Why Do We Call the NCAA Basketball Tournament 'March Madness'?

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Andy Lyons/Getty Images / Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Beginning on March 13, 2022, the nation’s 68 best college basketball teams will battle for the chance to take home the NCAA championship trophy after a high-energy, single-elimination tournament aptly nicknamed “March Madness.” While the winner might not always come from a surprising place—the UCLA Bruins, for example, are the winningest team, with a total of 11 championships—the nickname itself definitely did.

Back in March 1939, an Illinois High School Association (IHSA) administrator and basketball coach named Henry V. Porter penned an article titled “March Madness” for the association’s magazine. In it, he discussed the excitement surrounding the annual statewide basketball tournament, suggesting that a “little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.” As TIME points out, 1939 also happened to be the first year that the NCAA held a championship game, which the University of Oregon won against The Ohio State University.

Porter’s enthusiasm for youth basketball was so great that he followed up his article with a 1942 poem called “Basketball Ides of March,” which included the line “A sharp-shooting mite is king tonight / The Madness of March is running.” The catchy, alliterative nickname caught on throughout the state, and Illinoisans continued to use it without interference for the next 40 years.

According to Slate, it was CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger who first co-opted the moniker for college basketball while covering the NCAA tournament in 1982. By the end of the decade, IHSA had submitted a trademark application for “March Madness,” and the organization butted heads with an NCAA partner over its use of the name on a computer game in 1996. To prevent further legal conflicts, they formed the March Madness Athletic Association and decided the IHSA could use “March Madness” for high school sports, and the NCAA could use it on the collegiate level.

While Porter is usually credited with coining the phrase, Dictionary.com reports the idea of “March Madness” had been around for centuries before he made it all about hoops.

The earliest known record of the aphorism “mad as a March hare,” which refers to hares’ noticeable aggression during breeding season, is in some versions of Chaucer’s 14th-century magnum opus, The Canterbury Tales. The phrase and its derivatives, including “March mad” and “March madness,” appeared intermittently through the next several centuries; perhaps the most memorable of these mentions was Lewis Carroll’s character, the March Hare, in his 1865 book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (The Hatter was also mad, but for a different reason.)

By the time Porter printed it in 1939, the phrase was no longer so closely associated with hares—though basketball players, of course, can jump just as well.

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A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2022.