Tales from the Archive: Northwestern Basketball’s 1931 Championship

WNUR’s historian extraordinaire, Matt Keith (@mattlkeith), takes us back to a time when Northwestern basketball was known for something other than their futility: their 1931 national championship.

The tortured history of Northwestern men’s basketball is well documented. The fact that the Wildcats have never made a trip to the NCAA Tournament doesn’t fully capture the agony of the team’s very existence. With the sole exception of this past season, Northwestern hasn’t really been close to making the tournament ever. The 1958-59 season saw the Cats finish second in the Big Ten, but the Tournament only featured 23 teams at that point, so once again, Northwestern wasn’t terribly close to making the dance.

Even in the pre-NCAA Tournament era, Northwestern hardly sat atop the pinnacle of college basketball. Although the team did win two Big Ten championships prior to 1939, its overall record was 242-262-1, and included two winless seasons.

Tortured almost seems too mild an expression to apply to this program. Jack Bauer in the foulest of moods couldn’t inflict this level of pain.

However, to paraphrase an expression of Marty Schottenheimer, there’s a gleam in the history of Northwestern basketball. (As a brief aside, I still have no idea what Marty meant by “gleam” in the context he used it. Based on the way Cleveland played the Broncos in the final minute, my guess is his players were equally confused.)

The annals of Northwestern history indicate one shining moment for the Wildcats’ basketball program, when in 1931, the team claimed a national championship. True, that’s ancient history as far basketball is concerned, but let’s not minimize the accomplishment just yet.

How the Cats achieved this lone title is a somewhat strange story.

In the decade prior to the 1930-31 season, Northwestern was not a powerhouse. It had only two winning campaigns during that stretch, and its best finish was a tie for third in the Big Ten (newspapers began to call the conference by its modern name at this time, although many still referred to it as the Western Conference; at the same time, papers started to change Northwestern’s nickname to the Wildcats, but Purple remained the much more common nickname).

The 1929-1930 season didn’t exactly indicate that Northwestern was a national champion in the making. The Purple finished 8-8 overall and 6-6 in conference, good enough for only a sixth place finish.

Coincidentally, that team had a similar mindset of today’s Northwestern teams – “outscore the opponent because we can’t stop them.” A third of the way through conference play, the New York Times summarized the Big Ten standings, pointing out that the Purple defense was miserable, allowing (gasp) 29 points per game halfway through conference play. How could that possibly be a bad defense, you ask. Well, the conference on the whole allowed 22.6 points per game, so Northwestern was substantially behind the pack.

Of course, like today’s teams, it made up for these struggles by coming in third in scoring offense (24.75 points per game). Still, the team finished in the bottom half of the conference and didn’t garner much respect from opponents.

Heading into the 1930-31 season, Northwestern didn’t exactly have the weight of recent history behind it. But it did have a few things going in its favor. Head coach Arthur Lonborg had turned the Purple from a perennial cellar dweller into a respectable team. And in December of 1930, he brought his most veteran team to the court.

Six lettermen returned to the team, bringing tons of depth to the forward and guard positions. However, even in 1930, the program had a lack of depth at the center position, with the Chicago Daily Tribune reporting in its season preview that this was Northwestern’s biggest weakness. But on the whole, the Tribune’s preview indicated a plethora of talent and experience at the other positions.

The biggest advantage however that Northwestern had during its 1930-31 season, according to the Tribune, was its schedule. Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana, who were the powerhouses in the conference at that time, did not appear on Northwestern’s schedule. If ever there was an opportunity for the Purple to run the table and claim the conference, this was it.

Northwestern cruised through the early part of its non-conference schedule thanks in large part to sophomore forward sensation Joe Reiff, who at one point tied the conference individual single game scoring record with 26 points in a beat down of Notre Dame.

Northwestern’s first test came in a rematch with the Irish. Shut down for most of the game, Reiff scored two last minute baskets to give the Cats a 20-17 win, and keep their season record unblemished headed into conference play.

The Northwestern offense began to pick up steam, winning relatively high-scoring affairs against Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State, and proved to be particularly lethal in the second half. At one point, Chicago took a 6-4 lead over the Purple into the half, only to lose 31-16. Guard Bus Smith emerged as the early star of Big Ten action, but was helped out by a team that the Tribune described as one of the fastest in the conference. On any given night, a different Northwestern player might have a double-digit outburst. The defense still struggled at times, but with the best offensive depth in the conference, it rarely mattered.

Northwestern stumbled only once, in a 35-28 loss to Illinois. On February 23, the Purple beat Minnesota 45-23 to clinch a share of the conference title. At the time this score was astounding, and Northwestern’s offense was lighting the world on fire with such outbursts. In its final two games, Northwestern once again lit up the scoreboard against Ohio State and Iowa to win the Big Ten outright.

When the dust settled, the Purple had a 16-1 overall record, and an 11-1 conference mark. The accolades came pouring in, not just from local papers, but from all over the country. Reiff was named to the AP All-Conference team along with a Purdue guard that the New York Times called “Johnny” Wooden.

College basketball wasn’t a big deal nationally yet, but in 1931, Northwestern was as big as it got when it won a tough Big Ten.

After a week of celebrating, the sports world moved on. There was no postseason basketball. There wasn’t even enough interest nationally for the AP to name a national champ.

For more than a decade, the 1930-31 Northwestern team would remain Big Ten champs, but nothing more.

Then, in 1942, the Helms Athletic Foundation went back through every season of college basketball to name a national champion. It’s selection for 1931? Northwestern.

It’s easy to marginalize this award, especially since the Helms Foundation isn’t even around anymore. But it was once a major organization and the only one to award national championships, albeit retroactively, to teams prior to the NCAA Tourney. Kansas, UNC, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Wisconsin aren’t above touting Helms Athletic Foundation championships. And they have histories of Tournament success.

Google pre-NCAA Tournament champions and you’ll find that many term such accomplishments “mythical championships.” The argument for ignoring these titles is that without a playoff, one can’t claim to have won a national championship. That logic would of course render every single college football national title meaningless.

Northwestern’s 1931 accomplishment is often forgotten, minimized or swept under the rug.

It’s not hard to see why Wildcat fans don’t readily boast about this title. Imagine if a Duke fan started taunting a Northwestern fan about never making the tournament. The reply, “Oh yeah, well MY team won a National Championship in 1931 before there ever was a Tournament,” is sure to draw loud guffaws.

But that’s no reason not to take pride in the past. To ignore the 1931 team is to do a tremendous disservice to the best men’s basketball team Northwestern has ever put on the floor.

Next time you hear someone say that Northwestern has no basketball history, remember 1931. It may be the smallest of things to embrace, but for Northwestern fans it’s the only thing to which we can cling.


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