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March 1939: Before the Madness―The Story of the First NCAA Basketball Tournament Champions Hardcover – February 6, 2014
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With the historic events of 1939 rapidly spinning into global conflict, Frei (’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age) looks back at the first NCAA Basketball Tournament when head coach Howard Hobson guided the underdog Oregon Webfoots to the national championship against all odds Hobson, in his fourth year as Webfoots coach, recruited in a competitive collegiate market, personally going after two titans, Lauren “Laddie” Gale and Urgel “Slim” Wintermute, who towered over 6-foot-8 inches, then proceeded on a reign of hoops terror. Wisely contrasting the mayhem of college sports and Hitler’s Third Reich onslaught, Frei goes behind the scenes to examine Hobson’s methodical game strategies of his team, 'The Tall Firs,' against all comers, juxtaposed against the Nazi leader’s shrewd march across Europe. Along the way, the author, an admirer of Long Island University coach Clair Bee, tips his hat to the man who led the LIU Blackbirds to the second annual national invitation tournament in New York, the NCAA tournament’s rival. Carefully crafted, fast-moving, and refreshing, Frei’s study of the scrappy Oregon Webfoots’ campaign from a 29-5 season record to best the finest at both ends of the basketball court, ending with the first NCAA tournament victory over Ohio State Buckeyes, is quite memorable. (Publishers Weekly)
Terry Frei has told an amazing, riveting story of how a group of basketball coaches started a loosely organized tournament that Oregon won that first year. Of course, it eventually would grow into an event that captures the public’s attention each March. As a young NCAA administrator, I was the tournament director in the 1960s—and I have to say this [book] taught me a lot I didn't know. (Chuck Neinas, president, Neinas Sports Services; former executive director of the College Football Association; and former commissioner of the Big Eight and Big Twelve conferences)
Few writers are able to put sports into real-world context like Terry Frei. Reading March 1939 is like crossing ESPN with the History Channel. Frei brings the '39 Oregon Webfoots to life and takes us inside their victory in the first NCAA basketball tournament—played as Germany and Japan marched the world (including a hesitant United States) to the brink of war. (Steve Luhm, Salt Lake Tribune)
From humble beginnings, Oregon's ‘Tall Firs’ became the best basketball team in the country, helping to break the New York monopoly on an increasingly national game, and the NCAA tournament became an unstoppable financial juggernaut. Once again, Terry Frei has vividly captured a pivotal moment in history, for the world of college basketball and for a world about to go to war. The exploits on the court are enthralling not only for their drama but held up for comparison against what the tournament has become today—as well as the danger lurking only a few years away. (Luke DeCock, sports columnist, Raleigh News & Observer)
In March of 1939, amid the Great Depression and stirrings of worldwide war, the NCAA debuted its first basketball tournament. At the time, the tournament was seen as a daring yet risky venture, and possibly a one-time event. Seventy-five years later, "March Madness" has become an embedded tradition of American sports culture. March 1939 Before the Madness is a historical chronicle and study of the tournament's initial year, including the story of the tournament's first champions, the Oregon Webfoots and their far-seeing coach Howard Hobson. Notes, a bibliography, and an index round out this accessible yet thorough study, highly recommended for basketball fans and public library collections alike. (Midwest Book Review)
Ostensibly about the 1939 University of Oregon men’s basketball team the Webfoots, winners of the very first NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) tournament, Denver Post journalist Frei’s book also tells the story of the Long Island University Blackbirds men’s team from the same year, as they were winners of the second-ever NIT (National Invitation Tournament). Much of the narrative is framed by the buildup to World War II in Europe, all chapters in Part 2—which makes up the bulk of the title—being interspersed with fact-based 'newsreel' items clearly written by the author. . . .Frei also focuses on who the real national champion was for 1939. Solid arguments can be made in favor of both teams, and leaning toward one team over another seems to be based less on fact than on which criteria are considered. VERDICT [W]ell written and thoroughly researched. . . .[T]hose interested in basketball’s early years and the origins of the NCAA Tournament will find much to interest them and a lot of new information. (Library Journal)
From the Inside Flap
In 1939, the Oregon Webfoots, coached by the visionary Howard Hobson, stormed through the first NCAA basketball tournament, which was viewed as a risky coast-to-coast undertaking and perhaps only a one-year experiment.
Seventy-five years later, following the tournament's evolution into a national obsession, the first champions still are celebrated as "The Tall Firs." They indeed had astounding height along the front line, but with a pair of racehorse guards who had grown up across the street from each other in a historic Oregon fishing town, they also played a revolutionary fast-paced game.
Author Terry Frei's track record as a narrative historian in such books as the acclaimed Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming, plus a personal connection as an Oregon native whose father coached football at the University of Oregon for 17 seasons, make him uniquely qualified to tell this story of the first tournament and the first champions, in the context of their times. Plus, Frei long has been a fan of Clair Bee, the Long Island University coach who later in life wrote the Chip Hilton Sports Series books, mesmerizing young readers. In 1939, the Bee-coached LIU Blackbirds won the NCAA tournament's rival, the national invitation tournament in New York - then in only its second year, and still under the conflict-of-interest sponsorship of the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association. Frei assesses both tournaments and, given the myths advanced for years, his conclusions in many cases are surprising.
Both events unfolded in a turbulent month when it more apparent that Hitler's belligerence would draw Europe and perhaps the world into another war . . . soon. Amid heated debates over to what extent America should become involved in Europe's affairs this time, the men playing in both tournaments wondered if they might be called on to serve and fight. Of course, as some of the Webfoots would demonstrate in especially notable fashion, the answer was yes.
It was a March Before the Madness.
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The book is relatively short, just under 200 pages, which is a plus--any longer and I would have been bored, any shorter and information may have been left out--and written in grounded language.
The only problem I have with this book is its frequent copyediting errors. There was nothing egregious, but they appeared over and over again and it was, at least to me, noticeable.
I don't like gambling, fantasy sports or the NBA so I'm mostly irritated by the chatter about everything but the basketball games and the unique qualities of a single-elimination tournament where the better team often doesn't win. I also don't care too much for basketball games being played in football stadiums (or aircraft carriers, casinos and resorts) but that's a topic for another time.
Maybe it's because UConn and Kentucky are in the Final Four this year and the teams I generally root for didn't survive the first weekend, but this year's tournament has been especially disappointing. The feeling of dread I feel every March has only enhanced with each game and each tweet I've read about how this or that team losing just killed someone else's bracket (newsflash: nobody cares about your bracket).
For solace I've turned to and found respite in a book about the very first NCAA Tournament, which took place way back in 1939, a year when that feeling of dread had more to do with pending war than it did a basketball tournament only a few thousand fans were lucky enough to watch in person. In the book, Terry Frei recounts the journey of the Oregon Webfoots to the first ever NCAA national championship in Chicago and the tournament's modest beginnings.
The Webfoots, which we know today as the Ducks, were in many ways a team ahead of their time, playing a frenetic pace for their time with enough height, officially and unofficially, to earn the nickname the Tall Firs. Their coach, Howard Hobson, was one of the early masterminds of the game who tinkered and toiled with Naismith's peach basket game in ways that have become commonplace for modern day programs.
Frei recounts more than just the basketball games. By dropping in short news items throughout, he places the season in context with world events and the coming war that would change so much of American culture. The mini history lessons provide an informative context for the events on the court as the Webfoots' magical season takes them through a long cross country trip highlighted by a game at Madison Square Garden in New York, a tough Pacific Coast Conference schedule and another long train ride to Chicago for the national championship game against Ohio State.
In the end, "The Tall Firs" were too much for the Buckeyes and took home a trophy that had been broken in two pieces earlier in the game when Oregon guard Bobby Anet crashed into the table it was sitting on trying to save a ball from going out of bounds. As evidenced by the crowd reaction back home recounted here with photos and press clippings, the national title was taken very seriously by hometown fans but at the time. But the second-year National Invitational Tournament at Madison Square Garden was also staking claim on a mythical national championship so Oregon's win wasn't celebrated or recognized as a true national championship the way it is today.
There were also no bracket pools to speak of, one and done superstars (there was no NBA to leave school for, after all), shouting sports commentators or even a sellout crowd in a basketball arena, much less a football stadium to witness it. But while Temple University can boast of winning the first ever NIT a year earlier and LIU can claim a national title for winning the NIT after an undefeated season in 1939 (despite playing only one game outside New York City), only Oregon can truly say that they were the original NCAA tournament champs. Before the Madness.
If like me, you're not really looking forward to the Final Four, pass the time replaying the games and "what ifs" in your head and check out March 1939.