In the modern world of college basketball, every Division I conference except the Ivy League sponsors a post-season conference tournament. In 2013, there were 31 such tournaments.
For teams that have played extremely well during the regular season, these tournaments are not crucial but a good performance can improve a team’s seeding in the NCAA tournament. For teams on the proverbial bubble, a good performance, even short of a conference championship, can be enough to push a team into the field of 68.
For teams that have no chance of being selected for the post-season on the basis of their regular season performance, their fans can always hope for a miracle run that will allow them to claim their conference’s championship and its automatic bid to the “Big Dance.”
It is not hard to understand the popularity of these tournaments. They bring together into a single building all of the conference’s teams as well as a congregation of fans from across the conference. Some fans are willing to spend large sums to attend the tournament in person, and thousands more are happy to watch it on television or listen to the games on the radio. Fans of underperforming teams know that somewhere out there in the basketball stratosphere there is a team with a losing record that is going to catch fire and will end up matching the NCAA tournament. With luck, that team will be their team.
However, students of the history of college basketball know that 40 years ago, such tournaments were quite rare in major college basketball. Although district championship tournaments were ubiquitous in high school basketball in the 1950s and 1960s, they were once shunned by college conferences.
As late as 1970, there had only been five college conferences in history that had ever used the post-season tournament and four of the five were linked to the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the early 1920s. In the 1950s and 1960s, the post-season tournament was associated with two conferences, the Southern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference, both of which drew their schools from the Carolinas, the Virginias, and the District of Columbia and Maryland.
This essay addresses two questions. First, how did the Southern Conference and the ACC come to decide their conference championship on the basic of a loser go home tournament when every other conference used the regular season record for that purpose? Second, how did the conference tournament become so common after the mid-1970s when it had been so rare only a few years before?
The Origins of the Post-Season Basketball Tournament
It is one thing to have a post-season tournament that matches championship teams from different conferences that are unlikely to have ever competed against each other. It is quite a different thing to play an entire season to establish a set of standings, only to redo them in a three or four day span.
The first college post-season tournament, while limited to members of a single conference, was really more like the former rather than the latter.
The first post-season college conference basketball tournament was staged in 1921 by the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA). The SIAA had been founded in December 1894, as an umbrella organization that could oversee and, if necessary, police intercollegiate athletics at southern universities. Its purpose was not to organize athletic competitions and crown champions.
Membership in the SIAA varied from year to year. Seven schools were at the organizational meeting in 1894, and 17 were designated as charter members in 1895. Eventually 72 different colleges joined the organization at one time or another, and in any given year, the number of member schools was typically somewhere between 30 and 40.
Traditionally, the SIAA did not attempt to organize championship competitions, although it did from time to time organize track and field events, and in 1921, it decided to sponsor a basketball tournament in Atlanta, Georgia, that would be open to any member school that wished to participate. The winner would be designated the Association champion for 1921.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 colleges decided to compete, and the tournament title went to the University of Kentucky which defeated Tulane, Mercer, Mississippi A&M (now Mississippi State), and the University of Georgia in the single-elimination affair.
Few of the schools that entered the 1921 competition had played each other during the regular season. Kentucky, for example, had gone 9-1 during its regular season, but it had only played the University of Cincinnati and other college teams in Kentucky and Tennessee.
A second tournament was held in 1922, and this time the competition was won by the University of North Carolina.
By 1922, the SIAA was on the verge of breaking apart over certain policy issues like freshman eligibility for varsity participation, and whether college athletes should be permitted to play baseball for money during the summer vacation. As a general rule, the larger schools opposed freshman eligibility and summer professional baseball.
At the end of the 1921-22 academic year, eight schools left the SIAA and with six additional schools from the upper South that were not SIAA members, organized the Southern Conference. Initially, most Southern Conference schools remained members of the SIAA, but after the 1921-22 academic year, they decided to go their separate ways.
One of the reasons for the group withdrawal from the SIAA was the belief that an organization with more than 30 members at any given time was too large to have a meaningful conference regular season. That each school in the SIAA might play each other school at least once, let alone twice, during the same season was simply impossible, given the size of the organization.
The original idea was that the Southern Conference would be a smaller, more compact organization. However, the popularity of the new organization, and the unwillingness of the founding schools to turn down applications from colleges that they considered equal to themselves, left the new Southern Conference with size problems of its own.
Starting with 14 initial members, the Southern Conference expanded to 20 schools in 1922, 21 in 1923, 22 in 1924, and 25 in 1928. In an era when some Southern Conference schools played as many as 25 games in a season while others played as few as 10, it was impossible to say that the team with the best winning percentage in conference games was the best team in the conference, so the idea of a post-season, championship tournament was carried over into the Southern Conference from the SIAA.
However, in the pre-World War II era, no other athletic conference adopted the idea of determining its basketball championship on the basis of a post-season tournament. Of course, other conferences were significantly smaller than the Southern—in 1931-32, for example, while the Southern had 23 teams, only two other conferences had as many as 10: the Mountain States Athletic Conference had 12 teams which were divided into two divisions, each of which crowned its own champion; and the Big 10’s ten members played a 12-game schedule that guaranteed that each school would play every other school in the conference at least once each year.
By 1932, the Southern Conference tournament has become an important part of the southern collegiate basketball landscape, and its annual winner was widely recognized as the champion of “southern college basketball.” However, that year, the Southern Conference split into two conferences when the 13 schools located west and south of the Appalachians withdrew to form the Southeastern Conference. This left the Southern Conference with only 10 members, but within four years that number had expanded to 16.
Although the two post-1932 conferences were significantly smaller than the old Southern Conference, both retained the post-season tournament. The Southeastern Conference actually abandoned the tournament in 1934, but criticism on the part of fans led to its reinstatement the following year.
In 1939, the landscape of post-season basketball changed with the introduction of the first NCAA basketball play-offs. Between 1939 and 1950, the tournament was an eight-team event for which no team automatically qualified. Given the small size of the tournament, and an early commitment on the part of the NCAA to choose one college from each of eight geographic subdivisions of the United States, there was no guarantee that either the conference’s regular season or the tournament champion would be invited to the tournament, but if one team was invited, which champion would it be?
As it turned out, this was not a critical issue in regard to the Southeastern Conference, since between 1939 and 1950, the team that won the SEC regular season basketball championship also won the post-season tournament each year. (The University of Kentucky, which dominated SEC basketball in this era, was the double-winner on ten occasions, and University of Tennessee twice won both titles.)
The situation in the Southern Conference was different. Given the larger size of the Southern Conference and its irregular scheduling practices, it was not surprising that the conference tournament winner was frequently not the team with the best regular season winning percentage. In fact, in the eight seasons from 1939 to 1946, the regular season and tournament championships were captured by the same school only once.
However, when it came to invitations, the NCAA clearly favored the Southern Conference regular season winner. In only three of those eight seasons was a Southern Conference team invited to the NCAA tournament, and in each of those years the invitation went to the regular season winner, not the tournament champion.
In 1951, two important changes were implemented. The NCAA expanded its tournament to 16 teams, and it announced that bids would be automatically extended to the champions of ten specific conferences (which included the Southern and Southeastern). This obviously required the two conferences to designate either their regular season champion or the tournament winner as the champion for NCAA tournament purposes.
At this point, the SEC voted to play, for the first time, a 14-game, round-robin schedule with the team with the overall best record being the conference’s official champion. The post-season conference tournament was continued, but its winner was only the tournament champion.
The Ohio Valley Conference, organized in 1948, had become the third conference to adopt a post-season tournament, but in 1951, it also designated its regular season winner as its champion. (The Ohio Valley Conference did not have an automatic bid to the NCAA, but in 1953, the NCAA selected regular season champion Eastern Kentucky University as an at-large team, by-passing Western Kentucky University which had both won the post-season tournament and had a better overall record.)
The Southern Conference chose a different route. Because of its size (16 schools) and the wide variation in the number of conference games played by each member—in 1950, totals ranged from 12 to 19 games—the conference felt that it had no option other than to designate the tournament winner as the official conference champion.
The Southern Conference’s decision to designate its tournament winner as the official champion of course made the tournament extremely exciting, and between 1951 and 1960, conference regular season winners made it to the NCAA only six times in ten years.
Without the conference championship being on the line, post-season tournaments were somewhat meaningless, and fan interest quickly waned. Both the SEC (1952) and the Ohio Valley (1955) had dropped their tournaments by the mid-1950s. However, a second championship tournament had been created when the Southern Conference split in half in 1953.
That year, seven of the most prominent schools in the Southern Conference withdrew and formed the Atlantic Coast Conference. (The seven were joined by an 8th member, the University of Virginia, which had already left the Southern Conference.)
With the ACC at eight members, and the Southern reduced to nine, both conferences moved to a round-robin format, which should have removed the need for a post-season tournament. However, the popularity of the 30-plus year old Southern Conference tournament was such, and the “title on the line” aspects were so popular with fans, that both leagues continued to hold post-season tournaments with the tournament winner receiving the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
For the next 20 years, the ACC and Southern Conference tournaments were well-known exceptions to the general rule that conference championships were won in the regular season. The Ohio Valley Conference resumed its “beauty contest” post-season tournament in 1964, but indifferent crowds led to its cancelation in 1967.
Why did not other leading basketball conferences follow the lead of the ACC and the Southern in this era, especially in the 1960s when the ACC tournament became a widely followed and very successful revenue generating event?
The answer is fairly simple. As exciting as the ACC and Southern Conference tournaments may have been with their winner-take-all format, most conferences felt it was unfair that a team that had demonstrated excellence over the course of a season could be eliminated from national championship competition simply because it happened to have a bad game.
In 1970, the University of South Carolina, a charter member of the ACC, was upset in double-overtime in the finals of the ACC tournament, after having been the first team in conference history to go through the regular season undefeated. When the other schools refused to alter the existing format for determining a champion, South Carolina resigned from the ACC amid a great deal of sympathy from college basketball fans.
While the ACC and the Southern could defend their approach by pointing out that this was the way it had always been done in those conferences and in their predecessors, conferences that had followed the traditional approach were simply unwilling to switch, even if it would have been profitable.
Of course, one could have a tournament just for the sake of a tournament, but the experience of the Southeastern Conference and the Ohio Valley Conference after 1951 suggested that basketball fans were not interested in games that had no effect on the conference championship.
So What Happened?
By 1974, it was widely rumored that the NCAA planned to expand the size of its post-season tournament and that it might also change the rule that limited conferences to a single participant.
Both happened in 1975. First, the number of teams in the tournament was immediately increased from 25 to 32, and the old limitation of one team per conference was replaced by a two-teams-per-conference rule.
Since a conference’s regular season champion was likely to have an outstanding overall record, suddenly making the tournament champion the conference champion would no longer make it possible that the conference’s strongest team might be eliminated, since the regular season champion was likely to be chosen for one of the now expanded number of at-large bids.
Moreover, by giving the tournament winner the automatic bid, fans of every team in the conference had reasons to attend the tournament or at least watch it on television.
Furthermore, the size of the NCAA tournament kept expanding over the course of the next decade. In 1979, it was increased to 40 teams, and in 1980, to 48. In 1983, the number was increased again to 52 teams, then to 53 the next year, and to 64 in 1985. Today, the number is up to 68, and some observers are predicting an impending move to a 96-teams tournament.
On top of that, in 1980, the limit of two teams per conference was also repealed, so that three or more teams from the same conference could theoretically make the NCAA tournament the same year. Suddenly, there was another reason to have a post-season tournament. Even teams that didn’t win the tournament might be able to showcase their talents and win one of the growing numbers of at-large bids.
In response to these changes, the number of post-season conference tournaments began to increase rapidly, from two in 1974, to six in 1975, to nine in 1976, to 13 in 1977, to 20 in 1980, to 24 in 1983, and to 29 in 1987. By 1987, every conference but the Ivy League, the Big 10 and the Gulf Star Conference had a post-season tournament. The Big 10 held out until 1998, but eventually joined the crowd.
It seems that as long as conferences can send more than one representative to the NCAA play-offs, conference tournaments are here to stay.