John Thompson: March Madness More Intense Now Than 1984, for Better and Worse

The former Georgetown coach says pressure and attention have grown since Hoyas's championship season

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John Thompson Jr., now a radio analyst with ESPN 980 in Washington, coached the Georgetown Hoyas to the 1984 National Championship. His son, John Thompson III, is the current coach of the Hoyas.

The excitement and attention that the NCAA basketball tournament commands outshines any other sporting event except perhaps the Olympic games. Because of the number of contests over three weeks of the tourney and the weeks of conference tournaments leading up to the seeding program, the "madness" of the month of March is all consuming.

Was this true in 1984 when Georgetown won the National Championship? Absolutely. Is there even more madness today? Of course. In fact, the level of March Madness in 1984 provided a foundation for today's March Madness.

I remember the attention from television, newspapers, and Sports Illustrated that surrounded the NCAA tournament back in 1984. All of the scrutiny applied to us intensified and grew many times in scope once the postseason began. Suddenly everyone wanted to discover everything about the Hoyas from how we played to where we stayed. There was a very real danger of March Madness being communicated to the team as media attention suddenly raised a bunch of college athletes to the level of rock stars. It was a challenge then to keep 15 of someone else's children focused on the task at hand.

This sudden explosion of media attention continues today, but now with the Internet, the growth of sports radio, the invention of satellite television, and the incredible proliferation of cable television, the madness of the past shrinks to mere neurosis by comparison. Even media outlets with little interest in sports, such as U.S. News & World Report, run March Madness analyses. Because the madness prompts demand for information and there are so many more outlets looking at every aspect of the teams in competition, March Madness has grown exponentially. One consequence of this from a coaching perspective involves the much more difficult task of keeping the players' focus on the game and not their fame, which is one aspect of March Madness I do not miss.

When we experienced March Madness in 1984 (ESPN was four years old) office pools on the tournament existed, but they weren't sponsored by major corporations. Today ESPN, CBS, and Yahoo all run NCAA bracket pools and promote them with huge prizes. You'd be hard pressed to name 10 major corporations that DON'T sponsor some form of Bracket pool (and you can't name three that don't use the phrase March Madness in some way, selling everything from toys to cars to pizza). When you consider the effort the NCAA puts into stopping gambling on athletics, the fact that its own tournament is perceived as such a huge betting opportunity and that its own corporate partners promote gambling on the event, you can understand why March Madness is so aptly named.

Women's basketball in 1984 certainly did not enjoy the attention that it does today. Women's college programs, the WNBA, as well as high school and youth leagues have also worked to grow consciousness of the sport and thereby make the end-of-the-season tournament an object of intense attention.

I would also point to the growth of basketball internationally as a contributor to the growth of March Madness. When you look back 25 years, you see that international basketball was a mere shadow of what it has become today. I read recently that there are 400 million basketball fans in China—they can't all be solely focused on the NBA, and the interest in the college game vastly increases the intensity of the madness of March.

And speaking of the NBA, I'd say that the growth in popularity in professional basketball is another factor in the expansion of March Madness. Simply put, those who love basketball get infected by some aspect of the insanity of the season.

Now, whether all this promotional bonanza of March Madness is entirely positive is debatable. I've never felt that turning a 20-year-old into the center of the universe is healthy, and that insanity has only grown since 1984. The tightrope the NCAA walks in fighting gambling while hosting the largest sustained betting opportunity in the nation, to say nothing of turning a blind eye to its corporate partners promoting the gambling it is trying to eradicate, has grown crazier as the tournament's popularity has grown. At the same time, I'd be lying if I said I was immune to the excitement and anticipation that March Madness brings. For basketball fans, it's the best time of the year, even if it is a little crazy.