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March 14, 1981: March Madness Comes to Austin

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Skip Dillard. U.S. Reed. Rolando Blackman.

Three college basketball players who - along with a gamble by NBC Sports - helped to usher in the era of March Madness.

31 years ago the NCAA Basketball Tournament was still a sideshow for most fans (no bracketology, no final four in, final four out, etc) and the idea of popping from one game to another was unheard of. Tim Layden at Sports Illustrated has a terrific story that breaks down three last second finishes - including one in Austin - that sparked March Madness.

It is easy to take for granted the all-access pass that fans now enjoy for events like this. But 31 years ago, ESPN was just getting started, the NCAA Basketball Tournament field was only 48 teams and the networks (this was NBC's last year to have the rights) didn't really pick up the games until the round of 32, and even then they were telecast regionally.

Saturday, March 14, would be different. NBC decided that they would have Bryant Gumble in their New York studio, and should the games warrant it, they would switch everyone to a close game, if only for a moment. For those of us who did not grown up in the ADD world of cable and satellite, this was a big deal.

The early afternoon games soon offered up DePaul vs. Saint Joseph's. The Blue Demons had been a national power under Ray Meyer for a couple of years, but had been bounced unceremoniously from the tournament the year before in their first game, after going 26-1 in the regular season. In 1981 DePaul again had gotten a first round bye and they again found themselves in a game going down to the wire.

Skip Dillard, an 85% free throw shooter, went to the line with just 12 seconds to go with the Blue Demons nursing a one point lead. Two free throws would put the game away (there was no 3-point shot in '81). He missed the front end of the one and one, DePaul went after the St. Joseph's guard who was dribbling up court, and he spotted a teammate all alone under the basket. Saint Joseph's lays it in and buzzer beater #1 is in the books.


The late afternoon games featured matchups between defending national champion Louisville and SWC champ Arkansas here in Austin as well as #2 Oregon State taking on Kansas State in Pauley Pavilion out in Los Angeles. Both games went down to the wire: Louisville scored with just 6 seconds to go to take a one-point lead, while Oregon State and Kansas State were locked in a 48-48 tie.

NBC had to take a gamble. Back then switching between games was more complicated than pushing a button. It meant talking on landlines with both sites and then coordinating with the New York studio crew as to when to actually go.

Here is what it looked like.

Just as the chaos hit the Erwin Center floor, Rolando Blackman was dribbling out the clock, working for one final shot to break the tie between Oregon State and Kansas State.

When the scene flips from Gumbel to the game, there are only seven seconds left and Blackman starts his drive. Randolph: "Blackman ... for the win ..." The shots falls 49 seconds after Reed's, in real time. NBC has shifted its audience three times in 97 seconds and caught two spectacular finishes -- three for the day -- by the slimmest of margins.

One personal story about that day. I was the Sports Director for the Austin CBS affiliate at the time. I was camped out underneath the Arkansas goal with the chief photographer of the station. Right after Reed launches the shot you can hear me yell on the tape, "Gary, I think that's going in!"

It does and all hell breaks loose.

What you don't see on the tape is that Reed almost immediately acts like he knows that the shot was good. He turns to the press table, slaps a high five with an Arkansas reporter, and runs off the court as fast as he can.

Reed still lives in Arkansas and freely admits that he continues to enjoy the benefits of hitting that shot still today.

"Some guy just calling me about a business deal,'' says Reed. "I told him that I'm getting interviewed by Sports Illustrated. He didn't believe me, so I told him: 'Just call up the YouTube and put my name in. Then call me back'.'' There is the slightest pause and then U.S. Reed cuts loose with a long, deep laugh, a man forever frozen in the right place when everybody was finally watching.