What If? Reconstructing Northwestern Basketball History

WNUR Sports Online Content Director Cameron Songer (@CameronSonger) turns back time to see what would happen if Northwestern hadn’t torn down the old Patten Gym to build the Technological Institute.

Photo from Northwestern University Archives.

Photo from Northwestern University Archives.

In this version of What If, we’re turning back the clock. Way back. 1909. In that year, the old Patten Gym opened on Sheridan Road, where Northwestern’s Technological Institute now stands. The facility housed Northwestern’s track and swimming pool and was used to host commencement for 25 years.

In 1921, the facility became the home for Northwestern’s basketball team. The gymnasium seated between 4,500 and 5,000 spectators for basketball. One could argue that the best Northwestern basketball teams in history played in the old Patten Gym. Northwestern basketball won its only two Big Ten championships in 1931 and 1933 while they called Old Patten home. Northwestern was retroactively named national champions of the 1931 season by the Helms Athletic Foundation. (There was no NCAA tournament at that point.)

In 1939, the university announced that Patten would be demolished to allow for the construction of the Technological Institute we all know and love. In its final full year, Old Patten Gym hosted the first-ever NCAA Basketball Tournament. On March 27, 1939, the Oregon Ducks defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes 46-33 to win the first NCAA title in the tournament era. (In a related story, the 2013 NCAA Championship game, which featured over 150 total points, was contested in front of over 70,000 fans in Atlanta. Times change.)

On April 1, 1940, the original Patten Gymnasium was razed. When it disappeared, so did Northwestern’s connection to the NCAA tournament.

It’s not exactly a secret that Northwestern basketball is the only long-standing member of a BCS conference to never play in the NCAA Tournament. What’s more surprising is the fact that the Wildcats haven’t really been close to the tournament since hosting it in 1939. Since World War II, the men’s basketball team at Northwestern has finished in the top three in the Big Ten exactly twice. The Wildcats haven’t finished in the top 4 of the Big Ten since 1968. From 1984 to 1991, Northwestern went 6-114 in conference play. In other words, for most of the past century, Northwestern has been about as close to making the NCAA tournament as your high school’s JV team.

Photo from Northwestern University Archives.

Photo from Northwestern University Archives.

Is the reason that Northwestern has never been to the NCAA tournament solely because the school angered the basketball gods by destroying a piece of basketball history? Probably not. But surely there’s a reason that every synopsis of Northwestern basketball history looks like this: “they’ve never been to the tournament, but the school hosted the first NCAA championship game.”

So, what if Northwestern hadn’t torn down Old Patten Gym to build the Technological Institute? I’m not going to argue that Northwestern University would be better off without Tech. In the long run, the university’s reputation for academics is due in large part to Tech. Still, the idea of having an historic basketball landmark on campus today is intriguing.

It’s tough to say how much more of an advantage Northwestern would gain by continuing to use Old Patten. Before 1975, the NCAA only allowed one team per conference to make the NCAA tournament, so Northwestern would have needed to win the Big Ten. The closest they came to that feat after Patten was demolished was a tie for second place in the 1959 season. That year’s team had 4 conference home losses, which came by 5, 4, 2 and 3 points. Their 8-6 conference record was good enough for a tie for 2nd place that year, but the first-place Michigan State Spartans went 12-2 in the Big Ten that year, including two wins against Northwestern, including that 3 point home loss. Had Northwestern recorded a perfect home record in 1959, they would have gone to the NCAA Tournament. They fell 14 points short in four conference home losses. Had they still been playing at the charming old Patten Gym, perhaps the basketball gods would have smiled upon the Wildcats and allowed those four extra wins.

Of course, we can’t simply assume that Northwestern’s teams would have been composed of the same players if Old Patten was still standing at any point beyond a few years after 1940. Given the role that facilities play in recruiting, Northwestern’s roster could have been very different in any year. The appeal of playing in the oldest gym in the country might woo some recruits, while others who ultimately played at Welsh-Ryan might have been turned off by the old Patten. (The cynical Northwestern fan might ask how much worse it could get than the 61-year-old Welsh-Ryan Arena, which seats just over 8,000.)

If Old Patten had never been razed and still stood today, it’s tempting to compare its potential trajectory to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, which opened in 1940, right when Patten was torn down. Architecturally, Cameron is similar to Old Patten. It initially held almost 9,000, but renovations in the late 1980’s expanded capacity to about 10,000. For the sake of simplicity, let’s imagine Cameron Indoor Stadium in the place of Tech on Sheridan Road.

Before you laugh at a comparison between Northwestern’s home court and one of the legendary venues in all of sports, realize that Duke and Northwestern athletics have a lot in common. Even without assuming that Northwestern would realize the same success as the Blue Devils, think about the potential home court advantage for the Wildcats. By simply moving the location of home games closer to students, Northwestern students would go to more games, both in the present day and over the past 50 years. From the standpoint of a visiting player, a game at Northwestern goes from a game played in a small gym to a game played in a small, historic gym with a rabid student section next to the court. Does this radically alter the course of Northwestern basketball history? Obviously. Does it guarantee success? Maybe.

If Northwestern home basketball games were still played at Old Patten Gym, the landscape of Northwestern sports would be very different. The facility would be the oldest in Division I college hoops, and its location right on campus would bring in fans of both basketball and history. Assuming the arena was kept in fair condition over the years, it would look like a mix between Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse (where the final game of Hoosiers was filmed) and Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. Given the mystiques surrounding those gyms, I am confident that Northwestern would have at least one tournament appearance by now.

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