Sunday, February 5, 2012

The myth of three consecutive buzzer beaters in the 1981 NCAA tournament

Saturday 3/14/1981 was unquestionably one of the more memorable days in NCAA tournament history. NBC televised a regional doubleheader and the day featured these three shocking last second finishes (but not quite in the way that a myth would have you believe):

  • St Joseph's over DePaul on a John Smith layup
  • Arkansas over Louisville on a halfcourt shot by U.S. Reed
  • Kansas St over Oregon St on a Rolando Blackmon jumper

DePaul and Oregon St were both 1-seeds and were ranked #1 and #2 in the country. Louisville was the defending champion. All three received first round byes and all there were ousted in the second round.

I watched the action on NBC that day. In the early afternoon timeslot, St Joseph's stunned DePaul with Don Criqui exclaiming "Look at this! Look at this!" as the winning play developed.

The other two thrillers were in the late afternoon timeslot and ended very close to one another. NBC (which was covering four regional games in that timeslot) had taken viewers live to see Marv Albert and Bucky Waters call the end of the Arkansas game. After the Reed halfcourt shot, NBC quickly switched everyone to the live ending of the Kansas St game with Jay Randolph and Steve Grote at the mikes.

The late afternoon fireworks took place about two hours after DePaul was upset. However if you perform a Google search on this, you will find multiple sites and blogs which talk about this day featuring three consecutive buzzer beaters and some which claim that the St Joseph's win was the last of the three fantastic finishes.

And the misinformation on this is not limited to so-called amateur publishers. In 2002, Alexander Wolff on contributed to this myth and claimed that these three games finished "within minutes". In 2006, was at it again, as Tim Layden described the DePaul and Oregon State finishes as being "televised minutes apart on NBC".

Most surprisingly, Gary Thompson who was the NBC analyst on the St Joseph's game perpetuated this myth in a 2005 quote which appeared on

Thompson was also involved in what was arguably one of the greatest five-minute stretches in NCAA Tournament history in 1981.

"It was called the greatest live switch in NCAA history," Thompson said. "I was broadcasting the DePaul-St. Joseph's game, where top-seeded DePaul was upset in the final seconds to this unheralded St. Joseph's team. When the game ended, we immediately went live to the Arkansas-Louisville game just in time to see U.S. Reed's famous halfcourt shot at the buzzer to win the game for Arkansas. When that ended, we switched live to the Kansas State-Oregon State game and saw Rolando Blackman drive down the sideline and hit the fadeaway shot from the corner to win the game in the final seconds for the Wildcats."

For the record, Thompson was calling the Indiana-Maryland game with Criqui during the late afternoon window. But since he was directly involved in the telecast of one of these fantastic finishes, you would think he might have a better recollection of the facts.

So why has this myth persisted? I have a guess. I recall that the sports report on many news programs that weekend ran highlights of these buzzer beaters. And I remember NBC doing the same thing on its tournament coverage the next afternoon. I suspect that many people who didn't see these games live watched these highlight packages. The images of the three finishes consecutively in highlight format likely caused people to incorrectly perceive the three games as actually finishing back-to-back-to-back.

In any case, I have always believed that the games on 3/14/1981 and the NBC live switches to catch the ending of the two late afternoon games helped jumpstart the phenomenon now called March Madness.


  1. It would be interesting to take a look at some other myths, or stories that many people remember but just aren't true.

    Thanks for the blog, Jeff. I'm enjoying reading it!

  2. Thanks for the words, Ralph. I will consider tackling some other myths/stories in the future.

  3. Just discovered your excellent blog, and I found a mistake in the video. Trey Wingo calls DePaul's team the "Blue Devils" and not "Blue Demons". I remember watching this on TV and I didn't notice it then.

    Keep up the great work!

    (DePaul Class of '09 :))

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback... Interesting error by ESPN Classic in that video. I hadn't noticed that.

  4. NBC had done some switching on the NFL prior to 81, but in those days, there was a bank of landline telephones, each connected to a game site, rather than the satellite/digital equipment that is used now.

    1. True-the earliest I remember was between the studio and a Chiefs-Chargers game in 77, with Jay Randolph cueing viewers for the rest of the country: "Now, let's go back to NFL '77"

  5. Totally agreed-this is the day the NCAA Tournament came of age. I lived in Fayetteville, AR at that time-and US Reed forever has a place in Razorback lore