Back in 1939, the monster was still in the laboratory.
The NCAA Tournament consisted of all of eight teams. The final was held in Patten Gym in Evanston, Ill., on the Northwestern campus. The jumpshot was still a curious experiment and the slam dunk not yet a vision of the future.
Oregon won that first tournament, beating Ohio State, 46-33, in the final and setting the machinery in motion.
"I was just getting out of college then and I was listening to the games on radio," recalls Washington coach Marv Harshman, the winningest active coach in Division I, who is retiring after this season. "It was pretty much a major school function. None, if any, independents got too involved."
Sixty-four teams begin play Thursday in what is now a gold mine of a tournament that culminates April 1 in the technological splendor of Rupp Arena at Lexington, Ky. It is all a long two-hand set shot from the tournament's beginnings in the years before World War II.
"Only if the team was in your area was there much attention," Harshman says. "If Washington won out on the coast then your were aware. I remember early on they played Baylor and I had no idea who Baylor was. I thought they couldn't be from a very good league.
"In those days there were the New York City teams--City College, NYU, LIU. Those were the dominant schools. In Philadelphia you had the Big Five. Then in the Big Eight, Kansas was dominant. The Big Ten was more football oriented.
"In the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky was the only school I heard of. And the ACC was just getting growing pains. That was more a football league, as were most major conferences. It was football, period."
Now the sentence doesn't end with football. Arenas will be packed for the NCAA Tournament at opening-round games at Hartford, Conn., in the East Regional; South Bend, Ind., in the Southeast; Tulsa, Okla., in the Midwest; and Salt Lake City in the West.
This year a television audience of some 25 million can be expected for the title game. And Final Four participants can anticipate almost $750,000, enough to bankroll most athletic departments. The 1939 tournament operated at a deficit of about $2,500.
Harshman is finishing his 40th year of college coaching, the last 14 with the Huskies. He points to television and the nature of basketball itself for the tournament's success.
"Television has hyped all college sports to a far greater degree than anybody ever imagined," he says. "It's also allowed many kids to perceive how great players are in different sections of the country.
"They can copy the players by putting up a basket on a barn. I remember that as a kid, and they're still doing it shooting baskets in driveways. In basketball you can face hypothetical opponents, playing games with Larry Bird or Wilt Chamberlain.
"You don't get the flavor of other sports as you do in basketball. I coached football for 13 years in small college. The players are better now but it's become a platoon game. Basketball is still a players' game. It doesn't matter what the coaches say; the players have to make all the choices."
Len DeLuca, director of program planning and development for CBS, says the tournament--from a television standpoint--ranks with the baseball and NFL playoffs.
"For the jockeying and negotiating that goes on, it's one of the premier events," he says.
CBS has the rights to the tournament until 1987. The 1982-84 portion of the contract is said to cost $48 million and the 1985-87 portion $96 million.
"What television has done is change the perception of college basketball from a regional to a national sport," DeLuca says. "It's added a dimension to the season. We have become conduits to excellent college basketball matches. Schools would not travel cross-country but for the opportunity to get exposure--and money."
Like inflation in a banana republic, the number of teams in the NCAA Tournament keeps getting higher. This year there are 64, up from 53 the previous season.
Many have suggested, in all seriousness, of throwing the tournament open to every Division I school, thus rendering the regular season about as meaningful as that in the NBA and NHL.
Still, with 64 teams in the NCAA and 32 in the National Invitation Tournament, 96 of the 282 Division I schools--more than one-third--qualify for post-season play.
"Nothing cheapens it (the tournament) more than the league playoffs," Harshman says. "That's strictly for money. It's the bottom line and we've created a real monster."
The Pacific-10 Conference, of which Washington is part, the Big Ten, Ivy League and West Coast Athletic Conference do not hold league playoffs. The regular-season champ advances to the tournament.
Harshman is among those who think the tournament should be open to all schools with everybody getting a slice of the financial pie. Those teams making it to the Final Four, of course, would get a smaller sum than now.
"But everybody will get something," he says. "And they all have a chance for a mythical dream.
"To get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament is the epitome for college players and teams. Who's to say you shouldn't have a chance?"
No disagreement comes from Lehigh coach Tom Schneider. The Engineers won the East Coast Conference Tournament and received an automatic bid, despite a 12-18 record.
Iowa coach George Raveling thinks such doings are farcical.
"You can't tell me the Trans-America champion is better than the seventh- or eighth-place team in the Big Ten," he said.
Lehigh does not have the all-time worst record of tournament qualifiers. George Washington in 1961 made it with a 9-16 mark.
"You can't take that moment away from us," Schneider says. "We worked just as hard as anybody else."