National Catholic Interscholastic Basketball Tournament

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National Catholic Interscholastic Basketball Tournament, 1924-1941

The premier national tournament in the country in the 1920s was the National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament (NIBT) conducted by the Amos Alonzo Stagg and sponsored by the University of Chicago. The tournament, in part, existed as an avenue by which Stagg could recruit basketball talent to the University of Chicago, which is why he invited public school state champions only.

In 1923, Loyola Academy specifically asked Stagg to include Catholic and private schools into the tournament, but was rebuffed. Stagg never made his reasons clear, but he probably did not see the Catholic schools as potential feeders into the university's athletic program. Director of athletics at Loyola, Rev. Joseph Thorning, S.J., then proposed to Loyola University that it establish a national Catholic tournament patterned after that of Chicago.

Chicago St. Mel (IL) entered the 1927 tournament.
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Chicago St. Mel (IL) entered the 1927 tournament.

Thorning immediately received tremendous support for his plan for the tournament from the Chicago community, Catholic and secular. Joining in the effort in establishing tournament were the Chicago Catholic High School League, Knights of Columbus Basketball League, and sports editors at the various newspapers. A policy-making board of directors drawn from the Catholic League was formed. Thorning served as the chair. At a public banquet in 1923 that included Knute Rockne, St. Ignatius coach Ed Daley, Loyola Academy coach Lenny Sachs, and the city's various sportswriters -- notably Walter Eckersall of the Tribune, Warren Brown of the Herald-Examiner, and Leo Fischer of the Evening American -- the inauguration of National Catholic Interscholastic Basketball Tournament (NCIBT) was announced.

First Year

The first year's tournament was held in the third week of March 1924, a week before Stagg's Tourney; this schedule would hold up to the end of the Stagg Tourney in 1930. The initial field consisted of 26 schools. The basis of selection was that a school should have won a state, county, sectional, or city championship, but schools with a simply outstanding record were also chosen, often second place winners. Loyola University had just completed its Alumni Gymnasium and it would be the facility where all the games would be played. Players would be housed at the nearby Edgewater Beach Hotel, which proved to a memorable experience for many a poor Catholic boy. The winning team was awarded the Cardinal Mundelein Trophy, named after the head of the Chicago diocese, Cardinal George Mundelein.

The first year's champion, Spalding Institute of Peoria, defeated Milwaukee Marquette in the finals, 22 to 9, and featured basketball whiz Tony Lawless, who in turn in 1937 would coach Fenwick to the national championship title. Likewise, Bob Schuhmann, who played on his St. Xavier team of Louisville in the championship game in 1926, later returned to his alma mater and as coach led St. Xavier to the championship in 1935 and 1938.

Field Expands to 32 Teams

By 1928, the NCIBT had expanded the tournament field to 32 teams, and the schedule increased from four to five days so that no team would play more than one game a day. The number of states had sent representative teams had increased from 13 in 1924 to 22 in 1928. In the finals, Joliet De LaSalle crushed St. Louis University High 32 to 11 for the championship, and St. Xavier of Louisville beat St. Patrick 31 to 21 for third place. The growth of fan interest in the game forced the finals to be moved from Loyola's gym to the Chicago Coliseum. The previous years thousands of potential ticket buyers were turned away at the championship finals. While the Catholic National Tourney was thriving in the late 1920s, the Stagg's tournament was coming under fire from public school educators and the National Federation of State High School Associations. A number of public state associations started banning their champion teams from accepting invitations to the Stagg tourney. In an attempt to save the tournament, Stagg in 1929 opened the tournament to include Catholic and private schools. The NCIBT board was ready to respond by launching a public campaign against Catholic school participation -- an ironic twist when one considers why the Catholic tourney was founded -- when in 1930 Stagg cancelled his tournament.

Chicago De la Salle (IL) won the 1929 and 1930 championships with Hall of Famer Ed "Moose" Krause.
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Chicago De la Salle (IL) won the 1929 and 1930 championships with Hall of Famer Ed "Moose" Krause.
Ray Meyer, future DePaul University coach, led St. Mel (IL) to 1932 championship.
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Ray Meyer, future DePaul University coach, led St. Mel (IL) to 1932 championship.

The tournament featured a number of players over the years that achieved notable success in the college ranks. De La Salle (Chicago), which won the 1929 and 1930 championships, was led by future Hall of Famer Ed "Moose" Krause (who later starred at Notre Dame). The 1932 champion, St. Patrick (Chicago), was not originally scheduled to appear in the tournament, as the Chicago Catholic High School League champion that year was St. Mel. But another invited team sent in their regrets and St. Patrick was invited as a last minute substitute. The team was coached by Barney Varnes, whose charges included forward Ray Meyer. Varnes had played at DePaul University in 1925 and 1926, and said Meyer of his coach, he was "one of the greatest players I'd ever seen and first I'd seen to use a one-hand set shot." Varnes would later go on to coach several fine Chicago Leo teams. Also in the tournament was Campion from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, which included future Loyola University coach, guard George Ireland. In the semi-finals, St. Patrick beat Campion 25-20, Meyer leading the scoring with 12 points. Ireland led Campion with 8 points. The two teams meeting presaged a notable rivalry when Meyer and Ireland were coaches of DePaul and Loyola respectively. In the finals, which featured St. Mel against St. Patrick (demonstrating the strength of basketball in the Chicago league), St. Patrick prevailed 22-20 against the team that had defeated them three times during the season.

St Mel (IL) battles  Indianapolis Cathedral in 1932 championship game.
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St Mel (IL) battles Indianapolis Cathedral in 1932 championship game.


A Catalyst For State Tournaments

When the Catholic tournament began, there were barely a handful of states that had that had even city or sectional championships let alone a state championship for Catholic schools. The founders of the tournament realized that for the tournament to thrive and to build credibility as representing a national tournament there needed to be many more sectional and state championships. The tournament itself was a stimulus for cities and states to create playoffs to determine representatives. The Chicago Tribune wrote on the build up to the second meet, "In many states, Catholic high schools are planning tournaments and leagues to determine the champions to be sent here for the Loyola meet." In Illinois, for example, a number of downstate Catholic schools outside of Chicago were in a league with Iowa schools when the tournament began, but in 1928 split off to conduct a "state tournament," and this group by 1934 had morphed into the Illinois State Catholic High School Athletic Association. Much of the push for the formation of state organizations and came through the National Catholic High School Association (NCHSA), whose representatives met annually at the Loyola tournament and who by 1934 represented more than 700 Catholic secondary schools. Gradually in more and more states and in more and more state sections and cities Catholic schools conducted formal championship competition.

Fenwick (IL) and Joliet Catholic (IL) fight for the ball in 1937.
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Fenwick (IL) and Joliet Catholic (IL) fight for the ball in 1937.

Throughout the Depression the NCIBT continued to thrive, and tournament officials asserted that the tournament drew more than 50,000 fans each year for the spectacle, despite moving the finals back to Loyola's gym in 1931. For the finals, the Chicago Tribune reported 5,000 spectators in 1931, 4,000 in 1932, 3,700 in 1937, 3,500 in 1941. Given the usual shaky estimates provided by newspaper reporters, these figures do suggest a decline in interest. In 1934, the tournament added a consolation tournament for the first round losing teams, which undoubted helped to sustain attendance figures through the decade.

One of the most popular teams at the tournament was the St. Francis Mission, South Dakota, a Jesuit secondary school whose teams were composed of full-blooded Sioux. The St. Francis Mission attended the initial 1924 tournament, and appeared in most of the years thereafter. The 1934 team became the "darling of the tournament," according to historians Janis B. Fine and Joan K. Smith, with colorful names as Williard Iron Wing, Leonard Quick Bear, and Emil Red Fish, and a distinctive fast-paced rapid-fire style of play developed on the reservation, which today would be called run-and-gun. Typical for the times, however, the sports writers and fans could not resist what today we consider to be racist comments, such as the tournament program that referred to the team seeking a "scalping knife," and the Chicago Tribune reporter stating that the team would "whoop it up" against a first round opponent. The team came to the tournament undefeated by high school teams, but was defeated in the quarterfinals. In 1935, the team took third place; in 1940, fourth place; and in 1941, second place.

The Last Champion

Leo (IL) wins last championship in 1941.
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Leo (IL) wins last championship in 1941.

The last National Catholic champion was Leo, who in 1941 beat defending champ Ft. Wayne Central Catholic 28-27 in the semi-finals before beating in overtime, St. Francis Indian Mission of South Dakota, 49-41. The United States entered World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, and the 1942 tournament was canceled. In January, 1943, the Reverend F. Maher, S.J., the tournament director, announced the permanent termination of the national tourney. Loyola University was providing its facilities to the U. S. Navy to train its naval students, and the tournament was canceled as part of the cooperative effort to win the war. A historical paper on the tournament named another reason; tougher policies by the North Central Association, which in the early 1930s had successfully suppressed interstate tournaments conducted by colleges and universities for public high schools, of which the most notable was Stagg's national basketball tourney. Loyola University had avoided the wrath of the North Central Association in 1930-even though the organization was casting a wary eye at the Catholic tournament back then-but the school understood that it could not continue the tournament any longer.

During is history, the NCIBT largely attracted mainly Midwest schools, but over the years schools ranging from Maine, to New York, to Texas, and to California participated. Over the 18 years of the tourney thirty four states had sent teams. Illinois schools took the bulk of the championships with 11 trophies. Indiana schools won three years; Kentucky schools, three years; and Minnesota, one year. Three-time champions were De La Salle of Chicago, St. Xavier of Louisville, and De LaSalle (later Catholic) of Joliet.

Tournament Champions

Year Champions Runners-Up Score
1924 Spalding Institute (Peoria, IL) Marquette Academy (Milwaukee, WI) 22-7
1925 St. Mel (Chicago, IL) Marquette Academy (Milwaukee, WI) 15-7
1926 St. Xavier (Louisville, KY) Aquinas Institute (Rochester, NY) 18-16
1927 De LaSalle (Joliet, IL)* Roman Catholic (Philadelphia, PA) 26-11
1928 De LaSalle (Joliet, IL) University High (St. Louis, MO) 32-16
1929 De La Salle (Chicago, IL) St. Stanislaus (Bay St. Louis, MS) 25-16
1930 De La Salle (Chicago, IL) Jasper Academy (Jasper, IN) 25-14
1931 De La Salle (Minneapolis, MN) Jasper Academy (Jasper, IN) 23-21
1932 St. Patrick (Chicago, IL) St. Mel (Chicago, IL) 22-20
1933 Cathedral (Indianapolis, IN) St. Rita (Chicago, IL) 31-10
1934 Catholic (Joliet, IL) St. Mary’s (Stockton, CA) 30-17
1935 St. Xavier (Louisville, KY) St. Mel (Chicago, IL) 29-24
1936 De La Salle (Chicago, IL) St. Mary's (Anderson, IN) 45-29
1937 Fenwick (Oak Park, IL) Catholic (Joliet, IL) 30-27
1938 St. Xavier (Louisville, KY) Loyola Academy (Chicago, IL) 31-22
1939 Central Catholic (Fort Wayne, IN) Leo (Chicago, IL) 44-37
1940 Central Catholic (Fort Wayne, IN) St. Michaels (Santa Fe, NM) 44-33
1941 Leo (Chicago, IL) St. Francis Mission (SD) 45-25

* De LaSalle (Joliet, IL) later became Catholic (Joliet, IL).

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