Many have argued that the 1978-79 NCAA basketball season was a turning point in the history of the sport. That year saw the emergence of two incredibly popular players — Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson — who faced off in the most-watched NCAA championship game ever. Johnson and Bird could not have been more different; their nicknames (“The Hick from French Lick” for Bird, and “Magic” for Johnson) demonstrate that beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet both captured the public’s imagination despite, or perhaps because of, their differences. Their competitive camaraderie made them easy to root for and against; their talents were undeniably superb; and the media ate up their “yin and yang” stories.
The ’78-’79 season also helped to lay the groundwork for ESPN, the first all-sports cable channel, which began broadcasting in November 1979. ESPN both helped to create and took incredible advantage of the boom in the sport’s popularity. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the present state of both the network and the game without the existence of the other. The symbiosis generated starting in the late 1970s has proven immensely profitable to both.
This year saw another development that helped launch college basketball into the top tier of American sports: the creation of the Big East Conference. Created by seven historically powerful Eastern hoops schools (St. John’s, Syracuse, Georgetown, Providence, Connecticut, Seton Hall, and Boston College), the Big East was born primarily as a basketball league. Working closely with ESPN, and shepherded by its first commissioner, Dave Gavitt (who ended the 1979 season as the head coach at Providence), the Big East has come to play a dominant role in the game; today, it is the largest Division I conference, with 16 members.
In short, it’s easy to see in hindsight that the 1978-79 season was crucial in paving the way for twenty-first century college hoops. Boatloads of money turned the sport into Big Business; ESPN (and, later, other channels) made stars (and goats) out of teenagers; and making it to The Dance became the goal of every player, coach, athletic director, and fan. It’s no accident that the Final Four is the second most popular sporting event in America (after the Super Bowl) — but Magic and Larry deserve a lot of the credit for getting the ball rolling.
Consensus All-American First Team
Larry Bird, F, Indiana St., Sr. (Player of the Year)
Mike Gminski, C, Duke, Jr.
David Greenwood, F, UCLA, Sr.
Magic Johnson, G, Michigan St., Soph.
Sidney Moncrief, G, Arkansas, Sr.
Consensus All-American Second Team
Bill Cartwright, C, San Francisco, Sr.
Calvin Natt, F, Northeast Louisiana (now UL-Monroe), Sr.
Mike O’Koren, F, North Carolina, Jr.
Jim Paxson, G, Dayton, Sr.
Jim Spanarkel, G, Duke, Sr.
Kelly Tripucka, F, Notre Dame, Soph.
Sly Williams, F/G, Rhode Island, Jr.
Coach of the Year
Bill Hodges, Indiana St. (AP, UPI, Sporting News)
Dean Smith, North Carolina (USBWA)
Ray Meyer, DePaul (NABC)
Regular Season Scoring Leaders
Lawrence Butler, Idaho St, 30.1 ppg
Larry Bird, Indiana St., 28.6 ppg
Nick Galis, Seton Hall 27.7 ppg
Regular Season Notes
UCLA won its still-an-NCAA-record 13th consecutive regular-season conference title (a streak that would end the following year) . . . . The Ivy League permits freshman eligibility, six years after it was instituted by the NCAA as a whole . . . . A point-shaving scandal rocked college basketball at Boston College, where player Rick Kuhn was eventually convicted and served two and a half years in prison . . . . The Great Alaska Shootout was played for the first time, with NC State defeating Louisville in the finals. The Shootout went on to be one of the premier early-season tournaments . . . . Profidence coach Dave Gavitt retired at season’s end to become the commissioner of the new Big East Conference . . . . On Feb. 24, Duke led North Carolina 7-0 at halftime, on its way to a 47-40 victory; this was the first scoreless half for an NCAA team since 1938 . . . . Michigan St. lost four straight Big Ten games to second-division opponents, including an 83-65 waxing at the hands of hapless Northwestern; still, the Spartans finished in a tie atop the Big Ten with Purdue and Iowa with a 13-5 league mark . . . . Duke began the season ranked number one, won its first six games, then lost two straight. The Blue Devils finished 22-7 (9-3, tied for first w/ UNC, in the ACC) and lost the ACC Tournament final to UNC 71-63 . . . . Dayton went 19-10 and was invited to the NIT, where it defeated Holy Cross but lost to Purdue 84-70 in the second round.
The NCAA Tournament field expanded from 32 to 40 teams . . . . This was the first NCAA Tournament to have seeds and to use three-man refereeing crews . . . . Number 1 seeds: Indiana St., UNC, UCLA, and Notre Dame. . . . On “Black Sunday” in Raleigh, #1 seed UNC lost to Penn 72-71, and #2 seed Duke lost to St. John’s 80-78 . . . . Final Four teams: Indiana St., Michigan St., Penn, and DePaul . . . . In one national semifinal, Michigan St. led Penn 50-17 at halftime, the largest such margin in tournament history; the Spartans went on win 101-67, with Magic Johnson getting a triple-double: 29 pts., 10 rebs., 10 assists . . . . Indiana St. defeated DePaul in the semifinal, 76-74. Larry Bird had 35 pts., 16 rebs., and 9 assists, while all five DePaul starters (Mark Aguirre, Gary Garland, Clyde Bradshaw, Curtis Watkins, and James Mitchem) played all 40 minutes . . . . In the final, Michigan St. won 75-64, controlling Indiana St. throughout most of the game. Johnson had 24 pts., 7 rebs., and 5 assists; Greg Kelser kicked in 19/8/9 as the Spartans shot 60.5% from the field for the game . . . . Bird had 19 pts. and 13 rebs, in the final, but shot only 7-of-21 from the floor . . . . The championship game received the highest TV ratings of all time, with a 24.1 rating and a 38 share (which represents roughly 18 million households) . . . . The All-Tournament Team: Johnson (Most Outstanding Player), Bird, Kelser, Aguirre, and Garland . . . . In each of its five tournament games, Michigan St. gave each opponent its worst loss of the season, including the only loss suffered by Indiana St. . . . . In the NIT, Indiana defeated Purdue 53-52 in the title game at Madison Square Garden; Hoosiers Butch Carter and Ray Tolbert were co-MVPs of the tournament