A long-standing state tradition spawned the phrase later launched to national notoriety.
“Get ready for March Madness,” touts the NCAA’s website. Peoria, too, is set for madness, as it gears up for the Illinois High School Association’s state basketball tournament at the Peoria Civic Center. While the games have been hosted in Peoria since 1996, the roots of March Madness in Illinois run much deeper. The phrase itself caught on with the IHSA’s start in 1908, and was officially coined in 1939 by IHSA Administrator Henry Van (H.V.) Porter in a magazine article he wrote, and later in his poem “Basketball Ides of March.”
Basketball Ides Of March
by H.V. Porter
The gym lights beam like a beacon beam
And a million motors hum
In a good will flight on a Friday night;
For basketball beckons, “Come!”
A sharp-shooting mite is king tonight.
The Madness of March is running.
The winged feet fly, the ball sails high
And field goal hunters are gunning.
The colors catch as silk suits flash
And race on a shimmering floor.
Repressions die, and partisans vie
In a goal acclaiming roar.
On Championship Trail towards holy grail,
All fans are birds of a feather.
It’s fiesta night and care lie light
When the air is full of leather.
Since time began, the instinct of man
Prove cave and current men kin.
On tournament night the sage and wight
Are relatives under the skin.
It’s festival time, sans ken or rhyme
But with nation-wide appeal.
In a cyclone of hate, our ship of state
Rides high on an even keel.
With war nerves tense, the final defense
Is the courage, strength and will
In a million lives where freedom thrives
And liberty lingers still.
Now eagles fly and heroes lie
Beneath some foreign arch.
Let their sons tread when hate is dead,
In this happy madness of March!
Porter embodied central Illinois in heart and spirit. A Manito native, he grew up in a rural area near Washington and attended ISU in Bloomington-Normal. After graduating, he began teaching, floating from Mount Zion to Keithsburg and Delavan high schools, eventually landing at Athens High School, outside of Springfield. Something of a renaissance man, Porter served as “director of the high school band and orchestra when he already was the principal, teacher and coach,” recalled Harry Fitzhugh, the IHSA’s third secretary. He spent nearly a decade of his 40-year career in these various roles at Athens, before joining the IHSA in 1928.
“H.V. was a different kind of man—a real innovator who never ran out of new ideas. His astuteness was amazing, and when he analyzed a project or a problem he had every answer on the tip of his tongue,” Fitzhugh continues in Jim Enright’s March Madness: The Story of High School Basketball in Illinois.
Porter worked for the IHSA for 30 years. During this time, IHSA founder Charles W. Whitten credited his “right-hand man” Porter for “serving with intelligence and vigor…” and “shoulder[ing] a large portion of the rather arduous burdens involved in the promotion of [IHSA] programs,” Enright continues.
Porter’s contributions also include today’s smaller 29 ½-inch ball circumference to adapt “to the smaller hands of the schoolboy athlete,” and the “molded and seamless ball” which replaced the old pumpkin-shaped style. He was instrumental in simplifying many measures of the game: eliminating the center jump, adding a 10-second line to the court and designing the fan-shaped backboard.
Also a wordsmith, Porter’s “March Madness” phrase remained indigenous to Illinois high school basketball until 1982, when broadcaster Brent Musburger used it during a CBS broadcast of the NCAA tournament. In an effort to protect the rights to the phrase, the IHSA applied to trademark it in 1989. But in 1996, when the IHSA sued GTE Vantage, a corporate partner of the NCAA, for attempting to sell a computer game titled “March Madness,” the trademark did little to ensure sole custody of the words. “The NCAA contended that it had a common-law trademark on the phrase and was thus allowed to license it at will,” notes slate.com. “The 7th Circuit Court sided with the NCAA, but its ruling was vague enough to open the door for future litigation.”
The end result? The March Madness Athletic Association—a joint holding company that contends the IHSA commands the phrase at the high-school level, and the NCAA controls it for the collegiate tournament. And thus, we celebrate both IHSA March Madness and NCAA March Madness in what has become a nationwide favorite month full of basketball, fueled still, by Porter’s love for the game. iBi