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Descending Into Madness: A Look at the History of the Term "March Madness"

The first weekend of March, the last weekend of regular season college basketball in many conferences, and the annual onset of March Madness is here. But where did the term come from? It seems natural now to refer to the college basketball tournament by the phrase “March Madness”. That hasn’t always been the case. I thought I would take a quick look back in time to see how the phrase originated.

The first newspaper reference I can find using the term “March Madness” was in 1907, in an article about animal experimentation. The term is used in reference to the March Hare from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It enjoyed a very brief spurt of use in random ways, as it also appears in an article about a Hungarian countess’ engagement a month later, and in regard to a politician a few years after that.  

The Roaring Twenties were devoid of it, but the Great Depression returned the madness. The phrase appears in reference to famous actor Fredric Marchan ad for nasal drops, and even regarding political events in Europe with Mussolini and Hitler in 1936. The most frequent usage, though, in this decade was in regard to taxes. One of the random things you learn with an exercise like this is that income taxes used to be due on March 15, inducing a different form of March Madness.

The first reference combining March Madness and basketball appeared in a March 30, 1940 article in the Chicago Daily Tribune, in regard to the Indiana prep basketball tournament, entitled “Hoosier March Madness Boils to Climax Today”. A smattering of other references to high school hoops tournaments appear post-World War II, along with more tax articles. [UPDATE: the first basketball reference, according to this Illinois High School Association website, was in an essay entitled “March Madness” in a IHSA Journal one year earlier in 1939]

The 1950’s saw the references to prep hoops March Madness increase slightly, with Indiana’s March Madness tournament still having the most. March Madness was applied to college basketball for the first time late in the decade, in this Associated Press article by Don Weiss appearing in the Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg, Virginia in March of 1958. By 1959, a handful more articles on college hoops use the term, along with a brief interlude for the March Madness in Hawaii, when it became the 50th state in the Union.

By 1960, the term was picking up some steam with college hoops, though it was still “the NCAA’s version of March Madness“, an obvious nod to the original prep version of the term. A phrase that had been used in a variety of settings became almost exclusively associated with basketball, and all 93 March Madness articles appearing this decade were related to the sport.

An overview of the number of articles using the phrase shows the rapidly rising popularity of the NCAA basketball tournament as time goes on. In the 1970’s, the March Madness articles almost doubled to 171. In the 1980’s, they increased five fold, to 1,010. In the 1990’s, it shot up to 14,500, and in the last decade, to 40,600 in just newspapers, not even counting online sources.

So, there you have it. March Madness has its roots in the real life drama that brought us Hickory High and Jimmy Chitwood, with a nod to the creative writings of Lewis Carroll. Madness means anything can happen–teams can be a little Jekyll and Hyde this time of year. Just like that fiftieth star on the flag, it’s become an American institution, and Madness will again sweep the country this March.

That is as certain as death and taxes.

[photo via Getty]