By Dave Ongie
Sometimes March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion. Sometimes it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.
But for those who follow basketball, every March has at least a touch of Madness.
March Madness, of course, is an affectionate nickname for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which draws in millions of viewers each year with the simple promise of fast-paced, unscripted drama. Sixty-eight teams enter, and they keep right on playing until one team is left standing as the national champion.
There was a time March Madness was a term used to describe peak breeding season for the European Hare. Somehow the phrase hopped the Atlantic and landed in the Great Plains back in 1939 when an official with the Illinois High School Association named Henry V. Porter used the phrase to describe the state’s frenetic, single-elimination basketball tournament. A couple years later, Porter immortalized the phrase by including it in a poem called “Basketball Ides of March.”
“A sharp-shooting mite is king tonight. The Madness of March is running,” Porter wrote.
That poem certainly made an impression on legendary broadcaster Brent Musburger. Musburger cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter at the Chicago Daily News before going on to work for CBS, where he first used the phrase “March Madness” to describe the NCAA tournament in 1982.
It’s no wonder the tournament has become a billion-dollar industry in a nation that loves nothing more than a good underdog story. During the first round of the tournament, the blue bloods of the sport – Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas, among others – are forced to defend their honor against upstart, anonymous schools hungry to capture the imagination of a national television audience. Every now and then, a Middle Tennessee State, Richmond, Lehigh or Mercer will flip the tournament bracket upside down by sending a potential championship team home early.
Around these parts, the start of the tournament usually brings with it at least a few mentions of our own ETSU Buccaneers, and they never fail to bring back vivid memories that invoke the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat of Mad Marches gone by for longstanding Buc fans.
In the history of the NCAA Tournament, a 16 seed has never beaten a 1 seed. But you can rest assured that anytime an underdog is within shouting distance of landing an historic blow for the little guy, the announcers will harken back to that warm March afternoon in 1989 when ETSU almost became the first 16 seed to ever advance to the second round.
As much as local fans revere the ETSU teams of the late 80s and early 90s, they tend to let out a groan when they remember the 15-point lead the Bucs held over top-seeded Oklahoma with just under 18 minutes left in the second half. They still talk about how star point guard Keith “Mister” Jennings fouled out in the final minutes on a questionable call, and how that allowed the Sooners to escape with a 72-71 victory.
But the other mention of ETSU usually comes after an unlikely upset is completed. The victory is always stacked up against ETSU’s 87-80 victory over third-seeded Arizona, a high-water moment in program history. The story is told of Marty Story, who witnessed the collapse against Oklahoma at the start of his career, standing in the locker room at halftime of the Arizona game as a senior telling his teammates to finish the job this time around.
The Bucs went out and did just that, roaring like lions as they played their way into immortality.