Tipping Off March Madness: Tony Hinkle, Butler Fieldhouse, and the 1940 NCAA Tournament

Note: Nearly a year ago when this story appeared, no one could have envisioned Hinkle Fieldhouse would once again play host to March Madness after 81 years.

By 1940, Hoosier Hysteria had a stronghold on the hearts of the state’s crazed basketball fans, but a new March madness was getting started and Butler University found itself right in the middle of it. On the fourth weekend of March that year, the first NCAA organized national basketball tournament kicked off with opening rounds in Indianapolis (East Region) and Kansas City, MO (West Region). The East regional games, held at then Butler Fieldhouse, featured Springfield College, Duquesne, Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now Western Kentucky) and—as many Hoosiers should know—Indiana University.

The previous year the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), with permission from the NCAA, held a national tournament and crowned Oregon their first champion. Unfortunately, the venture lost money and the NCAA stepped in, in part to better supervise and also to ensure future national championship tournaments “not be in the hands of any outside promoters”. It was a barb aimed squarely at the recently created (1938) National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The NIT had captured college basketball fans’ fancy and proved lucrative—but was organized by an association of NYC sportswriters and Ned Irish (later a founder of the NY Knicks), who at the time promoted basketball at Madison Square Garden where the games were held.

To begin organizing a national college tournament, the NCAA named Butler University’s Tony Hinkle, along with Marquette’s Bill Chandler and George Keogan of Notre Dame to the selection committee for the East Region. A similar committee in Kansas City selected four teams from west of the Mississippi River.

Two teams, Western State Teachers and Indiana University both accepted by March 8, but the home state’s school had done so with a bit of controversy. That year Purdue had earned the Big 10 conference crown, but IU had beaten Purdue twice that season and had gone undefeated in non conference games—including a win over Duquesne who IU would soon face again. The selection committee offered the spot to Indiana on March 6, and later that day the IU Athletics board made the decision to accept. The story gets a bit murky though, as an alternate version contends Purdue’s Coach Piggy Lambert turned down the opportunity first—feeling that IU was the better representative of the conference. It’s also suggested that Lambert wasn’t certain he could get the University to support the costs to send the team off to play more games combined with the resulting loss of class time. Wisely, the selection committee made no public comment on the matter. Shortly after, both Duquesne (who would finish as NIT runner up to Colorado on March 15) and Springfield College accepted invitations and the field was set.

The local organizing committee, headed by Hinkle, went to work producing tickets, drumming up publicity, arranging for team logistics and preparing Butler Fieldhouse to welcome throngs of basketball fans–no doubt with fingers crossed for a large contingent from the Hoosier state to swell attendance. That Butler Fieldhouse even had an opening the weekend of what normally would be the IHSAA’s Boys basketball Finals was a stroke of luck…and a story worthy of its own telling. (See other blog post.)

Pulling off a well run event was crucial for Tony Hinkle. Hinkle had the respect of his peers—he had just completed a term on the NABC rules committee—yet his humble demeanor belied a competitive nature. In his role as Butler’s coach and Athletic Director, he had a vision to promote his city, university and his gem of an arena—Butler Fieldhouse—still then the largest basketball venue in the country. Hinkle wanted to use the 1940 East Regional to showcase Indianapolis and the Fieldhouse in an effort to lure the ’41 NCAA finals along with the NABC convention which took place alongside it.

Reviews following the regional games indicate the NCAA was pleased with Hinkle and the local organizing committee’s efforts, especially in light of the previous year’s financial loss. While the 1939 tournament set back the NABC $2,500, the East regional at Butler alone netted $1,200–tickets being priced at 65 cents and $1.10. Harold Olsen, Ohio State’s coach—tagged to chair the tournament—acknowledged some disappointment in attendance (reportedly 11,000 over 3 games) but told the Indianapolis Star:

“Indianapolis deserves to be congratulated for the enthusiasm with which it welcomed the tourney,” he declared, “and I am sure that the Butler Fieldhouse will be given serious consideration when the NCAA selects the site of the national championship game next year—especially if Indiana or Purdue should be among the contenders.”

But it was not meant to be. Kansas City hosted the next two NCAA Finals—no doubt due in part to the influence of Naismith protégé, Dr. Forrest “Phog” Allen of Kansas, and his very successful promotion of the 1940 Championship game in his own backyard.

Thirty-nine years would pass before another Regional game would be played in Indianapolis and 40 years before Tony Hinkle’s dream of a NCAA Finals in the Hoosier capitol would come true. While not played at the Fieldhouse named in his honor, the host school for both the 1979 Midwest Regional and the 1980 Final Four was Tony Hinkle’s own beloved Butler University.

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