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Not so long ago the college basketball fan was considered a pariah among athletic patrons. And the game itself had none of the status, glamour or pugnacity needed to attract special attention. The President never phoned the locker room in college ball; the blimp never hovered over the arena; the freak with the rainbow hair never mugged behind the baseline. College basketball? We're talking Nowheresville. In a national feast fairly burgeoning with the tastes and aromas of sports of all sorts, particularly on the professional level, college basketball was a soggy bologna sandwich—amateur, regional, a fringe sideshow knocking them dead only in the sticks.
The hick college fan was ahead of his time, of course. But as prescient—and, it turns outs, as secretly numerous—as he was, he might never have been found were it not for the efforts of a short and round little independent television producer named Eddie Einhorn, who put together a telecast on Jan. 20, 1968 in the Astrodome between unbeaten No. 1 UCLA and unbeaten No. 2 Houston. That game not only attracted 52,693 in-person customers, still the largest basketball crowd in history, but also, through the miracle of TV, it literally discovered the college fan.
The ratings for that telecast—a 23 share of the audience—showed that folks all across the country were fascinated with the game even if it didn't involve their own cherished teams. The game was the thing. The game.
The next season NBC began televising the NCAA basketball tournament. In 1973 the network moved the championship game to prime time on Monday night, and by 1975 it was showing regular-season games on both Saturday and Sunday. As television coverage increased, the NCAA began expanding its tournament field, from 32 teams to 40 to 48, and the financial returns soared, too. Each Final Four team in New Orleans next March can expect to make as much as $500,000. A decade after the first tournament telecasts—a package of seven games—attracted a total audience of 26 million homes, the 1979 title game between Michigan State and Indiana State, that one game, was seen in 25.6 million homes. That is a passel of pariahs.
Last March a different kind of championship was decided. This time a second network, CBS, pulled off a shocking victory by wresting the NCAA tournament rights away from NBC and by establishing a regular-season schedule of its own. NBC countered by calling in its markers from most of the college conferences, setting up dates, times and matchups and locking the leagues into another new season with the old peacock. Now NCAA basketball will be nationally televised not only on two days a weekend but on two separate networks, a milestone yet to be attained by NCAA football. Additional coverage is provided by ESPN, USA, Metrosports and other cable-TV outlets. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith says that this season his father in Kansas will be able to see all but four of the Tar Heels' 26 games.
The upshot of all this is that schedules, those dangerous, make-or-break lists of games that are rivaled only by flesh and blood recruits in determining a coach's success, have gone absolutely haywire.
A quick perusal of the SI preseason Top 10 teams' dance cards indicates that no longer are the powers-that-be roasting marshmallows in the early going. No. 1 North Carolina, for example, begins the season with games against Kansas, Southern Cal, Tulsa, South Florida, Rutgers and Kentucky before relaxing. In a nine-game stretch No. 4 Kentucky will face Ohio State, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Georgia. Even No. 2 UCLA, which used to draft its opponents off the playground of the American Kennel Club and would venture out of Pauley Pavilion only for bomb scares, meets Brigham Young, Rutgers, Notre Dame, DePaul, LSU and Maryland before January. Three of those games will be played on the road.
Check your television listings, and you'll see that Louisville will play DePaul, St. John's and Marquette on CBS, and Missouri and Virginia on NBC. DePaul will play UCLA, Marquette and Notre Dame on NBC, and UAB ( Alabama-Birmingham) on CBS. Georgetown will play UNLV on CBS, and Missouri on NBC. Michigan at Arkansas and Georgia at San Francisco open the season for CBS this Saturday. It is safe to say that most of these matchups would not have occurred in the pre-TV-war years. And if a better than average team becomes bigger than life because of repeated exposure, so be it.
The expansion of the NCAA tournament is partly responsible for teams seeking real, live competition rather than whipping up on a series of Campbells, Prairie View A&M's and Simon Frasers. It's no small factor, either, that the officials who select the NCAA field realize how much more important it is for a UNLV to go off and lose to a Georgetown by seven than to stay safely home on the Las Vegas Strip and beat a Western New Mexico by 43.
"The upper-echelon teams are moving out from their comfy roosts to go on the road and challenge each other," says Billy Packer, the TV announcer who has switched from NBC to CBS and who, through his personal contacts, created some of the CBS games for this season. "The bigger NCAA field means you don't have to win 20 games to get in the tournament anymore, so coaches aren't afraid to play the other honchos. The TV money, exposure and recruiting benefits are icing on the cake. The old days, when coaches stocked up with non-conference patsies or followed the UCLA formula of playing 19 home games, are over."