Duane LaCrosse came here with his team in a caravan of cars from Rhinelander in 1950.
His Hodags didn’t win a game at the UW Field House, losing by three points to Eau Claire in the opening quarterfinal and by 13 the next day to Wauwatosa in the consolation semifinals.
Bernie Kubale and Jon Murphy won a few more games but had experiences similar to those of LaCrosse.
The 6-foot Kubale helped lead tiny Reedsville, in Manitowoc County, to the 1946 WIAA state boys basketball championship in Hoosier-like fashion. Murphy, head coach of Seymour since 1987, has three Division 2 state championships and 12 state tournament appearances.
Since 1920, heroic shots, tearful losses and stunning upsets have been part of the tournament. Regardless of the outcome, the memories of a trip to Madison hold strong.
“The biggest surprise was when we walked into the (UW Field House). Our gym in Rhinelander wasn’t even at the high school. It was at the junior high, and it was very small,” said LaCrosse, 82, a four-sport athlete who went on to become an executive with Wausau Insurance. “We didn’t win anything at state, but we enjoyed it.”
High school March Madness is meaningful, no matter the decade. And through the years, the event has evolved into one of the state’s signature spectacles and traditions. It’s not as long or crowded as Summerfest or the State Fair, and the $7 million economic impact of the tournament last year was about a third of what World Dairy Expo brought to Madison last fall.
Deer hunting in November and cheering on the Brewers, Packers and Badgers may be more far-reaching, but there is an aura about teams with nicknames such as the Galloping Ghosts, Goslings and Generals traveling to the capital city to play in front of thousands on the Badgers’ home court.
Even after 64 years, the memories for LaCrosse seem fresh. He’s reminded daily of a Hodag cheerleader who bought her pale green strapless prom dress at a shop on the Capitol Square while in town for the tournament. LaCrosse was her date for the dance later that spring. They’ve been married for 60 years.
“It made you feel really special,” Beverly LaCrosse said of the tournament experience and trip to Madison. “It was the big time.”
The WIAA sponsors 24 boys and girls sports that tally 90,000 participants. The venues for the state tournaments are dotted throughout Wisconsin and have moved to varying locations throughout the years. Most notably, the girls state basketball tournament relocated last year to the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon after 37 years here.
In 2012, the WIAA also considered moving the boys basketball tournament after the UW Athletic Department said it couldn’t guarantee dates. The uproar made headlines around the state; ultimately, a deal was signed that will keep the tournament at the Kohl Center at least through 2020.
“If anything, it just re-energized us,” said Kate Dale, Madison Area Sports Commission sports marketing manager. “It was an opportunity for us to brand our city as the championship capital.”
Madison plays host to 15 WIAA state tournaments, but boys basketball has had the longest and most prominent run. With the exception of 1936, when the tournament was played in Wisconsin Rapids, Madison has been its home since 1920. The threat of the tournament leaving forced officials to re-evaluate parking and hotel rates and increase signage around the city promoting the event.
“We get a lot of tradition with the WIAA, especially the people that are coming year after year after year whether they have a team in it or not,” said Dale. “But there’s another audience that is completely new to town and experiencing Madison for the first time.”
In the 1950s, members of youth organizations served as ambassadors to help visitors navigate the city and held parties at the YMCA for visiting teens. In the 1957 tournament, Madison police issued a special curfew of 11:30 p.m. for the three-day run of the tournament.
Tourney roots go back to 1916
The boys basketball tournament predates the founding of the Green Bay Packers and traces its roots to 1916 when the athletic directors at the Wisconsin Normal Schools (now part of the UW System) hosted a tournament — first in Milwaukee, then in Menominee, La Crosse and Stevens Point. In 1920, the WIAA, founded in 1896, took over the postseason event and moved the event to the UW-Madison campus.
At the time, the city had a population of just 38,378, electric street cars crisscrossed the Downtown and Isthmus, and a room at the Cardinal Hotel at East Wilson and South Franklin streets was $1.25 a night, according to an ad in the city directory. When Superior beat Neenah 19-9 in the 1920 title game, Madison’s East and West high schools weren’t yet built, and homes stood where the Memorial Union would be opened in 1928, according to Stuart Levitan’s book “Madison — The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History 1856-1931.”
If basketball fans wanted to have a beer before or after a game, it would have been consumed illegally for the tournament’s first 13 years in Madison because of Prohibition. The UW Field House didn’t open until December 1930. The first 11 basketball tournaments were held at the UW-Madison Armory and Gymnasium, commonly referred to today as the Old Red Gym.
“Indications point to the most successful high school tournaments this year in the history of the sport,” a Wisconsin State Journal account from 1920 said. “Record breaking crowds are being arranged for.”
Field House spurs growth
The tournament blossomed after the construction of the Field House, which would become its home for 66 years. Attendance records go back only to 1945, when 28,198 witnessed the five sessions over three days.
The Saturday night crowd of 9,059 watched as Waukesha edged Ashland 16-14 in the consolation championship, and Madison West took a 44-35 victory over Lena, a small village in Oconto County, for the title.
The following year, attendance ballooned to 43,794 as Reedsville, a school with fewer than 90 students, knocked off teams from Racine, Wisconsin Rapids and Eau Claire to win the title at a time when there was just one division and Mickies Dairy Bar was in its first year of business.
Kubale, now 85, said prior to coming to Madison, his coach, John Gable, had the team practice at Manitowoc’s field house, where the baskets were not mounted on the wall like in Reedsville.
Once in Madison, the team stayed at the Inn on the Park hotel, where Gable banned players from drinking soda. For Kubale — the son of a tavern owner — and most of his nine teammates, it was their first trip to Madison. They did, however, smuggle grape soda and bologna into their rooms.
“I don’t know if anything would be different if I hadn’t gone” to the tournament, said Kubale, a UW-Madison graduate who had a successful law career and sat on the boards of the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers. “It’s a part of who I am. It was a great experience.”
Tournament means tradition
Revenue and profits for the tournament have risen while attendance through the years has been up and down. But regardless of how full the seats in the arena, the tournament means tradition.
It includes some fans sitting in the same courtside seats year after year, making annual pit stops at haunts such as the Nitty Gritty, State Street Brats, Ella’s Deli and Jordan’s Big 10 Pub. There are walks up and down State Street, interactions with street musicians and the homeless and for some, their first neck-craning visit to the State Capitol’s rotunda.
For coach Jon Murphy, 51, who has compiled more than 520 wins at Seymour and took his Thunder to the state tournament eight straight years from 2000 to 2007, routine is important. There were team meals at the Best Western InnTowner, chalk talks in the hotel’s conference room and practices at area high schools.
Seymour’s athletic director even developed an itinerary that is now shared with other schools and covers issues like ticket sales, creating T-shirts, transportation and accommodations, Murphy said.
Because Division 2 plays its semifinal games on Friday, Thursday was reserved for shopping, wandering Downtown and taking in a few games at the Field House and, later, the Kohl Center.
Seymour’s last appearance was in 2011 when it lost to Whitefish Bay in the semifinals on a tip-in at the buzzer.
Murphy now is coaching the sons of some his former players, including this year, Dakota Oskey, whose father was on the 1993 state tournament team.
“I know he remembers it and (wanted) that experience for his son, also,” Murphy said. “I think Madison holds an aura about it. I love teaching kids how to play, and every time we make it to Madison it shows we’re on the right path.”