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Reminisce with me about Holy Cross and ’47, then consider what the NCAA gives us today

We are veering on the 67th anniversary of one of the quaintest and most touching moments in all of New England sports history. In retrospect, it seems a tale almost too good to be true.

Yet if I give you the rest of the week to figure out what and whom I’m referencing to the chances are strong you’ll fail, unless maybe you hail from Worcester and are also getting a bit long on the tooth. So I’ll spare you the aggravation.

It was on a brisk late March evening in 1947 at the old Madison Square Garden in Manhattan that a gallant little band of true scholar-athletes from the College of the Holy Cross stunned the sporting world by winning the NCAA college basketball championship, whipping the University of Oklahoma in the finals, 58-47. It was widely deemed a huge upset. Except in Worcester!

Dubbed the “Cinderella Kids” by the thoroughly charmed sporting press of the times, the smart and stylish team from the small (2,400 male students) and academically rigorous (even then) Jesuit liberal arts college had captured popular fancy with its improbable tale. They were very different sporting times in a much different world, but the essentials were the same. Then, as now, academic groves  like Holy Cross did not routinely spawn national sporting championships.

Lacking exclusive facilities, they had to practice in an old, thinly heated barn on the edge of campus. With no suitable arena anywhere in Greater Worcester, they played their “home games” at Boston Garden, some 50 miles away.

Legend pegs the incomparable Bob Cousy as the key to it all, but while already the talk of the town, and a significant contributor, Bob was only a freshman that season. The acknowledged leaders were George Kaftan, a consensus All-America; Joe Mullaney, later to become one of the all-time great coaching divines; Dermott O’Connell, he of the quintessential Irish moniker; and Ken Haggerty who, like Kaftan, would grow up to be a dentist. Indeed, of the 12 lads on the team, three were World War II veterans, seven went on to be coaches, six would teach, three became dentists, one became a physician, four went on to be corporate officers, and three are members of basketball’s Halls of Fame. Of course, all 12 would graduate. That went without saying.
They finished that remarkable season with 23 consecutive victories. In the NCAA final, they banged out Madison Square Garden. That was a big deal in 1947, marking the coming of age of a tourney that had hitherto not been a very big deal and which has since achieved what’s being called, “iconic status,” whatever that means. This we all well know, and with benumbing certainty, because we are beaten senseless with the madness of the thing when it now descends on us every March. But the roots are interesting if rather modest, would you not agree?

When they returned to Worcester the morning after winning the championship, they were amazed to be greeted at the train station by a marching band and merry mob and hoisted on the shoulders of their fellow students and carried to nearby City Hall where the mayor himself presented them “the keys to the city.” Yes, Ducky, that’s the hokey stuff they actually did to celebrate magic moments back then. And the next morning, everyone went back to class.

This happy memory comes to mind every year at this time when the orgiastic nuttiness of the contemporary version of that very same basketball tournament returns rather like a plague of locusts, in my book.  Count me a fool on the hill or a humorless old sot or a hopeless party-pooper, as you may please. But on this subject I’ve been consistent in this space for the last four decades. The egregious excesses and manifest deceit of runaway big-time college sport are unpardonable. And March Madness is exhibit A.

This year the TV networks conveying the “madness” have put up $770 million for the rights, just a fraction of the cozy $10.8 billion deal the NCAA enjoys. Weep not for the networks for they expect to double what they paid for those rights with the mindless inundation of claptrap they call commercials. Countless are the bottom-feeders nipping at the edges of this sprawling festival. It’s a fortnight of fattening up for the service industries, let alone the bar rooms. Don’t forget the competing colleges and universities and their conferences. They all get kickbacks. Royalties sprout everywhere. Biggest winner of all, though, is the illustrious gambling industry, both legal and otherwise. Who could begin to fathom the extent of the “action” transpiring in Vegas alone these two weeks. Makes you want to hold your breath whenever some poor kid steps to the foul line at the end of a close game. All in the name of Higher Education!

Everyone’s on the make here, everyone is in on the take.  It’s a national feeding frenzy enriching everyone who can get close enough for a bloody whiff except those without whom there would be no such bonanza. That would be ….the players!

One admits to long having had nothing but contempt for what seemed the silly notion of college athletes being paid. The argument that a scholarship, with its side benefits and advantages, both above and below board, plus the edge in admissions and the break in the classroom, etc. and ad nauseam, was quite enough for alleged amateurs seemed more than reasonable. But with the idea of compensating the jocks lately gaining greater traction and more and more thoughtful voices on the subject, like Joe Nocera of the New York Times and Frank Deford of NPR, advocating the principle relentlessly you begin to wonder if the time has perhaps come.

For it has gone too far. It’s unfair for such vast riches to be up for grabs while those who generate them are totally and willfully sliced out of the action. Where big games are played for big money, players need to be paid, too. Academic scholarships at the major football and basketball factories are, by and large, clever forms of bondage. These are mainly performers indentured to incorporated institutions – their schools. They are primarily employees, only incidentally and optionally students. The pretense they are true student-athletes is no longer, by and large, tolerable.

Earlier this winter, the possibility of college athletes forming a union was raised at no less than Northwestern University, no football factory.  A bright lad who happens to be both Northwestern’s star quarterback and a classroom star majoring in pre-med cooked it up. Serious people are pressing the notion, although it has a ways to go before it threatens the real world order.

Nonetheless, the good old boys desperately clutching the Golden Goose of college sport were quick to jump all over the union proposal. The response of Mark Emmert, chief poohbah of the NCAA, was predictable: “College sport is a part of the educational experience,” Emmert snorted. “Players play for the love of the sport.” Yah, sure! “Buckle down, Winsocki,” says I.  “Sis boom bah!” Obviously the idea of a union scares the living bejabbers out of them. That’s great! It has already begun to serve its purpose.  

How the NCAA would have loved to have seen Harvard stick around a little longer in this year’s bogus basketball bash. Alas, Michigan State, a legendary big-bopper among the “factory” set, wasn’t in on the joke. But, then, Harvard did serve its purpose.

Every year a quality program like Harvard comes along and creates just a little bit of a stir, just enough to give tiny credibility to the big lie that March Madness is for everybody and not the stacked deck designed to bankroll a rampant hypocrisy that the NCAA so cleverly designs and perpetuates. Methinks the Harvards are being used. You’d think they’d be smart enough to figure that one out.  

We’ve come a long way since 1947. Ah, but in what direction? Now that is the question.