How does March Madness of 50 years ago compare to today?

Posted at 12:55 PM, Mar 09, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-12 06:06:40-04

On March 20, 1965, the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team won its second NCAA championship inside a 13,000-seat arena in Portland. The final game of that year’s NCAA tournament aired on national television, but network executives still weren’t sold on whether the sport could be a ratings draw.

In 1963, a now-defunct company called Sports Network bought the rights to make the national championship game available on TVs nationwide. They got five years of rights for $140,000. In 2011, CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting paid about $11 billion for a 14-year contract to air the entire tournament across four networks.

Somehow, March Madness of 50 years ago doesn’t seem quite as, well, mad as it is today. At least that’s the notion given by Don Donoher, former coach of the University of Dayton Flyers. His team made it to the Sweet 16 in 1965, losing to the Michigan Wolverines, the eventual national runners up.

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“Back in ‘65, it’s like you were playing in privacy,” Donoher told the Scripps National Desk. “It’s so different now. The exposure level is just unbelievable compared to back then.”

The format of the tournament then was similar to today’s iteration — just with a smaller bracket. The 1965 tourney saw 23 teams competing while 68 will fill the field this year.

Donoher’s Flyers began their bid in the mid-east regional bracket, playing a first-round game at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Despite the venue only holding about 7,000 people and the close proximity of the teams involved — Dayton played Ohio University — Donoher said the game was not sold out.

“It was more like a regular season game, compared to now,” he said, recalling the atmosphere of that first-round game. Donoher said the team’s second-round game against Michigan, which took place at the University of Kentucky, was a sell out.

[Click here to see the program from the 1965 NCAA mid-east regional, with a message from U.S. President Lyndon Johnson.]

His players were excited to be involved in the NCAA tournament, even if back then, the competing National Invitation Tournament had more allure because it was played at Madison Square Garden.

“We took a bus ride to Bowling Green,” Donoher said. “It didn’t have the glamor of going to New York but the kids were eager to play in the NCAA tournament.”

When asked what media coverage was like during the 1965 tourney, Donoher said there basically was none. No post-game press conferences or on-camera interviews.

“There was no network television involved,” he said. “But when we were in the 1967 championship game, they had a camera set up in the locker room with someone doing an interview. That was weird.”

Scouting the next opponent also presented a problem for coaching staffs in the 1965 tournament. “You didn’t get to know them very well,” Donoher said. “We weren’t allowed to have film of the opponents because the NCAA shot the footage and wouldn’t give it out.”

Ultimately, Donoher’s 1965 team would get handily beaten by Michigan, leading to a lukewarm reaction from fans when the team bus pulled back into Dayton. “We didn’t get any welcome coming back from Lexington in 1965,” the coach remembered. “We got hammered and didn’t warrant any reception.”

In 25 years of coaching, Don Donoher racked up 437 wins at the University of Dayton and took the Flyers to eight NCAA tournament appearances. He will be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in November.

Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.