National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament

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National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament, 1917-1930

1927 NIBT Championship Trophy Won by Cicero Morton (IL)
1927 NIBT Championship Trophy Won by Cicero Morton (IL)

Amos Alonzo Stagg organized the National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament (NIBT), which brought the top public high school teams in the country to Chicago for a single-elimination tournament. The first tournament was held in 1917, and then ran annually from 1920 to 1930.

Basketball by the 1920s was played by more high schools than any other sport, and it was the often the genesis in the formation of many state high school associations, which were formed to regulate basketball. While football had a long history of intersectional competition prior to the 1920s, basketball did not. However, it would soon surpass football in terms of intersectional interest, mostly as a result of the National Basketball Interscholastic that was played in Chicago from 1917 to 1930. In March, 1917 the athletic director and coach at University of Chicago, Amos Alonzo Stagg, inaugurated an interscholastic tournament that would be played in the school's Bartlett gymnasium. Because the tourney involved schools throughout the Midwest in its first year, it was called the Central States championship after an earlier tournament of the same name. The tourney had 23 schools, 12 from Illinois, both public and private. Evanston (IL) won the first tournament behind the exploits of Charles Carney.

Tournament Designated National in 1921

World War I interrupted the tournament, but it returned in 1920, but as an all-public school meet. The press gave little attention to the Stagg interscholastic, as the University of Chicago treated it as a “curtain raiser” for the Chicago-Pennsylvania game, which was deemed to be for the national collegiate basketball title. The following year Stagg designated his meet as a "national" tournament," although most of the teams were from the Midwest. Seven of the 26 team entries came from the East, which gave the tournament somewhat of a national flavor. There were not yet any entries from the South and only one entry from the West. The members of the winning team received gold watches, and members of the second, third, and fourth place teams received gold, silver, and bronze charms, a bit of “professionalism” that was probably not too pleasing to some educators.

Wichita (KS) 1925 national champions
Wichita (KS) 1925 national champions

The tournament organizers soon discovered a problem in attracting teams, as the second week in March conflicted with the ongoing state tournaments in many areas of the country. Passaic High of New Jersey, which was fast garnering a national reputation as the "Wonder Teams" that would put coach Ernest Blood in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, seriously wanted to test themselves in the national tourney, but the dates for its state tournament were in conflict, and the school had to turn down Stagg’s invitation. In later years, Passaic could not consider the invitation because of its state rules against post-season competition.

In 1922 Stagg wisely moved his tournament to the first week in April, and the later date allowed for invitations to state championship teams. The tournament featured 32 entries, which included twelve state champs, and the press coverage grew a bit more extensive, in which the championship game result was given a banner headline and a bit more ink. The 1922 winner of the tournament was Lexington High from a basketball hotbed of Kentucky, which smashed Mt. Vernon of Illinois for second place, 46 to 28.

Tournament Truly National by 1923

Fitchburg (MA) 1926 national champions
Fitchburg (MA) 1926 national champions

With the 1923 tournament, Stagg had achieved his objective of featuring a tournament truly national in scope. The meet featured 40 teams from 24 states—14 teams representing the West, seven from the South, and six from the East. The Chicago Tribune celebrated this achievement by publishing a huge map of the United States, showing lines leading from the entry locations to Chicago, and captioning the image “All Basketball Paths Lead to Chicago.” The five-day tournament was broadcast on the new medium of radio, and certain games were filmed by “movie men.” Newspapers across the country gave coverage to the tournament, most remarkably even in states and cities that had no entries, such as New York and Los Angeles, both whose hometown newspapers gave daily reports. Stagg’s National Interscholastic had become the equivalent of the NCAA tournament of a half century later. There was no collegiate national tournament during the 1920s. Because of state and local prohibitions by high school athletic associations in certain states, the tournament could not be all-inclusive. The basketball hotbed of Indiana after 1922 prohibited its teams from participating, and the states of New York, New Jersey (with the great Passaic High teams), and California never sent representatives.

Most of the winners of the National Interscholastic came from the Midwest and the West. The 1923 title game saw Wyandotte of Kansas City, Kansas, beating Rockford, Illinois, for the title, 43 to 21. The following year, Windsor (CO) beat Yankton (SD), in an uneventful title match, 25 to 6. This pattern was sustained in 1925, when Wichita (KS) destroyed El Reno (OK), 27-6. An Eastern team finally broke the monopoly in 1926, when Fitchburg of Massachusetts won the national championship over Fargo, North Dakota, 25 to 14.

1927 championship team of Cicero Morton (IL)
1927 championship team of Cicero Morton (IL)

Each year the tournament received more and more coverage in the newspapers so that by the late 1920s the five-day event was garnering inch-high banner headlines across the top of the sport pages almost daily. In 1927 of the 43 entrants 33 were state champions. Ironically, the Illinois champion, Mt. Carmel, elected not to appear that year, and Morton High of Cicero, one of ten schools in the tournament not to have won a state title, won the national championship. Stagg usually invited the Public League and Suburban League champions, but only one of the two Suburban League co-champs accepted the invitation, Deerfield-Shields; New Trier was not interested. In New Trier's place Morton was selected on appeal to Stagg, because it had only three losses. Under the coaching of H. Karl Long and the their spectacular center, Edward Kawalski, Morton surprised the field and won the national championship. Chicago area schools largely ignored the state tourney, which was considered largely a preserve of downstate schools, to participate in the Stagg meet.

In 1928, the tournament featured 40 entrants, 29 of which were state champions, and the development of a compelling narrative that stoked interest in the tournament nationwide. The narrative was the success of teams from small impoverished rural hamlets overcoming great odds to beat the powerful schools from the rich suburbs and big cities. Carr Creek, Kentucky, which practiced on a pounded-earth outdoor court, made it to the quarterfinals in 1928 and got written up nationwide, notably in the Literary Digest and St. Nicholas. This “little school” narrative was repeated in every subsequent tournament.

For most of its history, the National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament excluded parochial and private schools, and never invited any predominantly Black northern school or segregated Black Southern or border state school to participate. Thus excluded from the mainstream of interscholastic competition these groups went on to create parallel tournaments that could showcase their high school athletes in a national forum. (See the article on the National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament for Black Schools.)

National High School Federation Resolution Against Stagg Tourney, 1929

Ashland (KY) 1928 national champions
Ashland (KY) 1928 national champions
Carr Creek (KY) legendary 1928 team
Carr Creek (KY) legendary 1928 team

By 1928, the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations was questioning the sponsorship of national meets by universities, and some members asked for an investigation. What came out the 1928 meeting was not an investigation, but a poll. The secretary-treasurer of the Federation at the time, Whitten obtained participation from 23 state associations, who sent out the poll material to the principals. A total return from the principals was 2,334 votes, of which 1,350 (58 percent) of them opposed the tournament and 984 (42 percent) favored the tournament. However, only five of the 23 states had returned majorities in favor of the tournament, and they were Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, and South Dakota. The South in the later years of the tournament was the strongest bastion of support of the tournament and the poll reflected that sentiment. The results of the poll were presented to the National Council of the Federation in 1929, in Cleveland, and out of that meeting the members passed a resolution that the NFSHAA would refuse to sanction any “interstate basketball tournaments,” which passed 20 to 2. All colleges, high schools, athletic clubs, and other organizations conducting such tournaments were urged to discontinue the practice.

The February resolution came too late to impact the Stagg tournament, which was able to bring in 40 teams of which 28 were state champions. The newspaper coverage was extravagant and there was the familiar narrative of the underdog small schools battling the big city schools, as in the Chicago Tribune headline, “Hamlets Battle Cities in U. of C. Semi-Finals.” A big team from Texas, Athens, which averaged 6 feet 2 inches in height, and suitably nicknamed the Rangers, won the national title, beating Classen of Oklahoma, coached by Hank Iba, 25 to 21. Despite the popular and critical success of the 1929 extravaganza, there was an unsettling undercurrent that the tournament was not long for this world.

North Central Association Delivers Coup de Grace on Stagg Tourney, 1930

After the 1929 tournament, National Federation brought in a powerful ally in support of its campaign to abolish national tournaments, the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (NCAC), which began work on a comprehensive report on the Stagg tourney. At the March 1930 meeting, the NCAC delegates were presented with the findings of the report and heard a talk by Whitten strongly condemning interstate tournaments. The report related that by this time the high school interschool athletics were now under the governance of strong local state athletic associations that offered “completely adequate programs of interscholastic competition,” and that college sponsorship was not only unnecessary, but opened the door to evils. A frequently cited evil was that the tournaments served as “bright colored cloaks for organized moves to recruit prep athletes.” The NCAC at the meeting issued a resolution designed to “discourage” all member institutions from sponsoring high school meets, unless invited to by a state association. The resolution was rightly viewed as a threat by the association to expel any members who sponsored a meet without a state association sanction.

The resolution severely crippled the Stagg tournament, as state associations responded by withdrawing their support. The 1930 tournament therefore was a much diminished affair, attracting only 25 teams. In the South, however, most of the state associations continued to support the tourney, either because they were non-federation members or had simply chosen to defy the national organization. Of the total entries more than half, 13, were from the South (including three teams from Texas), five were from the West, three from the East, and only four from the Midwest. The lone Illinois entry was Morgan Park, the second place team in the Chicago Public High School League. In deference to their Southern invitees, the tournament's manager, Nelson Norgren chose not to invite the all-black Phillips team, which had won the Public League title, to ensure the participation of the southern teams. Stagg also filled out the field with private, parochial, and military academies, institutions that had been excluded in previous years. Athens (TX) became the tournament's first repeat champion, defeating Jena (LA), 22 to 16.

The Chicago Tribune, a strong supporter of the Stagg Tournament, vigorously campaigned for its continuance, and conducted its own poll of midwestern states, with the help of allied newspapers in each respective state. The Tribune poll was published in May, and was designed to produce a favorable result, finding that eight of the 12 states supported the tournament, and only four opposed. Most support came from the border states—Kentucky, Kansas, and Oklahoma—and from the smaller more rural schools.

Athens (TX) 1930 national champions
Athens (TX) 1930 national champions

The powerful Tribune sports columnist Arch Ward spoke scathingly of the movement to end collegiate sponsorship of high school athletics, saying: “Not long ago high schools were clamoring for the assistance of colleges and universities in promoting athletics. Probably no high school in the country was giving proper athletic training in any considerable number of boys in the days when the colleges first lent a helping hand. The colleges perhaps had two thoughts in mind. First, they could help to develop athletics in their own section, and second, they would do a bit of legitimate advertising. Now it seems the officers of certain state high school associations suggest that high schools no longer need the assistance of colleges.”

The University of Chicago decided to do its own investigation and conducted a poll of principals whose high schools had participated in the tournament the previous ten years, and finding--possibly much to their surprise—that 89 schools opposed and only 30 supported the meet. In December 1930, the university bowing to the inevitable and the consensus of opinion elected to terminate the tournament.

Tournament Champions

Year Champions Runners-Up Score
1917 Evanston (IL) Freeport (IL) 27-22
1918 no tournament no tournament --
1919 no tournament no tournament --
1920 Wingate (IN) Crawfordville (IN) 22-16
1921 Cedar Rapids (Iowa) West Lafayette (IN) 43-19
1922 Lexington (KY) Mt. Vernon (IL) 46-28
1923 Wyandotte (Kansas City, KS) Rockford (IL) 43-21
1924 Windsor (CO) Yankton (SD) 25-6
1925 Wichita (KS) El Reno (OK) 27-6
1926 Fitchburg (MA) Fargo (ND) 25-14
1927 Morton (Cicero, IL) Batesville (AK) 18-16
1928 Ashland (KY) Canton (IL) 15-10
1929 Athens (TX) Classen (Oklahoma City, OK) 25-21
1930 Athens (TX) Jena (LA) 22-16
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