When the college men’s basketball championship tournament officially opens at venues across Indiana on Thursday, we’ll have been living it since January, when the NCAA announced its unprecedented plan to play the whole thing right here.
It’s got us beaming with Hoosier pride because we know there really is no better place than Indiana to crown the unofficial Basketball Capital of the World for the next three weeks. Even if the sport wasn’t invented here—we thank Canadian James Naismith and Springfield, Massachusetts, for that—everybody knows basketball’s actual soul lives in Indiana.
But what about the NCAA-trademarked term March Madness? Can Indiana lay claim to one of the best tag lines ever written? We think so, and in our marketers’ heart of hearts we want to believe it’s so, even if our neighbors in Illinois cry foul.
The Case for Hoosiers
We’ll admit: The most popular account, and the one that gets the nod from the NCAA, credits Illinois high school official Henry V. Porter for coining the term in 1939. According to Time, Porter wrote that a “little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel” in the March 1939 issue of the Illinois High School Athlete.
With that said—and a tip of the hat to Mr. Porter’s ability to turn a phrase—he really shouldn’t keep getting all the credit. That’s because a 2018 report from the Evansville Courier & Press shows that an Evansville, Indiana, sports section used the term on March 25, 1938—a full year before Mr. Porter wrote it.
Under the headline “Indiana in Grip of Its Annual March Madness,” the Evansville Press published a story, written by Associated Press writer Harold Harrison, with this dramatic account: “As the fight writers would put it, ‘the title contenders broke camp today and promised to be in the pink for tomorrow’s battle of the century,’ when four crack high school teams meet for the state basketball championship at the Butler Fieldhouse.
“This center of the annual march madness bore, in fact, some resemblance to the scene in any big city on the eve of a championship’s enthronement.”
And there it is. March Madness’s roots are truly in Indiana—along with the six largest high school gyms in America and the inspiration for one of the most memorable sports films of all time.
So how did Indiana get left out of the championship round in the term’s history? Legal maneuvering, that’s how.
In the 1980s, 40 years after those stories were published, legendary sportscaster Brent Musburger started associating March madness with the NCAA tournament, and it caught on. And in 1989, the Illinois High School Association smartly trademarked March Madness.
Then when an NCAA sponsor used the phrase for a video game in 1996, the IHSA sued and the resulting settlement created the March Madness Athletic Association, which gave the NCAA rights to it for college ball and allows the IHSA to use it for high school hoops. Indiana wasn’t a part of the conversation.
But times have changed. Perhaps it’s karma or luck or maybe the country’s sports-deprived psyche just really needs the purest possible form of March Madness this year. The kind you can find only around the people who invented Hoosier Hysteria. Frankly, they can keep the term. We’ll take the games.
Image: Huntingburg High School Gymnasium // Chase Studio, Dexter Press
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