Kemper, Kurt Edward. Before the Madness: The Wars For the Soul of College Basketball. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020. Pp. xiii, 273. Notes, bibliography, index.
Reviewed by Murry Nelson
One is immediately impressed by the extraordinary research done for this Before the Madness: The Wars For the Soul of College Basketball. Kurt Edward Kemper visited archives throughout the country, most notably at more than 20 institutions of higher learning and those of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) in Kansas City and the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) in Indianapolis. He pored over boxes upon boxes, allowing him to find and cite numerous letters between athletic administrators, college basketball coaches, and college presidents. The result is a fine book which exposes many previously-admired college basketball figures as petty, mendacious, and selfish.
The first chapters are kind of a slog as Kemper describes organizations that tried to lobby for their own basketball-related interests, often leading to many different organizations being formed to promote various schools or groups of schools. The largest, initially, was the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League (EIBL), which included most northeastern schools, both large and small. This league had slightly different rules, and interpretations of rules, from those of other leagues. In the 1920s, the control of the relatively new sport of basketball caused conflict, as Kemper describes in detail the tensions between colleges and the YMCA, which developed the game, and the AAU, which also was deeply involved with the sport.
From early on, smaller schools were on an equal plane with larger state institutions in their input and practices within the various college organizations. These organizations included the EIBL, the NCAA, and, later, the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABL) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). The stakes were small; football really was king, making the control of basketball secondary. But, control was what was wanted. Football had lost its championship game to outside commercial interests. The basketball people did not want that to happen. In turn, there was a battle for presenting a “real” basketball champion, as long as it didn’t involve the EIBL (which would create a national tourney with the National Invitational Tournament in 1938, one year before the NCAA’s initial tournament). The midwestern, western and southern coaches and schools had very determined proponents, but, for various reasons, many of them were as interested in not promoting eastern basketball as they were in promoting their own schools and universities. Then, a big event heightened their focus — the inclusion of basketball in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The initial Olympic basketball team would be formed from qualifying teams, not individuals. Teams from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the YMCA, and the NCAA would compete in a tournament to determine representation in Berlin. Of the eight, five were from the colleges, two were AAU teams and one was a YMCA team. The stakes thus were higher than before. Following the Olympics, the NCAA made greater efforts to control the game. Bigger state schools then made greater efforts to control NCAA basketball, despite the fact that two-thirds of the NCAA basketball members were from smaller liberal arts schools who saw sports as part of their curriculum, rather than a semi-commercial enterprise with a status separate from the regular student curriculum.
It was at this time that the NAIA was formed to provide more options for promoting a real national college basketball champion. Ultimately, the NAIA would be squeezed out of business, but not before the NCAA revealed itself as a self-serving organization with serious flaws, the most serious of which was segregation. Before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, “separate but equal” was the state law in most southern states, which prevented historically black institutions (HBCs) from playing primarily-white-but-integrated schools in southern venues. They were left to play only among themselves. Brown did not, legally, keep HBCs from playing non-southern schools, but athletic directors and coaches at northern schools would not schedule HBCs. HBCs still wanted to be considered for national tournaments, but the NCAA insisted that they could not invite them to their national tournament because HBCs’ strengths of schedules could not be properly assessed since they only played other HBCs. If this seems like a scenario from Alice in Wonderland, it is only because it was.
The NAIA, in contrast, welcomed the HBCs and many integrated schools had joint memberships in the NAIA and the NCAA. But this still did not lead to HBCs playing non-HBCs. Some of this was due to open racism, with coaches like Adolph Rupp of Kentucky prominent in this camp. Other coaches were subtler, such as Walter Byers, who was named the first Executive Director of the NCAA after serving under Big Ten Commissioner Tug Wilson. Because it feared losing southern schools, the NCAA kept Black athletes out of Big Ten basketball and NCAA tournaments. Kemper does a marvelous job of explaining this convoluted and evil practice. One hero who rose above this chicanery was John McClendon. The coach of North Carolina College and Tennessee A&I was among those college coaches referred to by Kemper as “race men” — those who pushed for fair integrated basketball. For all of his accomplishments, McClendon is a story himself, one told well by Milton Katz, whose biography Kemper frequently cites.
Kemper’s chapters on race, both within the context of the NAIA and the NCAA, are superb, providing a view of race in America during the post-World War II period that parallels the elimination of racial barriers in the larger society. Unfortunately, the events of 2020 show that systematic racism has not been eliminated in this country, despite many improvements in racial relations, particularly, in the context of this volume, in basketball. As NCAA schools opened up, at long last, to integrated teams and tournaments, the NAIA grew steadily weaker. Its national tournament in Kansas City became a money-loser and, eventually, it and the NAIA itself became victims of the NCAA bulldozer. They still exist, but are not seen as nothing but second-class to the big NCAA tourney. And, as the NCAA basketball tourney grew, the organization’s smaller schools pushed for some sort of recognition, leading to a NCAA Small College Tourney. Defining “small college” was another conundrum that the NCAA addressed, finally creating two divisions in 1956 and then, in 1973, three divisions with separate tourneys.
All of this history makes clear the messy history of the NCAA’s basketball tournament and the selfish and petty battles that defined the period. One small missing part is the further examination of the NIT’s role in all this, although Kemper does address the role of the basketball writers of the period and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (which sponsored the NIT). He also does not mention the City College of New York team of 1950, which won both the NIT and the NCAA, nor their coach, Nat Holman, who was seen as someone NCAA coaches wanted to avoid. Nonetheless, one can only applaud Kurt Edward Kemper’s insightful volume.
Murry Nelson is a Professor Emeritus of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of basketball.