by Mike Moffett
Weirs Times Columnist
March Madness was again magnificent. The NCAA Division I men’s hoop tournament really energized sports fandom for three weeks. I bonded with the Wisconsin Badgers early on and jumped on their bandwagon for a thrilling ride to the title game, where Duke finally prevailed.
I was one of the naysayers when the NCAA expanded the field to 64 over thirty years ago, but I was wrong. The current format generates so much interest and energy. I was just a hidebound traditionalist, overly resistant to change. Lesson learned.
The big field reminds me a bit of the old Indiana High School Tournament, where every school participated, with sectional and regional competition culminating in a single state champion. Naturally, the big schools dominated, but smaller schools had their moments, most notably in 1954 when tiny Milan High School won it all. The Milan experience inspired the classic sports movie HOOSIERS.
Indiana dropped its one tournament format in 1996 in favor of classes based on school size, the way we do it in New Hampshire. The change allowed for more state champions, but fans missed the old days. Tournament attendance declined drastically, from 1,064,764 in 1981 (that’s right, over a MILLION!) to 409,000 in 2009. There is a movement to return to the traditional format, a format that began in 1911.
In New Hampshire?
All of which bring us to our beloved Granite State. Should N.H. similarly consider a one class tournament? Yes.
Could it be relatively easy? Yes.
Will there be much resistance? Of course.
Sports fans, especially coaches and ADs, tend to be hidebound traditionalists— like I was.
Consider the three-point shot for colleges and high schools. A man named Ed Seitz tirelessly promoted the idea for years. Hidebound traditionalists—including me—naturally opposed anything new, anything innovative. For example, the Big East coaches unanimously opposed the three-pointer. But Seitz persevered and in 1986 the NCAA finally adopted the three-point shot. It was, of course, such a smashing success that high schools adopted it the next year. Another lesson learned.
Regarding a statewide, overall champion, N.H.’s hidebound traditionalists will say “We’ve never done THAT before. Things are fine the way they are.”
But are they? As in Indiana and elsewhere, tournament attendance in N.H. is not what it used to be. What can we do to re-create the basketball energy that once animated the Granite State? Why can’t we have some March Madness?
Actually, we CAN create an Indiana-style statewide tournament. We can do it AFTER the traditional Division Tournaments. This may involve tweaking the start dates for high school basketball, and perhaps shortening the schedule by a game or two. We could reduce the playoff teams from 16 to eight, or even four—like the College Football Playoff. So each school can still have its shot at a division title. We’ll still have eight (boys and girls) Final Fours. And then the real fun will begin.
Indiana’s process involved sectional and regional competition leading to the state semifinals and finals. N.H. could implement a version of that. If the Hoosiers can make it work with 400 schools, we can certainly make it work with 80. And a neat aspect would be schools playing neighboring schools that they don’t normally play. Moultonboro might play Laconia. Sunapee might play Kearsage. Raymond might play Trinity.
Small Schools Overwhelmed?
Of course the small schools will be disadvantaged. But that’s part of the charm of the one big tournament. That why Milan was magic. And old-timers will recall many outstanding teams from smaller schools that never got a chance to show their stuff to greater audiences.
Take 1933, for example. Back then, N.H. had just two Classes, A and B. Berlin was then one of the largest cities in the state, and Berlin teams were always at or near the top of the standings. The 1933 Berlin team easily won the Class A championship, demolishing Portsmouth 42-17 in the title game. Groveton High School, a North Country neighbor, won the Class B title by defeating Peterborough High School 35-25.
Someone proposed that the two champions play each other and a game was set up. (I can’t imagine the NHIAA sanctioning such an impromptu contest in 2015, but 1933 was a simpler time.) The two state champions played each other at a neutral location in Lancaster, and Groveton prevailed to lay claim to the mythical overall state championship. Concord, Keene, and Nashua could eat their hearts out!
The NHIAA already sanctions a version of a statewide tournament for Track and Field/Cross Country. Following the Divisional Championships, top athletes from all schools come together for a Meet of Champions, which is an annual sports highlight. So why not do the same thing with basketball?
Why not indeed? Obviously some scheduling and logistical questions need answers, but if we can put a man on the moon, we can certainly work out some hoop scheduling issues in N.H.
A proposed statewide tournament would probably need to be reviewed by the NHIAA Basketball committee, most recently chaired by Suanapee’s Sean Moynihan. Other members include Alvirne’s Karen Bonney, Kearsage’s Scott Fitzgerald, Spaulding’s Kevin Hebert, Exeter’s Jeff Holmes, Lebanon’s Keith Matte, Kingswood’s Andrea Ogden, St. Thomas’ Dan Parr, Colebrook’s Buddy Trask, and Keene’s Rick Zecha. Jeffrey Collins is the NHIAA Executive Director.
Considering a statewide tourney means extra work, but the payoff would be huge in terms of generating basketball excitement and energy. Those payoffs, while impressive, are intangible. But dollar bills are indeed tangible and measureable. The NHIAA could gather in considerable new revenue from collecting a percentage of the gate from statewide boys and girls tourneys. Consider a boys and girls championship doubleheader at UNH’s Whittemore Center in the midst of March Madness. Imagine 6000 fans at $8 a ticket. That’s almost $50,000 from one event alone. That will help the NHIAA to pay for two more title plaques. So why not try it for a couple years? If there are unintended consequences, or it doesn’t work out, we can just revert to the status quo.
So a statewide tourney becomes the latest proposal pitting hidebound traditionalists against innovative visionaries. I believe the NHIAA basketball committee includes enough visionaries to give this a shot. We can do this!
Or my name isn’t Ed Seitz.
What baseball player once had three hits in one inning (Answer follows)
Born Today …
That is to say, sports figures born on April 16 include Red Sox pitching great and 1967 Cy Young Award Winner Jim Lonborg (1942) and basketball Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1947).
“As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.” —golf great Ben Hogan
On June 18, 1953, Boston Red Sox left fielder Gene Stephens—a 20-year-old rookie—got three hits in the seventh inning of the Red Sox’ 23-3 win over the Tigers at Fenway Park. Stephens went single-double-single as the Sox scored 17 runs.
Michael Moffett is a Professor of Sports Management at NHTI, Concord’s Community College. He recently co-authored the critically-acclaimed and award-winning “FAHIM SPEAKS: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back” (with the Marines) —which is available through Amazon.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.