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When the Madness Began

One shining moment 30 years ago helped create today's bracket craze

WHEN I began work on a book about the 1979 NCAA tournament final, one of the first things I did was watch a DVD of the game. NBC's telecast began with Bryant Gumbel standing by himself on the court—no set, no fancy trappings, no sponsor presence aside from a small Pro Keds sign that disappeared from view when the camera zoomed in on the host's face. In a segment on the game's two stars, Michigan State's Earvin (Magic) Johnson and Indiana State's Larry Bird, Gumbel spoke over highlights of Bird's draining low-altitude jump shots and scrapping for loose balls, saying, "If you haven't seen Bird, you're in for a treat."

Forget the players' minuscule shorts: That statement is the most vivid reminder on the DVD of how the sports landscape has changed in 30 years. To the modern viewer weaned on ESPN saturation and March Madness on Demand, a woolly mammoth might as well have wandered across the court as Bird flicked his jumper. The notion that a national audience would get its first glimpse of a college star during the Final Four is preposterous now. "Can you imagine?" says Bill Rasmussen, a former World Hockey Association p.r. man who helped create a certain quirky, 24-hour sports network in Bristol, Conn., that launched six months after the Magic-Larry game. "Everybody would know Larry Bird's shoe size, the length of Johnson's shoestrings."

In many ways that was the night the madness began—not just for college hoops, but for televised sports in general. Even if many viewers couldn't pick them out of a roomful of guys in tank tops, Bird and Johnson were well-known in print as the two best players in the country. The showdown between Magic's Big Ten powerhouse and Larry's undefeated Missouri Valley Conference upstarts was a story line seemingly ripped from the Old Testament, and America was rapt. The 24.1 Nielsen rating generated during Michigan State's 75--64 win is still the highest rating for a basketball game, college or pro. The NCAA, which had expanded the field to 40 teams in 1979, capitalized on that monster audience by adding eight more entries the following year. By '85 the bracket had swollen to 64.

Indirectly the game helped ESPN get off the ground. A few weeks before the final, the network signed a deal to broadcast the early rounds of the 1980 tournament. Without the buzz created by the Bird-Magic final, bracketology may never have flourished. "Our network was really built on college basketball," Rasmussen says. "We kept telling ourselves [during the '79 final], This time next year we're going to do the games leading up to this one."

Former Marquette coach and broadcaster Al McGuire once said, "The college game was already on the launching pad, then Bird and Magic came along and pushed the button." But if that magical March night was the start of a new era, it also marked a zenith for the sport and some of the game's participants. In today's cable culture, that monster Nielsen rating will never be equaled. Consider that the riveting 2008 Kansas-Memphis NCAA final yielded what is a healthy number by modern standards: 12.1.

Then there are the coaches. Michigan State's Jud Heathcote, who won the national title in his third season at the school, became a fixture in East Lansing until his retirement in 1995, but despite seven more trips to the tournament he never made another Final Four. Not that his Indiana State counterpart, Bill Hodges, wouldn't take that track record. A 35-year-old Sycamores assistant in the fall of 1978, Hodges got the head job when Bob King suffered a brain aneurysm before the season. Hodges was named the national coach of the year after the team's 33--1 season; he had every reason to believe his career was just taking off. But the following fall he faced life in Terre Haute without Bird. Despite the return of their other four starters, the Sycamores were 16--11 in 1980--81. After they went 9--18 each of the next two seasons, Hodges resigned.

Only three years removed from the miracle of '79, Hodges assumed he'd have no trouble landing another Division I gig. But being known as Larry Bird's coach was more curse than blessing: Was that Cinderella run a result of Hodges's brilliance, or just Bird's? The only offer Hodges got in 1982 was from Palm Beach (Fla.) Junior College. He took the job but left after one season, beginning a nine-year odyssey that saw him work as an assistant at Long Beach State, sell insurance in Fort Myers, Fla., and coach Georgia College, an NAIA school in Milledgeville, Ga.

Hodges finally made it back to Division I in the spring of 1991, when he was hired by Mercer. He figured if he could just get the Georgia school into the NCAA tournament, he'd move up to a better job. Twice, he guided the Bears to the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament final. Twice, they lost. After the second defeat, in '96, Hodges broke down. "That was the first and only time I ever shed a tear over basketball," he says. "I knew that was my last chance."

The following February, with his team 3--20, Hodges resigned. He took a job teaching and coaching at a middle school in Fort Myers. In 2006 he moved to Roanoke, Va., to live with his daughter, Zoie, and her three children. Now 66, he is a high school history teacher there. This weekend Hodges will watch the Final Four, a cultural behemoth that he in some small way helped create, though he has reaped little benefit from it. Each year the spectacle of the modern tournament makes the memories—not to mention the video—of the '79 game feel more quaint. But Hodges has made peace with being one of the people that pivotal moment left behind. "I got a hand-written letter from John Wooden after the Final Four that I had framed," he says. "Every now and then I walk by and read it and think, Yup, it was real."

Seth Davis's When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball, published by Times Books, is in stores now.

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The '79 NCAA title game now feels quaint, but for Hodges it marked the ZENITH OF HIS CAREER.