Skip Navigation

March Madness ignited by UW–Madison grad

Harold Olsen changed college basketball — and the country — forever.

MADISON, WI (March 18, 2019) — The annual rite of spring and national obsession known as March Madness is about to begin. Did you know that one of the founding fathers of what is otherwise known as the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament is a Wisconsin native and UW–Madison alumnus?

Rice Lake’s own Harold Olsen started playing basketball at the University of Wisconsin in 1914. He went on to be named a two-time All–Big Ten player and first-team All-American. In 1915, Olsen and the Badgers compiled an enviable 20–1 record, and the Helms Athletic Foundation later named the team the national champion for that year.

Shortly after his graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1918, Olsen began a coaching career at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and at Ripon [Wisconsin] College, where his teams won three conference titles. In 1922, he became head coach of Ohio State University and eventually earned the distinction of being the longest-tenured basketball coach in that school’s history. During his 24 years with the Buckeyes, Olsen amassed a 259–197 record and five Big Ten championships.

Olsen’s national legacy, however, began as chair of the NCAA Basketball Committee. In 1937, he helped to initiate the 10-second rule, which requires teams to advance the ball over the center line within 10 seconds of gaining possession.

Olsen then came up with the idea to create the NCAA postseason national playoffs, now known as the NCAA tournament. He wanted to hold a true national-championship tournament and compete with the more prestigious National Invitational Tournament, which was held at Madison Square Garden in New York. The first NCAA tournament in 1939 hosted a field of eight teams on the campus of Northwestern University. Event organizers had to give tickets away just to get fans in the stands, and it lost $2,600 that first year.

Olsen led Ohio State to the tournament four times, clinching a second-place finish in the inaugural event, when the University of Oregon beat the Buckeyes in the 1939 championship game.

Sixty-eight teams now go to what is now known as The Big Dance. The single-elimination bracket format has made the terms Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four a part of our national lexicon. Millions of Americans fill out a bracket, hoping to predict the outcome of all 67 games and the eventual national champion, with more than just a few wagers riding on the outcome.

Olsen was only 58 when he passed away in 1953. He was inducted posthumously into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

As you fill in your brackets and start watching the madness, tip your hat to Harold Olsen, the University of Wisconsin alumnus who helped to turn the doldrums of March into something truly special.

Media Information

Contact: Tod Pritchard,, 608-609-5217, @WisAlumni

Related News and Stories