Howard University made history with first NCAA Tournament appearance

Howard University broke through a barrier in 1981 when it became the first MEAC team to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

When Howard University won the MEAC Tournament and went to the NCAA Tournament the first time, it wasn’t March Madness. It was just the NCAA Tournament.

The year was 1981. Ronald Reagan was president and Mike Jordan was a senior at Laney High School in Wilmington, NC. That February, after years of work from key early figures like commissioner Ken Free and others, the MEAC was finally granted a bid to the Division I Tournament along with the SWAC.

The drive for the lofty status and potential of Division I started over a decade earlier, when the larger/more football-focused schools from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) — North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central, Howard, Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State and Delaware State — along with South Carolina State, broke away to form the Mid-Eastern Athletic Association.

Early in the league’s history, Morgan State won the 1974 NCAA College Division title, the equivalent to the NCAA Division II title. That same season, Maryland Eastern-Shore received a bid to the NIT, which was still highly-regarded as the NCAA Tournament field at the Division I level was limited to automatic qualifiers. It won its first round game. Two years later, A&T was given an NIT bid as well.

Larry Springs, NCAA Tournament

But with the tournament expanding and television contracts starting to offer major payouts, the league was determined to be where the money resided.

“We’re talking about economics. There’s no reason to go Division I for just the mere fact of being there. That is where the money is,” then MEAC Commissioner Ken Free said.

Getting there nearly caused the conference to fold as Maryland-Eastern Shore, Morgan State and North Carolina Central all bolted in 1979 as the conference pushed its entire membership to turn Division I. Ironically, the additions of Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M — two football-focused institutions from the SIAC — helped the conference stay afloat.  

“If our schools are going to survive, we need to be playing athletics at a level that produces finance. We know the revenue is produced just by showing up for the NCAA championship.”

In June of 1980, the NCAA voted to expand the Division I tournament field to 48. That included, for the first time, automatic bids to the MEAC and SWAC. Unlike the fledgling MEAC, the SWAC had already had one program that reached the Division I Tournament. The 1979-80 Alcorn State Braves went 27-1 and received an at-large bid. 

That at-large bid was worth $90,000 dollars — a particularly handsome sum back in the Early Reaganomics era.

The 1981 MEAC Tournament was held at Winston-Salem War Memorial Coliseum. The championshiop game was nearby North Carolina A&T against Howard University. That was a rematch of the first MEAC Title game, held in 1972 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

Howard would win that game 66-63, led by Larry Spriggs who would go on to win a title as a member of the Showtime Lakers later in the decade. The squad was known as “The Dunk Patrol” as it attacked the basket religiously via Springs or leading scorer James Ratliff. NC A&T would go on to face Duke in the NIT that year.

The 17-13 Howard University squad drew a matchup with Wyoming — one that would take place in Los Angeles. The game would be broadcast on tape-delay. Again, this was the NCAA Tournament and NOT March Madness. 

Wyoming proved to be too much for Howard, winning 78-43. Howard got off to a slow start and never recovered. But even in losing, it made history by just being there. It went back 11 years later, with another first round exit. The MEAC’s first NCAA Tournament win didn’t come until 1997 when Coppin State shocked South Carolina as a number 15 seed. Hampton and Norfolk State would follow suit in 2001 and 2012, respectively. Since then, no MEAC team has advanced beyond the round of ’64, though several have won First Four Games.

Howard will make its return to the NCAA Tournament on Thursday when it faces Kansas. 

Howard University made history with first NCAA Tournament appearance
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