U.S. Reed and the 1981 Birth of March Madness
The U.S. Reed half-court buzzer-beater from the 1981 NCAA Tournament has been getting a little bit of pub recently, as it was the no. 3 seed in the Buzzer Beater Bracket featured recently on the SportsNation program on ESPN.
The memories of the Reed shot have made me harken back to one of the underrated days in establishing the NCAA Tournament as the Great American Sporting Event: Saturday, March 14, 1981.
The 1979 Magic-Bird championship game rightly deserves a lot of credit for lifting college basketball to new heights, after the UCLA dynasty laid the groundwork.
Certainly, a string of remarkable Final Four games in the 1980s, as well the explosion of college basketball of cable television - particularly ESPN carrying wall-to-wall coverage of the Tournament for the first time - solidified the NCAA Tournament as the marquee event it is today.
But it was that one less famous Saturday - March 14, 1981 - which offered the first true glimpse of the March Madness that we know and love in this first weekend, with a bunch of wildly exciting finishes and upsets happening all over the country, laying the groundwork for tourney's explosion in the '80s - and fun-filled days like yesterday.
In 1981, the Tournament was still on NBC, and that year was one of the first instances in which the early rounds were broadcast nationally, and in which fans were shuttled around to different games. I know it may sound crazy, but consider that there wasn't even a Bracket Selection Show in those Dark Ages. During an NBC game broadcast, play-by-play man Dick Enberg only had time to announce a few no. 1 seeds before signing off the air, and fans had to wait until the following day's newspaper to see the whole field.
With Bryant Gumbel at the helm in the studio, three afternoon games headed down to the wire for almost simultaneous upset finishes.
First, Reed unleashed his half-court shocker which allowed Arkansas to knock off the defending-champion Louisville Cardinals:
Then, the NBC audience was sent out to the West Regional, as 8-seed Kansas State challenged the no. 2 team in the country, 1-seed Oregon State. Rolando Blackman launched this corner jumper which sank the Beavers:
Ro's shot was immortalized on the following week's SI cover:
Finally, Gumbel sent NBC viewers back to the Mideast Regional for the biggest shocker of them all, as 9-seed St. Joseph's, coached by Jimmy Lynam, challenged the no. 1 team in the nation, DePaul, with Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings. Ahead 48-47, DePaul's Skip Dillard, an outstanding free-throw shooter, missed the front end of a one-and-one, and St. Joe's raced down for a frantic go-ahead bucket at the buzzer:
1-2-3. As of 1981, there had never been anything like it for American TV viewers, and even with all the buzzer-beaters we've seen in the past 30 years, I don't know that there's been anything like it since. Such a concentration of remarkable buzzer-beaters and upsets in such a short time period.
It's no coincidence that the term "March Madness" is reported to have been used for the first time in the following year, 1982, by Brent Musburger, in CBS's first year with the Tournament.
Also see: There's a nice post called "The Afternoon When All Hell Broke Loose" which helped jog my memory for this post.