Although it will once again be overshadowed by March Madness, this year's National Invitation Tournament gets rolling tonight. You might not realize it, but the NIT wasn't always an afterthought. Let's take a look at how the New York tourney was eclipsed by the NCAA.
Few collections of letters arouse mixed emotions in college hoops fans quite like “NIT.” Getting a bid in the annual National Invitation Tournament means a team didn’t do quite enough to make it into the field for March Madness. (That’s no fun.) On the other hand, the team gets to play more games. (That’s fun!) Of course, even winning the NIT is a mixed bag, with the thrill of ending the season with a victory undercut by rival fans derisively labeling the squad “the 69th-best team in the country.”
An NIT bid wasn’t always a consolation prize, though. The NIT is actually one year older than the NCAA Tournament – Temple routed Colorado to win the first NIT in 1938 – and it was originally an exclusive field that only invited six teams to New York.
The early NIT had a lot of advantages over its NCAA-sanctioned competition. In an era when travel wasn’t quite as pleasant as it is now, the tournament’s New York digs let the top East Coast teams play relatively close to home. Playing in New York offered greater TV exposure as well.
In both tournaments’ early days, the NCAA knew the NIT was the more attractive tournament, so the original versions of March Madness actually started after the NIT ended to avoid any head-to-head competition. This scheduling quirk made postseason redemption possible; in 1944 Utah won the NCAA Tournament after losing to Kentucky in the first round of the NIT. In 1950 the City College of New York won both the NIT and the NCAA Tournament in the same season, the only time a single team claimed both titles.
The two-tournament format gave rise to another interesting historical footnote. During World War II the NIT and NCAA champions would square off for a Red Cross–sponsored charity game after each season. The NCAA champions (Wyoming in 1943, Utah in 1944, and Oklahoma State in 1945) won all three of these tilts.
What happened to the NIT’s prestige?
The NCAA’s uncanny ability to impose its will on teams and fans was just as potent in the 1950s as it is now. Starting in the 1950s, the NCAA forced any team that won its conference to automatically accept its NCAA Tournament bid. The new rule began the slow process of draining the top teams away from the NIT.
Over the 1960s the NIT’s reputation dwindled, but it didn’t totally die. The tournament became national news in 1970 thanks to a protest by Marquette coach Al McGuire. Marquette had nabbed the 8th spot in the final Associated Press poll of the season, but the Warriors found themselves seeded in the NCAA’s Midwest Region rather than the Mideast Region. McGuire didn’t love the seeding because it meant his team would have to play in Fort Worth rather than closer to home in Dayton. To protest the decision, McGuire snubbed the NCAA by rejecting its at-large bid in favor of playing in (and winning) the NIT.
McGuire’s decision didn’t sit well with the NCAA, which reacted by instituting a new rule that forced all teams to accept a March Madness bid if they received one. (Remember that rule; it became important later.)
The real death knell for the NIT’s prestige probably came when the NCAA changed another rule in 1975. March Madness expanded to 32 teams that year, and the NCAA began allowing multiple teams from each conference to play in the Big Dance. (Previously only one team from each conference could play in the NCAAs.) These new rules further depleted the supply of quality teams that could accept NIT bids. After the NCAA expanded its field to 64 teams in 1985, the NIT-eligible leftovers became even less appetizing.
Who owns the NIT?
For most of its history, the NIT fell under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association, a group consisting of five New York schools: Fordham, Wagner, Manhattan, NYU, and St. John’s. That all began to change around 10 years ago when the MIBA sued the NCAA for violating antitrust laws. According to the MIBA’s thinking, the NCAA rule that forced schools to accept March Madness bids even if they theoretically would rather have played in the NIT was a pretty clear antitrust violation.
The legal debate raged for four years until the NCAA finally squared things with the MIBA in August 2005 by buying both the preseason and postseason NITs for $56.5 million.