Why you should care
Because this college basketball tournament once was bigger than March Madness.
In 1944, the Ohio State men’s basketball team suffered a devastating late regular season loss to DePaul University and its star, college hoop’s first great big man, 6-foot-9 George Mikan. After the game, the Buckeyes sat in the locker room, dejected that they likely had come up short in their bid for one of the eight spots in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
At the time it was the only postseason option for Big Ten teams, and tournament organizers selected only one team per district. DePaul’s head-to-head win made it the favorite in the district. Ray Meyer, the head coach at DePaul, noticed the demeanor of Ohio State’s players and pulled aside their coach to let him know that they could have the NCAA slot. He’d rather send his Blue Demons to the National Invitation Tournament.
[The NIT] was a national championship. It was Madison Square Garden. It was the mecca of college basketball.
Doug Bruno, head coach, women’s basketball, DePaul University
Today that decision would seem like lunacy. The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament — aka March Madness — is attended by hundreds of thousands of fans; millions more watch on TV. The NIT is seen widely as a consolation prize for teams shut out of an NCAA invitation. But in the late 1930s and ’40s, DePaul was far from the only team to prefer the NIT. When fielding its roster, tournament organizers had a simple goal: Put the nation’s best teams in a single elimination competition — no matter where the selected schools were located.
“In those years, the NIT was a more prestigious tournament than the NCAA,” Meyer wrote in his autobiography Coach. “It was played in New York, while the NCAA was played on scattered campuses in smaller towns. The schools took home thousands of dollars as their share of the gate receipts for playing in Madison Square Garden. In the NCAA eliminations, they were lucky to make expenses. So the NIT meant a lot more to a struggling private school like DePaul.”
The NIT also is the senior competition, organized in 1938 as a six-team affair by entrepreneurial New York City sportswriters. That first year the Temple University Owls won all three of their games, prevailing in the final over the University of Colorado Buffaloes 60-36. Inspired by the inaugural NIT, the NCAA launched its own spring tilt the following year. They had seen how successful a college basketball tournament could be and wanted a piece of the action.
By the time DePaul ascended as a regional power, the NIT fielded eight teams (it currently has a 32-team format). In the 1944 final the Chicago squad bowed 47-39 to New York’s St. John’s University, which recorded its second straight NIT title. The following year, DePaul had its moment of glory, topping Bowling Green 71-54 as the bespectacled Mikan was named tournament MVP.
“It was a national championship,” confirms Doug Bruno, current head coach of the DePaul women’s team who also played under Meyer from 1968 to 1973. “It was Madison Square Garden. It was the mecca of college basketball. It’s what everyone had their eyes on. The NCAA — yes, they had a tournament, but it was really an afterthought tournament at that point.”
So, how to explain the outcome of the head-to-head matchups during the war years? From 1943 to 1945, the Red Cross War Fund benefit game pitted the winner of the NCAA tournament against the NIT standard-bearer. In all three years the NCAA representative was the victor. Some journalists called it the “mythical national championship.” Yet, this name isn’t really justified. Utah won the NCAA tournament and the Red Cross game in 1944 — but only after losing in the first round of the NIT. Additionally, this isn’t how all the players viewed it. Mikan’s backup in 1945, John “Jack” Phelan, has a ready answer for the NCAA’s string: It was “just a charity game.”
“I think you have to consider them both national championships,” Bruno says. “But at the same time, the NIT was the premiere tournament. You talk to anybody who was around college basketball in the ’30s and ’40s, and they’ll all tell you that the NIT was the bigger of the two championships.”
Over the next decade or so, improvements to the NCAA tournament and gambling scandals hurt the NIT. Yet, even into the 1960s, some people still argued that the NIT was the better tournament. NCAA regulations eventually put that argument to rest when they made it a rule that any team invited to its tournament was required to participate.
In the end, the NCAA’s domination has altered the historical perception of postseason college basketball. But the tournament owes a debt of gratitude to the NIT. And knowledgeable fans might very well concede that George Mikan, Jack Phelan and other spring heroes of Madison Square Garden were true national champions — ones who set the stage for the big show that is March Madness.