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March 1939

Before the Madness—The Story of the First NCAA Basketball Tournament Champions

Terry Frei

In 1939, the Oregon Webfoots, coached by the visionary Howard Hobson, stormed through the first NCAA basketball tournament, which was viewed as a risky coast-to-coast undertaking and perhaps only a one-year experiment. Seventy-five years later, following the tournament’s evolution into a national obsession, the first champions are still celebrated as “The Tall Firs.” They indeed had astounding height along the front line, but with a pair of racehorse guards who had grown up across the street from each other in a historic Oregon fishing town, they also played a revolutionarily fast-paced game.

Author Terry Frei’s track record as a narrative historian in such books as the acclaimed
Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming, plus a personal connection as an Oregon native whose father coached football at the University of Oregon for seventeen seasons, makes him uniquely qualified to tell this story of the first tournament and the first champions, in the context of their times. Plus, Frei long has been a fan of Clair Bee, the Long Island University coach who later in life wrote the Chip Hilton Sports Series books, mesmerizing young readers who didn’t know the backstory told here. In 1939, the Bee-coached LIU Blackbirds won the NCAA tournament’s rival, the national invitation tournament in New York—then in only its second year, and still under the conflict-of-interest sponsorship of the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association. Frei assesses both tournaments and, given the myths advanced for many years, his conclusions in many cases are surprising.

Both events unfolded in a turbulent month when it was becoming increasingly apparent that Hitler's belligerence would draw Europe and perhaps the world into another war . . . soon. Amid heated debates over the extent to which America should become involved in Europe's affairs this time, the men playing in both tournaments wondered if they might be called on to serve and fight. Of course, as some of the Webfoots would demonstrate in especially notable fashion, the answer was yes.

It was a March before the Madness.
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Taylor Trade Publishing
Pages: 264Size: 6 x 9
978-1-58979-924-0 • Hardback • February 2014 • $24.95 • (£15.95)
978-1-63076-199-8 • Paperback • February 2016 • $16.95 • (£10.95)
978-1-58979-925-7 • eBook • February 2014 • $11.99 • (£7.95)
Award-winning journalist, author, and screenwriter Terry Frei is in his second stint at the Denver Post. He has been sports columnist for the Portland Oregonian, a football writer for the Sporting News, and an ESPN.com hockey columnist. Among his six previous books are ThirdDown and a War to Go, ’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age, and Olympic Affair. His web site is www.terryfrei.com.
With the historic events of 1939 rapidly spinning into global conflict, Frei (’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age) looks back at the first NCAA Basketball Tournament when head coach Howard Hobson guided the underdog Oregon Webfoots to the national championship against all odds Hobson, in his fourth year as Webfoots coach, recruited in a competitive collegiate market, personally going after two titans, Lauren “Laddie” Gale and Urgel “Slim” Wintermute, who towered over 6-foot-8 inches, then proceeded on a reign of hoops terror. Wisely contrasting the mayhem of college sports and Hitler’s Third Reich onslaught, Frei goes behind the scenes to examine Hobson’s methodical game strategies of his team, 'The Tall Firs,' against all comers, juxtaposed against the Nazi leader’s shrewd march across Europe. Along the way, the author, an admirer of Long Island University coach Clair Bee, tips his hat to the man who led the LIU Blackbirds to the second annual national invitation tournament in New York, the NCAA tournament’s rival. Carefully crafted, fast-moving, and refreshing, Frei’s study of the scrappy Oregon Webfoots’ campaign from a 29-5 season record to best the finest at both ends of the basketball court, ending with the first NCAA tournament victory over Ohio State Buckeyes, is quite memorable.
Publishers Weekly

Terry Frei has told an amazing, riveting story of how a group of basketball coaches started a loosely organized tournament that Oregon won that first year. Of course, it eventually would grow into an event that captures the public’s attention each March. As a young NCAA administrator, I was the tournament director in the 1960s—and I have to say this [book] taught me a lot I didn't know.
Chuck Neinas, president, Neinas Sports Services; former executive director of the College Football Association; and former commissioner of the Big Eight and Big Twelve conferences

Few writers are able to put sports into real-world context like Terry Frei. Reading March 1939 is like crossing ESPN with the History Channel. Frei brings the '39 Oregon Webfoots to life and takes us inside their victory in the first NCAA basketball tournament—played as Germany and Japan marched the world (including a hesitant United States) to the brink of war.
Steve Luhm, Salt Lake Tribune

From humble beginnings, Oregon's ‘Tall Firs’ became the best basketball team in the country, helping to break the New York monopoly on an increasingly national game, and the NCAA tournament became an unstoppable financial juggernaut. Once again, Terry Frei has vividly captured a pivotal moment in history, for the world of college basketball and for a world about to go to war. The exploits on the court are enthralling not only for their drama but held up for comparison against what the tournament has become today—as well as the danger lurking only a few years away.
Luke DeCock, sports columnist, Raleigh News & Observer

In March of 1939, amid the Great Depression and stirrings of worldwide war, the NCAA debuted its first basketball tournament. At the time, the tournament was seen as a daring yet risky venture, and possibly a one-time event. Seventy-five years later, "March Madness" has become an embedded tradition of American sports culture. March 1939 Before the Madness is a historical chronicle and study of the tournament's initial year, including the story of the tournament's first champions, the Oregon Webfoots and their far-seeing coach Howard Hobson. Notes, a bibliography, and an index round out this accessible yet thorough study, highly recommended for basketball fans and public library collections alike.
Midwest Book Review

Ostensibly about the 1939 University of Oregon men’s basketball team the Webfoots, winners of the very first NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) tournament, Denver Post journalist Frei’s book also tells the story of the Long Island University Blackbirds men’s team from the same year, as they were winners of the second-ever NIT (National Invitation Tournament). Much of the narrative is framed by the buildup to World War II in Europe, all chapters in Part 2—which makes up the bulk of the title—being interspersed with fact-based 'newsreel' items clearly written by the author. . . .Frei also focuses on who the real national champion was for 1939. Solid arguments can be made in favor of both teams, and leaning toward one team over another seems to be based less on fact than on which criteria are considered. VERDICT [W]ell written and thoroughly researched. . . .[T]hose interested in basketball’s early years and the origins of the NCAA Tournament will find much to interest them and a lot of new information.
Library Journal