cared. Interestingly, Ohio State’s Jimmy Hull was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player despite his team finishing second. Hull scored 58 points total in the tournament. A good total, but a total which a very good scorer might get in two games in today’s tournament. As far as Northwestern, perhaps the Wildcats just missed out on the glory of the NCAA Tournament. They captured two Big Ten Titles in the 1930s and the 1930-31 team was actually named National Champs after posting a 16-1 record. If the NABC had decided to start their tournament just a decade earlier NU’s dubious honor of hosting the first Final Four but failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament wouldn’t exist. Hopefully, after next year NU will eliminate this yearly discussion with their first NCAA Tournament appearance. Maybe they’ll even make their first Final Four. It seems unlikely, but NU did defeat current Final Four participant Michigan State in the Spartans own building. That has to be a signal the program is getting closer to closing the book on one of the NCAA’s most frustrating streaks.

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