Amid the glitz and glamour and more media attention than ever before, the 2009 NCAA men's basketball tournament completes its first weekend and crowns the final eight members of its 'Sweet 16' today.
Stephenville resident Colonel William Tate, the only living member of the 1939 Southwest Conference Champions from the University of Texas, remembers a simpler time in college basketball - the time when the first NCAA tournament was played 70 years ago.
Colonel Tate, who first starred at the junior college level under legendary coach W.J. Wisdom at John Tarleton Agricultural College in Stephenville before transferring to Texas, was one of five former Plowboys playing on that Longhorns team that played - and lost - its first NCAA Tournament game against Oregon in San Francisco.
"None of us had ever been outside Texas except to play in Oklahoma and Arkansas," Tate said. "The journey itself was quite an experience."
Tate, who grew up playing on dirt courts in the rural community of Alexander in southern Erath County and graduated from the non-accredited Alexander High School, had never dreamed of traveling much of anywhere, let alone to the West Coast.
"The university gave us boots and cowboy hats to wear on the trip so everyone would know we were from Texas," said Tate, who is currently 93 years young and will turn 94 in May. "Everywhere we went, people knew who we were by our boots and hats, and they treated us like royalty."
While this weekend's games were played in front of live audiences numbering in the tens of thousands and millions more watching on television, Tate recalls taking the court in San Francisco with 2-3 thousand spectators in the bleachers and very few members of the media anywhere to be seen. Much of this was true because of the simpler day in age, and also because the National Invitation Tournament - known as the NIT - in New York still superceded the NCAA tournament.
"I don't think any of us thought at the time that we were making history," Tate said. "The most exciting thing for us was getting to travel by train and playing someone from outside our league. It turned out, they really were out of our league."
Tate led Texas in scoring with seven points, but it wasn't nearly enough as Oregon, which went on to win the first NCAA tournament on March 27, 1939, defeated the Longhorns by a final count of 56-41.
One of things that astonished Tate in San Francisco was the size of Oregon's big men.
"I was 6-4, and there were only two or three players in the Southwest Conference who were as big as me," he said. "Oregon had two great big men, about 6-6 or so. They were definitely the better team."
Texas went on to the West Region consolation game against Utah State, losing 51-49 to finish fourth in the regional. Tate tied atop Texas' scoring chart in that loss with 10 points.
"We should have won that game," Tate said of the loss to Utah State. "We were down a couple points with about 15 seconds left and Owen Spears (another former JTAC player) was at the free throw line. I was lined up under the basket on the right side and I told him to miss the shot to that side and I would tip it in, which I did. But, they got a lay-up on the fast break and we lost."
Fast break wasn't exactly a common phrase in those days, and even more rare was the word "dunk."
"We played a much more deliberate style than teams play now," Tate explained of an era when the one-handed jump shot was just beginning to be employed, the implementation of the three-point arc had yet to even be dreamed of and the shot clock was still more than 40 years away. "The game was much more slow and methodical. We didn't even know what a dunk was. I guess we could have dunked, but we never did. If you dunked the ball then, people would have said you were just showing off."
Tate admits another large reason why the game was played at a much slower pace in the 1930s was because the athletes of the day simply didn't compare to those of modern times.
"I watch the games now, and I ask myself, 'Could I (in my prime) have played with these guys?' The answer, I always realize, is no. I'm amazed at the athleticism of today's players. They are so much bigger, stronger and faster than we were in those days. Our conference championship team at Texas couldn't play with Tarleton today."
The tournament is also much larger than it was then. In its first year, only eight teams competed in the event, four in the West and four others in the East. Texas, Oregon and Utah State were joined by Oklahoma out West, while the East bracket included national finalist Ohio State, Villanova, Brown and Wake Forest.
While in San Francisco, Texas players attended the International Exposition being held on Treasure Island.
"We had warm-up jackets with Texas written across the front and Coach (Jack Gray) told us we could keep them," Tate said. "That was good news for us because we sold those jackets to people at the exposition for $10-20 each. That was a lot of money back then."
After sightseeing stops at the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City and the Grand Canyon on the way home, Tate and several of his Texas teammates went on to graduate and live very successful lives.
One Longhorn, Dr. Denton Cooley, went on to become a world famous heart surgeon, says Tate, while others found success on different levels. Bobby Moers became a doctor, Spears went on to coach high school basketball in Denton for many years, Tommy Nelms entered the real estate business in Nacogdoches, team manager "Sunshine" Shwartz operated a successful department store in El Paso and Coach Jack Gray was inducted into UT's athletic hall of fame after coaching men's basketball from 1937-42 and 1946-51 and posting a record of 194-97. Player Elmer Finley, who also played at JTAC before going to Texas and along with Tate is a member of Tarleton's athletics hall of fame, became wealthy by operating a chain of convenience stores. He and Tate remained close friends until his death earlier this decade.
Tate himself went on to find vast success as a military officer.
"I went to work in the oil business until it became apparent that we were going to become involved in the war (WWII) in Europe," he explained. "I joined the reserves and when I got called up, I saw things I otherwise never would have dreamed of."
When he returned from the war, Tate went from reserve status to active status and was then selected to join an officer training program.
"Because I had a college degree (in business administration), somebody thought I must have at least some sense," he joked. "As an officer, I got selected to spend two years (1948-49), fully paid, studying at Harvard."
After his schooling at Harvard, Tate continued his military career that lasted more than 30 years. None of it would have ever happened, he says, if it weren't for basketball.
"Without basketball I would have never got a degree, I wouldn't have been an officer in the military and I wouldn't have ever studied at Harvard," he explained. "Basketball was certainly instrumental in all of the successes I've had in my life."
He didn't know it at the time, but he and his Texas teammates were also instrumental in the creation of basketball's greatest tournament, one that has grown to become one of the country's most prestigious athletic competitions 70 years later.
"I feel very lucky to have been a part of basketball," Tate said. "Time passes, things change and people change, but through it all I know basketball played a very important role in my life. I'm thankful for that."