Basketball and the city of San Diego have always had a transitory relationship, not unlike 767 jet liners and O’Hare Airport. Every so often, the sport comes to town, has a cup of coffee, gets up and heads for another boarding gate.
The NBA’s Rockets had a stopover before winging to Houston. The Clippers booked a connection through San Diego on the way from Buffalo to Los Angeles. The ABA’s Conquistadors got stuck on the Tarmac, trashed the plane and finally had their flight permanently canceled.
The NCAA tournament also landed in San Diego, in 1975, and promptly took off, destined for altitudes previously unimagined.
Twenty-six years later, with the NCAA returning to the city for sub-regional games today and Saturday, the tournament is barely recognizable since its last visit.
Before March 1975, the NCAA tournament was but a mid-major attraction on the American sporting landscape. Baseball was in a boom period, captivating fans with Hank Aaron’s chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record and the Oakland Athletics’ brawling, divided-we-stand approach to winning World Series. Post-merger and pre-parity, the NFL was more popular than it had ever been, the Super Bowl just settling in as a national holiday. College football was still the bastion of Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes, Archie Griffin around left end for 30 yards and a cloud of dust.
The situation was more pronounced in and around Los Angeles. The Garvey-Cey-Lopes-Russell Dodgers had just won the pennant in 1974. Chuck Knox’s Rams were in a run of seven consecutive seasons atop the NFC West. In 1972, the Lakers finally broke through for their first NBA championship and USC won the national football title. These were the days of Merlin Olsen and Jack Reynolds, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston, Anthony Davis and John McKay.
The NCAA basketball tournament?
“Back then, they used to call it the UCLA Open,” says Curt Gowdy, who broadcast the 1975 Final Four for NBC in San Diego, back when the final two rounds of the tournament were officially known as the “NCAA semifinals” and “Championship Final” and final four was still lower-case sportswriters’ shorthand for UCLA and three other schools there to fill out the bracket.
The NCAA did not officially co-opt the term “final four” for a couple more years, first capitalizing the words in its Official Collegiate Basketball Guide in 1978. Until then, no special treatment was warranted because, through 1975, there was nothing special about the Bruins reaching the NCAA semifinals--also known around Westwood as “our next-to-last game of the regular season.”
In a 12-year stretch from 1964 to 1975, UCLA reached the NCAA semifinals 11 times, going 10-1 in those games, and 10-0 in the championship final. The Bruins’ lone semifinal defeat--in 1974, in double overtime, against North Carolina State--was written off as a “real accident,” according to Gowdy.
“They should have beaten North Carolina State,” Gowdy says. “They had them beaten--a seven-point lead in the second overtime, and frittered it away.”
NBC held the TV rights to the semifinals and finals, but telecasts of earlier rounds were syndicated to local affiliates--tape-delayed in the Los Angeles area. Local viewers interested in following the Bruins during the earlier rounds needed either massive doses of caffeine or serious late-night stamina, having to wait until 11 p.m. for opening tipoff.
Dick Enberg, who broadcast the Bruins’ early-round games for TVS before joining NBC later in 1975, remembers that team gatherings to watch the late-night tape-delayed games became a UCLA tradition during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
“Bill Walton has told me that the players would go after a game to the locker room and arrange wherever they would go to eat and be together around 11 to watch the game,” Enberg says. “They’d have a pool to see how many times I’d say, ‘Oh my!’
“If it was an eight ‘Oh my!’ game, that was a great game.”
In 1975, the Bruins were back in the semifinals, in San Diego, and locally, the mood was typically blase. On the day of the semifinals, The Times ran only a two-column advance story on the front page of the sports section. No photo, no banner headline, just another day of the Bruins punching the clock at the office.
Except the previous evening, an interesting little news story had developed:
John Wooden was planning to announce his retirement as UCLA coach at the end of the tournament.
The Times ran the story on Page 2 of its sports section--four short paragraphs--citing a “prominent UCLA alumnus” as an unidentified source and concluding with a soft-shoed nondenial from Wooden, who said: “I don’t want to lie. I would announce it to my players first. . . . It’s been a troubled time. It’s not really what I want. If I did it, it would be for the best.”
By the time UCLA dispatched Louisville, in overtime, in the semifinals, the word was out: Wooden, the Bruins’ legendary coach, would step aside after the final against Kentucky, win or lose.
And on the morning of the final, Times readers were greeted with a sports section that featured a profile of Steve Garvey’s dad as its lead story, a large photo and game coverage of a high school basketball all-star game played in Long Beach and, oh yes, a couple of UCLA stories shoehorned into the right-hand side of the page--one bearing the headline, “Wooden’s Successor Still A Mystery Man,” and beneath it, “Retirement Party Success Depends On Kentucky.”
No 24-page special section documenting the Wooden years, no guest tribute columns by Denny Crum and Dean Smith, no double-truck photo spreads of the coach and his greatest players. Trees lived healthier lives then.
Likewise, sports editors across the country did not scurry to dispatch columnists and sidebar writers to San Diego to help chronicle the historic event. David Cawood, the former NCAA assistant executive director who oversaw the media operation at the 1975 Final Four, estimates that 40% of the seats set aside for the media went unused.
“There were a lot of national media no-shows,” Cawood says. “At that point in time, the tournament was covered primarily by basketball beat writers. It wasn’t until [Larry] Bird and [Magic] Johnson played in the final in 1979 in Salt Lake City that columnists became regular attendees at the Final Four. Instead of going to spring baseball, with that tournament, they started going to the Final Four. . . .
“In San Diego, I remember Jim Murray being there. But I bet there weren’t 10 columnists, total, in San Diego from [newspapers] outside of San Diego.”
The San Diego Sports Arena, which failed to sell out for the Kentucky-Syracuse semifinal, was filled to its 15,151 capacity for the UCLA-Kentucky final, though tickets could still be had just before game time, some passing hands outside the arena for less than their $12 face value.
Yet, across the country, TV viewers got the message: This would be no ordinary appearance by UCLA in the title game.
Before 1975, only one college basketball telecast had ever drawn as much as a 20 national rating: UCLA’s 1973 championship victory over Memphis State, highlighted by Walton’s 21-of-22 shooting performance. That game, producing UCLA’s seventh consecutive title, drew a 20.5 rating with a 32 share.
UCLA’s 92-85 victory over Kentucky in Wooden’s final game eclipsed that mark, drawing a 21.3 rating with a 33 share--records that stood until the Bird-Johnson 1979 final, which garnered a 24.1 rating with a 38 share, still the highest numbers for a college basketball game.
In the four years between Wooden’s finale and Johnson’s triumph over Bird, media attendance at the Final Four doubled, according to Cawood. “From that point on,” Cawood says, “it did not become uncommon for a major newspaper to send a beat writer and a columnist and a sidebar writer to the Final Four. [Some] have been sending four or five now for years.”
A Final Four ticket that went for $12 in 1975 now costs $80--if you can get one. TV revenue for the NCAA tournament has exploded over the same span--ballooning from $2.6 million in 1975 to $228 million in 2000. Tournament broadcast rights, barely over $1 million a year when NBC held them in 1975, now belong to CBS, which paid $6 billion in 1999 to televise the tournament through the 2013 season.
The runaway growth of the tournament, Gowdy believes, can be traced to 1975, when the tournament expanded its field from 25 to 32 teams and included at-large entrants for the first time.
“When it went to 32, I thought, geez, that’s too much,” Gowdy says. “But as it turned out, it wasn’t. And when it went to 64 [in 1985], I was aghast. But what it turned out to be was like a gigantic high school basketball tournament, in that some of the little teams could beat some of the big teams and you got some amazing upsets. I think that really fired this NCAA tournament into its greatest years. . . .
“It’s sort of like the Super Bowl. I did the first Super Bowl game, and they had 50,000 people there [actually 61,946, still far short of the Los Angeles Coliseum’s capacity] and none of these corporate parties or big tents and there wasn’t the hype. What it turned into, the Super Bowl, you wouldn’t recognize it from the first two or three years.”
The NCAA basketball tournament has followed the same flight pattern, super-sizing everything from teams in the field to games on national television to money in the NCAA coffers. From San Diego ’75 to San Diego ’01, everything’s gotten bigger, up to and including the size of the players’ shorts.