How March Madness Works

The Source of March Madness

Pat Summitt Pat Summitt
Legendary University of Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt urges on her team while they play Michigan State during the semifinal game of the NCAA Women's Final Four tournament in Indianapolis in 2005. John Gress/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

Today,the term March Madness is synonymous with the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but the nickname was first used to describe another basketball tournament — the annual Illinois High School Association tournament. Coach and educator Henry V. Porter is credited with coining the phrase in a 1939 essay for the Illinois Interscholastic magazine, titled "March Madness" [source: IHSA].

Describing a typically "afflicted" basketball fan, Porter wrote:

"In everyday life he is a sane and serious individual trying to earn enough to pay his taxes. But he does a Jekyll-Hyde act when the spell is on him ... The thud of the ball on the floor, the slap of hands on leather, the swish of the net are music in his ears ... He is biased, noisy, fidgety, boastful and unreasonable — but we love him for his imperfections ... The writer's temperature is rising. The thing is catching. It's got me! Gimme that playing schedule!"

The nickname March Madness was picked up by Illinois sportswriters, who embraced the new moniker throughout the "Golden Age" of the Illinois high school basketball tournament in the 1940s and 1950s [source: IHSA].

March Madness was not used to describe the NCAA Tournament until 1982, when Brent Musburger, a CBS reporter, used the term during the telecast of a tournament game. Musburger said he got the name from a Chicago auto dealer who did announcements for the local high school tournament [source: Heck]. College basketball fans and the media have been using the term ever since.

Today, after a court battle over the ownership of the term, March Madness is co-owned by the NCAA and IHSA through the March Madness Athletic Association.