The old Patten Gymnasium played host to the first-ever NCAA Championship in 1939. Photo by Percy H. Sloan / Wikimedia Commons

Last year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s basketball championship was a spectacle to behold. Held in front of a live audience of over 72,000 people at the huge U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, along with a television audience of over 19 million, the final game of March Madness showed how relevant college basketball is in contemporary American culture, 80 years after its creation in 1939.

Northwestern men’s basketball, however, does not have that relevance. The program has almost never participated in the Big Dance. Apart from their two games in the 2017 tournament (a win over ninth-seed Vanderbilt and a tough loss to No. 1 Gonzaga in Salt Lake City), the team and the tourney have been like oil and water. Never to mix, never to work together.

And yet, March Madness, along with the unbelievable spectacle of its championship in enormous stadiums almost too big for basketball, may have never happened in the first place if not for Northwestern. In 1939, the very first NCAA basketball championship was held just off Sheridan Road in the old Patten Gymnasium, destroyed later to make room for the Technological Institute.

How did this happen? And why is this not discussed further? In this first story written in the absence of contemporary sports (and the beloved NCAA tournament, of course), let’s travel back eighty years… and to Sheridan Road.

Why was this the first NCAA Tournament?

Although college basketball had done well in popularity since its inception in 1896, the first basketball tournaments were not organized through the NCAA but by members of the media and local members of government. According to Chad Carlson in his book, “Making March Madness: The Early Years of the NCAA, NIT, and College Basketball Championships, 1922-1951", the first major organized tournaments to truly experience success were the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Tournament, held in Kansas City, Missouri, and the National Invitation Tournament, held at Madison Square Garden (MSG) in New York City.

The latter might sound familiar, and there’s a reason. The NIT has often been considered as a second fiddle to the NCAA tournament for a longtime now, due to its participants often being “snubbed” out of the bigger tournament. Yet until the rise of television, the NIT was the premiere event, as the greater media exposure in New York to sportswriters and players alike was appealing.

The fact that the NIT was privately organized ruffled some feathers, especially Ohio State head coach Harold Olsen. A member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), Olsen pitched the NCAA the idea of holding their own basketball tournament in part because of the media’s desire to crown a national champion, and the possible influx of revenue the tournament would bring in, evinced by the amount of money the NIT had brought in during their premiere run.

The NCAA would agree, but on two conditions: the NABC, including Olsen, would organize and be financially accountable for the tournament. And with that, the first NCAA tournament, one to rival the New York NIT, was born.

Why Northwestern?

In the effort to organize a truly “national” tournament, the NABC decided to hold the first tournament games by district lines: four teams from east of the Mississippi River would duke it out in Philadelphia, while four teams from the west played in San Francisco. The winners of those tourneys would then meet at a central spot. Chicago was not only central, but played host to the NABC’s annual convention. It was perfect.

However, Northwestern wasn’t always on the association’s radar; Olsen and his crew originally had their eyes on the old Chicago Stadium. Known later as the Madhouse on Madison, the arena had not only hosted grand spectacles (hosting the first-ever NFL playoff game in 1932) but also enough seats to bring in substantial revenue. Following debate on which day of the week to host the championship game, however, the arena became booked. Olsen instead decided to head north to Evanston, as Patten Gymnasium was open for business.

Called a work of wonder in the early 1900s, the original Patten Gym was built in 1910 on a design by George Maher, and was named after Northwestern trustee James A. Patten. In a 1989 piece written for the University, archivist Patrick M. Quinn wrote that the “cavernous” arena hosted not only basketball games but track meets and music festivals. Scheduled for demolition, the 29-year-old arena would now have one last hurrah: the first-ever NCAA championship.

The Path to the Final:

On March 27, 1939, a reported 5,500 people headed to Evanston to watch the Eastern representative Ohio State Buckeyes, led by none other than Olsen himself, to take on the Western representative, the Oregon Webfoots (as they were commonly known as before “Ducks” became their steady nickname).

It was, to say the least, an interesting matchup to discuss. Despite their head coach organizing the very first tournament of its kind, Ohio State was not pleased to be playing in the tournament, with team captain Jim Hull telling the Chicago Tribune that they “had no desire to go.” Hull later referred to the game as a mess, saying the team never liked playing in Patten Gym: “poor lighting.” Regardless of preference, Ohio State headed to Evanston after beating Wake Forest and Villanova in Philadelphia.

On the other side, Oregon had completed a run of mass travel and conference dominance in their season, thanks to a group of tall players that the media lovingly referred to as the “Tall Firs.” So tall, in fact, that Northwestern almost struggled to house them: “Tug Wilson, Northwestern University’s director of athletics, is seeking four extra-length beds for the accomodation of the University of Oregon basketball squad,” the Chicago Tribune wrote, as Oregon had four players standing at 6-foot-4 or taller. Oregon won the Pacific Coast Conference, then beat Texas and Oklahoma before hopping on a train to Evanston.

Northwestern, however, also wanted to be a part of the ceremonies beyond hosting and housing: before tip-off, intramural athletes at the school played a game of basketball as it was originally invented, with two peach baskets and broomsticks to poke the ball out. The game was also attended by Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game in Massachusetts and helped host one of the first major tournaments in Kansas City.

And yet, between a reluctant squad and a team of trees, between peach baskets and extra-length beds… a game was played.

The Game Itself:

Although it was Olsen, the Ohio State coach, who organized the ceremonies, it was truly Oregon’s game to lose. The Webfoots jumped out to a 6-0 lead and held the Buckeyes on defense, with the New York Times writing that the team impressed the crowd with their ball-handling while remaining just as alert on defense. At halftime, the Webfoots led the Buckeyes 21-16.

Why was Oregon doing so well in Big Ten Country? Several writers noted that travel wasn’t new to the Webfoots, as the team had played games all over the country in Philadelphia, Buffalo, Cleveland and even New York City, before winning the Pacific Coast Conference. They were tall, confident, and experienced.

Also of note was the poor shooting on both ends. Oregon would end up making 17 of their 63 shots, while Ohio State went a whopping 14-for-83 on shots. Talk about your shooting clinics. With this in tow, Oregon never lost the lead and locked down in the final ten minutes to beat the Buckeyes 46-33 to claim the very first NCAA Basketball championship. Like the rest of the tournament, however, the trophy ceremony was less than perfect. One of the players had collided with it during the game and broke off the top part of the trophy, making the ceremony, as one Oregon player called it, “a two-handed presentation.”

What Happened Next?

Unlike the mighty NIT, the tournament was not an initial success. After counting the funds from the championship, the NABC reported that the tournament ended up losing over $2,500, the equivalent of over $46,000 in 2020. Olsen and the NABC reported back to the NCAA and requested they take over the tournament in exchange for underwriting the loss, which the NCAA accepted.

Harold Olsen never won a championship with the Buckeyes; he would go back to the Final Four several more times, but always felt short of a title. He would later finish his career with Northwestern in the early 1950s, and his influence on the game and the tournament as a whole, however, is not ignored. Oregon, however, wouldn’t return to the Final Four until 2017; an interesting tidbit, considering that year was Northwestern’s first ever in the tournament as a team.

The NCAA tournament later shifted the final venue to Kansas City, for more media exposure in the basketball hotbed of Missouri, before finally arriving at its target: Madison Square Garden. MSG would host both the Eastern regional and championship game many times in the 1940s, before the start of a rotating selection of the best college arenas in the country.

And finally, old Patten Gymnasium was torn down on April 1, 1940, to make room for the Technological Institute, the same one that still stands today. It would be rebuilt in its current location further north on Sheridan Road. Eventually in the early 1950s, McGaw Hall (now known as Welsh-Ryan arena) was completed and became the new home of the basketball team, hosting the NCAA championship in 1956.

So despite Northwestern’s relative absence from the college basketball’s biggest tournament, without the school, and the unfettered determination of a certain group of coaches in Chicago, the country may have never had the tournament.

Thanks a lot, Ohio State.