We all know how the story goes. James Naismith nailed a peach basket to the bottom of a gym balcony at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, handed his PE class a soccer ball and March Madness was born.
That was in 1891. The term “March Madness” first crept onto the pages of the Missoulian 17 years later, and it had nothing to do with basketball. It was the tagline over an editorial blurb in March 1908 deprecating as “the veriest drivel” an attack on Theodore Roosevelt. Seems an unnamed Kentucky congressman had compared the president to Alexander Hamilton, whom he called “an obscure adventurer.”
The two words didn’t occur together again on these pages until March 1, 1965. This time it was on the Monday fashion page over a story between sketches of two models wearing outfits that reflected the current slacks craze. One had on “a long evening gown worn over black gigaline pants,” the other “a trouser suit in black and white fabric with a large polka dot tie and enormous black straw hat.”
“March is noted as a rather mad month — the weather is often changeable and strange,” the anonymous writer said. “Apparently March is a difficult time for designers too, if these two ‘creations’ are any example.”
Ouch. But, yeah.
Finally, in 1975, a basketball reference:
"The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the annual March madness which this year includes four nationally ranked teams, gets under way Thursday with three games in the sold-out, 15,500-seat Greensboro Coliseum,” an Associated Press story on March 6 began.
In Missoula, we were going “mad” over Jud Heathcote’s Grizzlies. We just didn’t refer to it as such.
Behind big man Ken McKenzie and forward Eric Hays, the Griz went to the NCAA tournament for the first time and, on March 15, 1975, downed Utah State in Pullman, Washington. Then it was on to Portland, Oregon, for a showdown with college basketball’s Goliath, the UCLA Bruins under the legendary John Wooden.
UCLA won 67-64 and went on to capture its 10th national championship in 12 years. The game is considered a classic in UM sports annals, in part because the Grizzlies nearly pulled off an upset and in part because of Hays’ 32 points, seven rebounds and six assists, "generally making a shambles of anyone thumbing through a thesaurus of synonyms for tremendous," the Missoulian's John Blanchette wrote.
It’s ironic that “March” and “Madness” were first paired by another Missoulian sportswriter later that same month, and it had nothing to do with the Grizzlies. Don Bloom introduced the “first annual Missoula News Media Basketball Debacle” matching staffers from radio stations KYLT, KGVO and KGMY and, ahem, the Missoulian.
“The real perpetrators of this assault on public decency are those notorious schemers Bill Schwanke and Bob Rosenthal,” Bloom wrote. “They are the ones who cooked up this bit of March madness and lured the unsuspecting from around the neighborhood into it.”
Schwanke, a former Missoulian sports editor, was the voice of the Grizzlies at KYLT Radio. Rosenthal, sports director at KGVO, would become UM’s sports information director in 1976. The media mob tabbed high school stars Mike Doerfler of Sentinel and Blaine Taylor of Hellgate to officiate the one-day tournament.
There was a reference to “Montana’s March madness” in a 1977 Associated Press story previewing the Class AA state tournament in Billings. Two significant ones appeared on March 1, 1979, in a prep story by Bob Black.
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"The Romans called February the 'Fever Month' because that was the time of year when illness swept the empire," Black wrote. "Well, February is over now, and a different kind of fever is about to sweep through Montana. It's called 'March Madness,' and Thursday the symptoms will begin to take hold on Class AA basketball."
And: "When it's all over, four teams from each division will have a spot at the state tournament in Bozeman, and the fever of March Madness will have spread to epidemic proportions in eight Montana cities.”
That ushered us into a brave new world where the “Madness” of March was capitalized, in more ways than one.
It appeared in a Quality Supply ad in 1982, but didn’t catch on in the sports lexicon until later in the decade.
“In the Big Sky, it’s a malady,” sports editor Vince Devlin wrote from Flagstaff in 1987 at the Big Sky men’s tournament.
The first appearance of “March Madness” in reference to the NCAA tournament was on March 10, 1988. The AP’s Jim O’Connell wrote about being “on the bubble.”
"When it bursts, teams either head for 'March Madness' or for the dreaded collection of also-rans, the NIT," he noted.
The phrase was used once more in a 1988 Missoulian, twice in 1989, and 13 times in 1990, including seven in Flanagan’s car ads.
The phenomenon was summed up nicely on Sunday, March 1, 1992, on the comic pages.
Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean strip portrayed a conversation in a faculty work room between a coach and a female teacher.
Coach: It looks like it's that time of year again. It's almost time for 'March Madness'!
Teacher: Just what exactly is 'March Madness' anyway?
Coach: That's just a term that refers to the NCAA basketball tournaments!
Teacher: Oh. I thought it was because it was such a long time between Martin Luther King Day and spring break!