The 1979 Final Four is best remembered for the unprecedented television ratings to watch the Bird and Magic show and as the catalyst for exponential growth in March Madness.
From astronomical television rights contracts to the first wave of mega-conferences to the mania over filling out brackets all across the country today, you can trace it all back to that scene.
But the undertones of the undercard at that Final Four had special significance, too.
Joining another then-national power, DePaul, in Provo, Utah, was the University of Pennsylvania of the Ivy League.
Or “Penn State,” as the banner said at Reynolds Coliseum in North Carolina, where Penn began its improbable run that made “Not Penn State” T-shirts popular and chants a thing at The Palestra when I began my freshman year there a few months later.
Anything is possible, it made you believe … or at least think.
Penn’s remarkable journey, which included victories over Hall of Fame coaches Jim Valvano (then at Iona), Dean Smith of North Carolina (still the only NCAA Tournament loss UNC has suffered in-state), Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s, has no tangible application in 16th-seeded Penn’s game Thursday against top seed Kansas in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional in Wichita.
Except in this way:
That particular appeal to the imagination is seared into the culture and consciousness of Penn basketball, whose coach grew up in the area going to Quaker games.
“That was a magical run, and in a lot of ways that turned the Final Four into what it is now — part of our culture," Steve Donahue, now the Penn coach, told me in a 2009 interview before his then-Cornell team took on Mizzou in the NCAA Tournament. “It was one of my fondest memories as a kid.”
And testimony that anything can happen in NCAA play — even for schools that travel by bus for conference road games and give financial aid instead of scholarships and still consider "academics first" part of their DNA.
“I think people underestimate how tough and how hard we play,” Penn’s A.J. Brodeur told reporters in Wichita. “You know, obviously the Ivy League’s schools are known for their high academics …
“When you think more about that, you start to think about how (others perceive that) maybe they’re not as tough as the other teams that they play.”
Not everyone is thinking that way, actually, about the team representing a league that has furnished other modern watershed moments, including: legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril’s team upending defending national champion UCLA in 1996; Princeton’s near takedown of top seed Georgetown in 1989; and Cornell’s Sweet 16 run under Donahue in 2010.
In fact, there is a wave of media speculation that Penn has a legitimate opportunity to end the 132-0 run by No. 1 seeds in the tournament.
Among other national media pundits, ESPN’s statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com calls Penn’s opportunity “among the best a No. 16 seed ever has had” — even while saying “the Quakers probably won’t win.”
The site cites its own computer ratings to suggest Penn is much better than a typical No. 1 seed and reminds that the Ivy rarely is seeded in that slot.
In fact, the last time it happened was in 1989 — when Georgetown barely hung on to beat Princeton 50-49 in what Sports Illustrated would later call “The Game That Saved March Madness.”
“First, consider the imperfection of the No. 1: The Jayhawks are ninth according to KenPom.com, the equivalent of a No. 3 seed; they lag defensively; their average point differential was 21st, the same as fellow Big 12 member West Virginia (a No. 5 seed); and it is unclear how available injured big man Udoka Azubuike will be. Then there’s Penn: The Quakers won the Ivy League, which had a down year but is still a more formidable conference than No. 16s typically come from; are expert at defending the 3-pointer; and are coached by Steve Donahue, who took Cornell to the round of 16 several years ago.”
Kansas at its best, of course, figures to dispose of the Quakers, who are in the tournament for the first time in 11 years.
And there’s no reason for KU to be overlooking Penn.
Coach Bill Self knows the perils the first round can hold — see: Bucknell and Bradley — and has a healthy respect for Donahue, whose Cornell team gave KU a tussle at Allen Fieldhouse before losing 71-66 in 2010 and leaving to what Donahue recalled as an ovation from KU fans.
“That experience, I thought, was the main ingredient for that team to have great success in the NCAA Tournament,” Donahue said in Wichita on Wednesday, adding, “That game was an incredible basketball game. And … the first thing (Self) said after the game is he thought his guys played well, which to me was great to hear; that it wasn't that they laid down and weren't ready for us.”
Making sure his players feel that way again for Thursday could be imperative for Self lest KU find itself on the wrong end of history that would be great for the tournament but rotten for the program.
“We know that we have a very difficult draw with Penn,” Self said. “My personal opinion is they don't resemble a 16 seed at all. Steve's done a great job. They're sound, they can shoot. They're physical. They can play through their bigs, and, of course, they got some depth, too. …
“And they can guard. So we know that they pose some issues for us if we don't come ready to play, and they certainly have our attention.”
If not, Penn basketball could have the attention of the nation in ways it hasn’t since 1979 ... but that have lingered ever since.