The Birth of The Big Ten Tournament

As others in the college basketball world, notably the ACC, SEC, and Big East, threw massive post-season bashes handing one battle-tested participant a full-fledged invitation to the Big Dance, the Big Ten resisted such party planning. 

Though Big Ten leaders began discussing a post-season conference tournament as early as the mid-1980s, university administrators and the league’s basketball coaches deferred to the status quo year after year. 

And not for nothing. There were fears that a post-season tournament would upset seeding, and maybe even placement, in the NCAA Tournament, hamper academics, and, perhaps most of all, diminish the regular season. Big Ten champions, after all, were made during uncomfortable road trips to Bloomington, East Lansing, and Columbus, not over four days at a neutral site arena. 

By 1996, however, momentum was accelerating for a Big Ten Tournament.  

Advocates saw it as a dynamic way to engage fans and alumni, prepare teams for the one-and-done realities of the NCAA Tournament, and elevate the national profile of the conference, which, after long being considered the nation’s premier league, was losing some of its basketball shine. As the 1996-1997 season opened, the Big Ten had earned but three Final Four appearances (Michigan and Indiana in 1992 and Michigan in 1993) since Michigan captured the national title in 1989. In that same period, Arkansas alone had hung three Final Four banners. 

“It’s an opportunity for us to highlight Big Ten basketball,” Michigan State athletic director Merritt Norvell said of a post-season league tournament. “Everybody else has had a chance to do that. We’ve been sitting around watching.” 

And not to be overlooked, a post-season tournament also offered the Big Ten and its member schools a chance to make some considerable paper. The league office, in fact, estimated that each member would receive upwards of $450,000 a year from tournament revenues. In an era of escalating costs, that capital infusion proved enticing. 

In December 1996, nine of the 11 Big Ten presidents voted in favor of launching a postseason basketball tournament for the 1997-1998 season. Only Michigan and Indiana dissented. 

Not long after, the league office tabbed Chicago’s United Center – “The House that MJ Built” – as the inaugural tournament’s host site. Chicago offered a centralized location, massive amounts of Big Ten alumni, tourist attractions, and, let’s not lie here, some cozy watering holes and fantastic grub. 

When Northwestern and Minnesota tipped off at 1:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, Big Ten basketball entered a new era, though things seemed much the same as Northwestern dropped another close game and Indiana coach Bobby Knight berated referees from the sidelines during the Hoosiers’ opening-day victory over Ohio State.  

Three days later, before a national audience on CBS, fourth-seeded Michigan topped third-seeded Purdue 76-67 behind a 24-point, 13-rebound performance from tournament MVP Robert Traylor. 

Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany called the league’s inaugural post-season tournament “historic.” 

“There’s always a diminishment when you break with tradition, but potentially there could be the start of another great tradition,” Delany said. 

In the years since, the Big Ten Tournament has delivered memorable moments, intensified rivalries, generated heaps of cash, and cemented its place on the Big Ten basketball calendar. It’s taken its show to Indianapolis, D.C., and Madison Square Garden. It’s ignited Final Four runs, provided buzzer-beating shots, heightened the Big Ten brand, and helped to solidify the conference’s spot as a college basketball powerbroker. 

Better late to the party then never, right? 

For a deeper discussion about the start of the Big Ten Tournament and other insights on the conference’s basketball history, check out the 19nine podcast where The Chucker, 19nine’s resident historian, interviews Big Ten historian Ed Sherman. Find the 19nine podcast wherever you find your favorite podcasts.