March 14, 1981: When the NCAA tournament became Madness

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The last shot fell at a little past three on a Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles. Rolando Blackman, a willowy 6-foot-6 Kansas State senior from Panama by way of the Bronx, pounded three dribbles to the right baseline and rose quietly off the floor before stroking a jumper that gave the Wildcats a 50-48 lead over Oregon State with two seconds to play in their NCAA tournament game at Pauley Pavilion. Oregon State was ranked No. 2 in the nation after spending much of the regular season at No. 1, and now was almost certain to exit the tournament without winning a game. NBC play-by-play announcer Jay Randolph shouted his call -- "A 16-footer from the deep right corner has put the Wildcats on top!'' -- but his voice is scarcely audible on the game DVD beneath a thunderous explosion of noise. Oregon State missed a long heave at the horn and then came another roar.

It was the concluding act in a daylong drama that stands as one of the seminal moments in what has come to be known -- and trademarked by the NCAA -- as March Madness. By the time Blackman's floater dropped through the net, two other games had ended in upsets at the buzzer. Early in the afternoon in Dayton, Ohio, a DePaul junior point guard nicknamed "Money,'' because he was so clutch under pressure, had missed a free throw that he would never forget, even as he later spent more than six years in prison before turning 40. Less than a minute before the Blackman basket, in Austin, Texas, an Arkansas guard named Ulysses C. (U.S.) Reed had made what is likely the only half-court, game-winning shot (so close, Gordon Hayward) in NCAA tournament history, bringing down defending national champion Louisville and keeping the Cardinals from what might have been four Final Fours in four seasons.

And in a small, refrigerated control room on the fourth (or maybe the fifth, nobody is quite sure) floor of 30 Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, a crew of NBC executives and producers and one very familiar host had pushed the limits of broadcast technology to ensure that the entire country had seen all three finishes. When the day was done, they yelled as loudly as the crowd a continent away in Los Angeles, certain that they had helped change the way a sport would be consumed by its audience.

I remember it this way: We were squeezed into a little apartment in upstate New York, where I was a reporter for the Schenectady Gazette. There were a lot of us: Friends, co-workers, my brother and a bunch of his buddies from Siena. It was the first Saturday of the Big Dance, except, mercifully, nobody called it the Big Dance yet. There are a lot of ways to timeline somebody's life: You could do mine with NCAA basketball tournaments.

When Texas Western beat Kentucky in the '66 Glory Road game, I snuck downstairs just in time to see Bobby Joe Hill's back-to-back steals, before my father ran me back off to bed. In 1977 I was driving back from college spring break with a friend and had to watch Al McGuire cry through the snow on a tiny little, rabbit-eared bedroom TV in my friend's roommate's house outside D.C. In '88 I was sitting in a Lamaze class in advance of the birth of our first child, nervously wondering if Kansas' and Danny Manning's win over Oklahoma was actually getting recorded on my newfangled VCR. That's just three.

And in '81 I was in that little apartment watching games on a black-and-white television with a cable remote on a long, brown wire that could accidentally strangle a small dog.

Even back then, that initial Saturday of the tournament was a must-watch, because it was the first day on which a wide, network audience would see games. (In '81 the field had been winnowed from 48 to 32 teams -- the full 64-team bracket wasn't instituted until '85 -- on Thursday and Friday, but those games were carried only on a nascent ESPN; much more on this topic later). But the experience was very primitive: NBC, which held the rights to the NCAA tournament from 1969 to '81, would broadcast the day's games regionally, but in general would stay with games to their conclusion. You got your two or three games and that was it. For the rest you got highlights at 6 and 11 (again, ESPN was just ramping up) or a story in the next day's newspaper.


There were upsets, but because of the smaller fields and conservative broadcasting (and probably because bracket pools had not taken deep root), there was no upset culture. There were buzzer-beaters, but if you saw one in a day, live, it was astounding. There was no buzzer-beater culture, either. But March 14, 1981 was different from any other day.

As the finishes piled on top of each other, we screamed and jumped and pounded the cheap sheetrock walls, because it was like something we had never seen before, a waterfall of basketball riches when we had become accustomed to the trickle of Today's One Game.

In his 2009 book, When March Went Mad, SI writer, CBS analyst and respected college basketball pundit Seth Davis posits that the 1979 Bird-Magic showdown in Salt Lake City marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the NCAA basketball tournament as a cultural and sports phenomenon. It's a powerful argument: The game is still the highest-rated college game ever. However, in James Patrick Miller's and Tom Shales's oral history of ESPN, Those Guys Have All the Fun, ESPN's longtime anchor/reporter Bob Ley counters with, "Yes, you had Magic and Bird [in 1979], but you can argue that was more an NBA-maker than a college-maker.'' It was certainly a giant building block for the latter.

Wherever it was that the NCAA tournament lived in the sports pantheon before March 14, 1981, it lived somewhere bigger and better afterward, someplace more significant, and certainly more profitable. Broadcast professionals took chances that day that helped make their careers. Basketball players succeeded and failed in such outsized ways that it defined their legacies. Because of what transpired that day, and where it fell on the continuum of the game, there has never been another day quite like it.

On the morning of March 14, NBC production staff reported for duty at 30 Rock. A cast of industry titans and future titans was on duty. Don Ohlmeyer, then 36, was the executive producer of NBC Sports. He had already come up through the ranks in the golden age of ABC Sports under Roone Arledge and produced Monday Night Football. He would later run NBC's entertainment division (and earn a place in pop culture history in 1998 by firing Norm MacDonald from Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update anchor spot).

Also in the room was associate producer Sean McManus, then 26, the son of broadcasting legend Jim McKay. McManus would rise to become president of CBS Sports at age 41 and is currently the chairman of CBS Sports. With them was Ken Aagaard, then 35, a broadcast operations manager in the engineering division of NBC television and a relative nobody.

Ohlmeyer was already a roaring success in the business and McManus was on his way. Aagaard's future was far less certain. The studio host, on a soundstage in a separate part of the building was Bryant Gumbel, then 32, who had already become the network's go-to anchor chair in the pre-Costas era. (Michael Weisman, who was a coordinating producer at NBC in '81 and would later head the sports division after Ohlmeyer and before Dick Ebersol, said, "At one point, we were putting Bryant courtside at games, but he had a habit of talking louder as the crowd got loud, which didn't work. But he was brilliant in the studio.'')

NBC had the customary eight regional games planned for the day. Ohlmeyer also had a brainstorm. "We decided to whip around,'' he says. "We wanted to put on as many close games as we could.'' It was no small decision. Thirteen years had passed since the Heidi game (in which NBC cut away from a seemingly decided AFL game between the Jets and Raiders to show a TV movie, only to have the Raiders improbably rally and win, off air), but few at 30 Rick had forgotten.

"The experience of the Heidi game was still part of the culture at NBC,'' says McManus. "There was no science to switching, and the media that covered our business back then pretty much only covered mistakes. One small glitch anywhere down the line and the memory of March 14 would be very different than it was.''

It's important to invoke ESPN's role in the history of switching games. When informed that I was working on a story that would credit NBC with a significant role in this vital -- and now common -- sports television practice -- one ESPN veteran said, "You're joking, right? They stole it from us.'' ESPN carried the early, weekday rounds of the NCAA tournament from 1980 to '90, before CBS took over the entire operation. In the Miller-Shales book, former ESPN executive producer Bill Fitts is quoted as saying that in 1980, "Chet [Simmons, former ESPN president] came over to me and said, 'I want you to cut in with reports on the other games.' "

Likewise, executive vice president Steve Anderson is quoted as saying, "If we were doing a game and it was in the second quarter, but another game was near the end and it was close, it seemed obvious to us to go to that other game.''

Presented with this, McManus said, "Maybe ESPN did some of that. We weren't paying a lot of attention.'' This response is typical of the three-letter networks' dismissive attitude toward a young ESPN at the time. Whether NBC "stole'' its switching strategy from ESPN is unclear. What's clear is that ESPN had done some switching -- possibly a lot of switching -- prior to March 14, 1981. It is fair to say that NBC's work on that day would represent the first time that daring switches would be attempted for a large, network audience on a major sporting event and was a springboard for the lucrative future of college basketball (as was ESPN's wall-to-wall in-season coverage).

If Ohlmeyer was the Wizard of Oz on March 14, Aagaard was behind the curtain. He had worked with NBC for eight years in Chicago, before getting a job with the engineering department in New York in 1978, at the age of 32. In the year leading to the '81 NCAA tournament, Ohlmeyer pushed Aagaard to master the art of switching games on the fly. And if Ohlmeyer pushed, you did not push back.

"Ohlmeyer was the key in all of this,'' says Aagaard, who is now an executive vice president with CBS Sports. "Don was a difficult guy to work for, putting it mildly. Very demanding. He was the guy who decided we should make the switches, but I was the guy who had to make the switches happen. And I was so fearful of making a mistake, because Don would crush me. If Don made a mistake, it was my mistake. But he made me feel like I could do anything in television.''

Through the winter of 1980 into 1981, Aagaard practiced with making in-game switches. "Now, they have it down to a science,'' Aagaard says. "Back then we didn't know what the hell we were doing.'' Instead of a comingled headset, Aagaard had a bank of landline telephones, each connected to a game site. If Ohlmeyer called out a switch, Aagaard would pick up the phone and execute the change by talking to producers in a coordination room in New York and the production crew on site.

Gumbel was the traffic cop charged with receiving from one site and tossing to the next.

Three games tipped off at the noon hour. (Unlike CBS's current, more refined schedule, the game times were not staggered, which further increased the likelihood that finishes would pile on top of each other). Brigham Young quickly took control against UCLA and LSU did likewise against Lamar. Meanwhile in Dayton, on a light brown, rubberized floor, DePaul was in a mighty struggle with Saint Joseph's.

This was a vaguely familiar scene. DePaul, under grandfatherly coach Ray Meyer (68 years old in 1981) and with a roster stuffed with homegrown Chicago talent, had experienced a rebirth. Behind freshman Mark Aguirre, the Demons had reached the Final Four in 1979, before losing to Bird and Indiana State. A year later Meyer added another future elite NBA player, Terry Cummings, and went 26-1. But the Demons, who drew a first-round NCAA bye, were bounced from the tournament in their first game by eventual national runner-up UCLA, which had played an opening-round game.

That legacy trailed them into Dayton. Saint Joseph's, like UCLA, had earned the right to play DePaul by winning a first-round game (a sloppy victory over Creighton). The Hawks were 21-7 and emblematic of many pre-shot clock, pre-three-point-shot-era teams. They spread the floor and exhausted opponents with back cuts and shortened games, putting a high premium on every possession. "Our whole team was very, very tight that day,'' says Joey Meyer, who was one of his father's assistant coaches. "Our guys remembered what happened the year before. Every shot weighed on them.''

DePaul never shook Saint Joseph's and led by a point with 12 seconds to play, when junior point guard Skip (Money) Dillard, Aguirre's high school teammate, was fouled and faced a one-and-one to ice the game (again, there was no three-point shot). By then, NBC had brought all markets on board. On the front end, Dillard, an 85 percent free throw shooter, hit the left side of the rim and the ball caromed toward the corner.

Don Criqui, then 40, was on the microphone. Criqui had become a play-by-play announcer for CBS on the NFL at age 27, working alongside crusty former quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. At age 30, Criqui had called Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal for the Saints and eight years later, the Miracle of the Meadowlands, when the New York Giants fumbled away a sure victory against the Eagles. "In those situations,'' says Criqui, '' you really try to expect that something crazy is going to happen.''

Saint Joseph's senior point guard Brian Warrick, who would play four years in the NBA, ran the ball down in the corner and turned up the floor, attacking DePaul's defense. Eight months earlier Saint Joseph's coach Jim Lynam, then 38, had been at a clinic in Louisville, standing in a corner talking with Hubie Brown, when he noticed a women's coach running a drill where two defenders ran at a dribbler as the dribbler tried to advance up the floor in a late-game situation. Lynam made a note to incorporate the drill into practice. Now two DePaul defenders ran at Warrick and he got by them first with a between-the-legs move and then a blinding crossover. "He put them both down with dribble moves,'' says Lynam. "Incredible.''

Criqui followed the flow: "Oh my, look at this. Saint Joseph's has the ball back. Seven seconds ...''

Once clear past halfcourt, Warrick threw ahead to freshman forward Lonnie McFarland in the deep right corner. McFarland rose as if to shoot, but then passed inside to senior forward John Smith, who was standing alone under the basket and laid in the game-winning shot. "I think that was the only assist of Lonnie's career,'' says Smith, chiding a shoot-first teammate three decades later.

Criqui: "Look at this! Look at this! They win! Saint Joseph's wins! Unbelievable!''

NBC cameras caught Lynam running down the sideline to nearly in front of the DePaul bench, where his teenage daughter, Denise, jumped into his arms. As they embraced, Ray Meyer walked past and reached out his right hand, which Lynam grabbed. DePaul players stood in shock and then walked slowly off the floor. "I've spent 43 years of my life in locker rooms as a coach,'' says Joey Meyer, whose father died in 2006. "That locker room was the worst I have ever seen. Guys were totally devastated.''

Five nights later Saint Joseph's knocked off Boston College to reach the regional finals, where the Hawks were crushed by eventual national champion Indiana. DePaul's Aguirre declared himself eligible for the NBA draft, and a year later, a team led by Cummings and Dillard again went 26-1 and again lost its first NCAA game, this one to Boston College. Those losses haunted Ray Meyer. "To say it affected him would be an understatement,'' says Joey Meyer. "It affected him deeply.''

Skip Dillard's name surfaced again in 1988, when at the age of 28, he was arrested and charged with 15 armed robberies in the Chicago area. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. In a jailhouse interview with Bill Jauss of the Chicago Tribune in 1989, Dillard said "My being here is 100 percent because of drugs. Drugs drive you insane.'' Dillard said he was clean. He served a month less than four years and was paroled in September 1992. Less than three years later, in June 1995, he was back in prison, again for armed robbery. This time Dillard served 31 months and was paroled in January 1998.

During the reporting of this story, Joey Meyer said he hadn't talked to Dillard in many years but hoped he had overcome his troubles. Teammate Clyde Bradshaw said he had seen Dillard a few years earlier at Cummings' charity golf tournament in Milwaukee and that he was in good spirits and seemed healthy. A phone message was left with Dillard's mother in Chicago and nearly two weeks later that call was returned.

The man his teammates once called Money says he is doing well and has been clean and sober for "years.'' He was working construction after his second prison term ended, but lost that job in the economic downturn. Now he says he's ''retired.''

He has never forgotten that free throw, even with all that has passed. "I let my teammates down, I let my coach down,'' says Dillard. "And I loved Coach Ray. I let the city of Chicago down, because they all loved DePaul basketball. They embraced us because they wanted a winner. I remember we got to the airport after that game, and coach Ray walked alongside me and held my hand. Coach Ray was a man's man. He was like my father.

"But you know what?'' says Dillard. "I wasn't even nervous before that free throw. I just missed it. I remember a few years later, I was watching the NBA and Larry Bird missed a big free throw. I said 'Look at that, even Larry Bird misses free throws.' " Dillard says he lost a grown son to kidney failure last fall, but he takes joy in watching his nephew, Lorenzo Dillard, a good high school basketball player in the Chicago suburbs. And he says, for all the NCAA losses and that one free throw that he'll never forget, he would never choose a different path from the one that originally brought him to DePaul. "To this day, people recognize me,'' he says. "I'm proud of that. I'm proud of my team.''

The second set of games began late in the afternoon, Eastern time, on March 14. Immediately, the Oregon State-Kansas State and Louisville-Arkansas games showed promise, although they would tick down almost in unison. Louisville had a roster of recognizable names: Rodney and Scooter McCray, Derek Smith, Poncho Wright and Jerry Eaves. Darrell Griffith had led most of them to the title in Indianapolis a year earlier.

Arkansas and coach Eddie Sutton were well-known from reaching the Final Four two years earlier with Sidney Moncrief, Marvin Delph and Ron Brewer, the so-called "Triplets.'' Louisville was seeded No. 4, with a 21-8 record, but a 14-game winning streak. Arkansas had come into the tournament seeded No. 5 at 20-7, but like Saint Joseph's, had played a preliminary round game and beaten Mercer on Thursday night.

Arkansas led by four points at the half and with 23 seconds remaining Louisville's Poncho Wright scored to bring the Cardinals within three. Arkansas' Scott Hastings immediately threw away a full-court, home run attempt and Derek Smith (who died in 1996, and whose son, Nolan, was a member of Duke's 2010 national championship team), chased down a loose ball and drilled a fallaway 15-footer to give Louisville the lead with six seconds remaining.

Marv Albert was handling the play-by-play in Austin: "Yes! Five seconds to go. Louisville by one. Timeout called by Arkansas.'' In Los Angeles, Kansas State was running clock, tied with Oregon State. Ohlmeyer called for a switch, and Aagaard made it.

Albert: "Right here, let's go back to New York. Here's Bryant Gumbel.''

Gumbel was sitting at a desk, wearing a blue blazer with a giant NBC logo on the breast pocket and a yellow power tie. Over his right shoulder was a thick, square television set displaying the NCAA symbol. Gumbel: "OK Marv Albert, we'll be checking back with you in just one minute. We've got another barnburner going on at Pauley Pavilion. Kansas State, Oregon State all tied up at 48 and Oregon State has lost Steve Johnson to fouls. Let's go to Jay Randolph and Steve Grote.''

The screen went full to that game in Los Angeles, where Kansas State was dribbling down the clock, from 1:35 to 1:05. Suddenly, Gumbel popped back up, brandishing a pen in his right hand, punching the air with his left. Gumbel: "OK, we are going back to that game at Pauley Pavilion, but we've got a one-point game going on in Austin, Texas ... '' Here, at this point, behind Gumbel on the big TV, viewers could actually see Arkansas' Darrell Walker inbounding the ball to U.S. Reed. "Bryant was pretty quick on that pivot, I remember that,'' says Terry Ewert, who was producing the game on-site in Los Angeles. He had to be. " ... so let's go back to Marv Albert and Bucky Waters.''

On the screen, Reed advances toward half court, dribbling to his left, and then back to his right, toward the sideline, Louisville's Eaves and Wright are chasing, keeping their distance. Albert: "Thank you Bryant. Time running down. Arkansas having trouble getting ... ''

Reed plants his right foot just short of the midcourt stripe and lets it fly, even following through with a fishhook. He would later tell journalists that before the game he practiced some long shots. "But not that long,'' he says now. Albert: "U.S. Reed with a fling. It's good! It's good! Let's see, do they say it counts? It's all over." (In the background, Waters says "Oh my.'')

There is chaos on the floor, Arkansas players in a giant pile with fans and cheerleaders. Albert lets it play for a few seconds. Albert: "Arkansas has defeated Louisville, U.S. Reed hitting from halfcourt and it's a one-point incredible victory for Arkansas. It's a mad scene here in Austin, Texas. Arkansas over Louisville. Let's go back to Bryant Gumbel in New York.''

Again, the switch is very tight. "You need a little bit of luck,'' says Aagaard. "That's still true today.''

Gumbel: "Thank you, Marv Albert. I'm not sure we can top it, we've got 10 seconds left in Pauley, let's go there live. Jay Randolph.''

When the scene flips from Gumbel to the game, there are only seven seconds left and almost immediately -- as if he was afraid of Ohlmeyer, too -- Blackman starts his drive. Randolph: "Blackman ... for the win ..." The shots falls 49 seconds after Reed's, in real time. NBC has shifted its audience three times in 97 seconds and caught two spectacular finishes -- three for the day -- by the slimmest of margins.

Not long after getting felled by Reed's shot, Louisville players met with coach Denny Crum. Scooter McCray recalls, "We were talking about the Arkansas game and coach Crum said, 'You should have made [Reed] dribble left.' I thought, Oh my god. I mean, that shot might go in, what, once in a half million? We were heartbroken.''

Blackman was the ninth player selected in the '81 NBA draft and scored more than 17,000 points in a 13-year pro career. He lives now in Dallas, working as Director of Basketball Development for the Mavericks, and the events of that wild Saturday are still with him. "We got back in the locker room and people were talking about U.S. Reed's crazy shot,'' says Blackman. "But we were happy. We had a good team, a great coach in Jack Hartman.'' The Wildcats defeated Illinois in their next game before losing in the regional final to North Carolina.

By 1998, Ewert, who had been the site producer for Blackman's buzzer-beater, was an executive producer for CBS, recruiting site producers for that year's tournament. He asked Mike Weisman, who had produced multiple Super Bowls and World Series and was running his own production company, to help him out by site-producing the sub-regional games in Oklahoma City. The play-by-play announcer was Ted Robinson and the analyst was none other than Rolando Blackman.

The first game of their weekend was No. 4 seed Mississippi as a heavy favorite over Valparaiso. "We're going to, like, two percent of the country,'' says Weisman. "And there's only one story line that matters: Valparaiso has this kid, Bryce Drew, and his father is the coach. So we're up to speed on that story and we get a camera on the family in the stands and then we do the game. Nobody is watching.''

But the game, which would become one of the most famous early-round upsets in the history of the tournament, stays close. With 2.5 seconds to play, Valparaiso has possession, down by two points. Ewert engineers a switch, bringing most of the nation to Oklahoma City. Weisman gets on his headset to Robinson and Blackman. "They're coming to us and we've got 30 seconds to set up the whole story,'' says Weisman. "I tell Ted to handle it. Bryce, the father, the family, the whole thing. And Rolando, who is very new, says, 'What do you want me to say?' I say, 'Nothing. There's not enough time.' So the network comes to us, and Ted gets the whole story out, the kid makes the shot, place goes crazy and I'm shouting into my headset.

"After that game,'' says Weisman. "I go down to courtside and Rolando has his head down. He says, 'Mike, you didn't let me say anything.' I tell him, 'Rolando, this next game is your time.' And he was great. But how about that? Terry Ewert and Rolando Blackman. Switches. Full circle.''

At NBC headquarters in New York on March 14, 1981, there was an almost universal sense of accomplishment. "I remember feeling almost amazed afterward,'' says Ohlmeyer. "It was a pretty cool day.'' Aagaard is more emphatic, and more personal. "It was a game-changer in my career and my life,'' he says. "Because of what we did that day, the people in that room looked at me differently. I was switched from engineering to full-time sports and two years after that I was a vice president.''

Albert has called thousands of games in his long career. "That's the only one of any importance that ended like that,'' he says. "And the switches. We got very lucky.''

Gumbel was gone in a year to the Today Show. "What I remember about that day was that everybody felt we had done a good day's work," he said. "Was it special? I can't say I remember it that way. But I will say that whole period in my life was special. That's the way it is when you're younger and more innocent and you believe in all the magic of sports.''

Sixteen days after that Saturday, the magic was intruded upon by an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. For several hours during the late afternoon, it was uncertain if the national championship game would be played. In the end, it was, and Indiana won the second of its three national titles under Bobby Knight with a 63-50 victory over North Carolina. It was NBC's last NCAA game; CBS subsequently outbid NBC for the rights to the tournament and has broadcast every renewal since 1982.

Of all the players in the events of March 14, 1981, none has lived longer on its coattails than Ulysses Reed. (Many people thought his initials were U.S.; in fact his full name is Ulysses Cleon Reed, named for Dr. Cleon Flowers, who shared a medical practice with Reed's father in Pine Bluff, Ark.). Reed took a brief run at professional basketball (he never made an NBA roster), but has lived most of the last three decades back in Pine Bluff, where he has sold real estate, preached as an ordained minister and been recognized almost constantly for his halfcourt heave.

Reed tells his story with ease and joy, as if he tossed in the shot yesterday. If that Saturday was a slide from which Skip Dillard is still recovering, it was a catapult to a life of celebrity for Reed. People call every year at this time to talk; they called after Hayward's bomb bounced off the rim for Butler in 2010. "Not a day goes by,'' he says. "And that's OK. I like to talk about it. It's good to be remembered for something.''

He interrupts an interview to take a phone call, and then returns. "Some guy just calling me about a business deal,'' says Reed. "I told him that I'm getting interviewed by Sports Illustrated. He didn't believe me, so I told him: 'Just call up the YouTube and put my name in. Then call me back'.'' There is the slightest pause and then U.S. Reed cuts loose with a long, deep laugh, a man forever frozen in the right place when everybody was finally watching.