Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Remembering the Days of Holy Roman Hoops

At least two Catholic schools have a good shot at winning this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament. But once upon a time, Catholic colleges were a much more potent force on the hardcourt. What happened?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This day is Ash Wednesday and commentator Frank Deford says if recent history is any guide, once again, Roman Catholic colleges will be giving up the NCAA basketball championship for lent.

FRANK DEFORD, Special Commentator:

It's been 21 years since a Catholic school last won the title and since then only three Catholic colleges have even made the final four. But, before then, Catholic schools enjoyed great success beyond their relatively small numbers and resources. Holy Cross, LaSalle, San Francisco, Loyola of Chicago, Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova all won championships.

However, this recent hoop drought continues a trend in the dimunition of Catholic sports dominion. Only Notre Dame and Boston College even field Division 1A football teams anymore, while into the mid 20th century, Catholic schools regularly competed at the top gridiron level.

Athletics, you see, were very important to the recognition and the pride of Catholic colleges. Most of them had grown up to help educate the emerging immigrant population. Their endowments were small, resources limited and academics modest. Especially because so much of the Catholic population was urban, the colleges were invariably downtown, crowded and spare. Football soon became prohibitively expensive for most Catholic colleges.

But, because basketball is our cheapest game, Catholic colleges could continue to be competitive on the hardwood. Ah, but then the NCAA expanded its field, big television money came in and large state institutions which had never cared much for basketball before, wanted a bite out of the apple. The Deep South and southwest had been strictly football territory but, chomp, chomp.

Today, the members of the football bowl championship series, the BCS behomoths, dominate basketball, too. Even the richest Catholic colleges have trouble competing for the best players when these big-time public schools can offer state-of-the-art practice facilities, special team dorms, even chartered game flights. Frankly, it's taken a lot of fun out of basketball when the little guys have such a hard time making a fair fight out of it.

This year, though, two Catholic schools are genuine contenders. Tiny Gonzaga of Washington, enrolled with hardly 1,600, is the best team in all the west. And Villanova plays a four-guard offense that buffaloes most everybody. Also, Villanova is heavy on history. Philadelphia's Wildcats were in the very first final four in 1939 and they were that very last Catholic school to win in 1985. Perhaps at the end of NCAA's this year, some white smoke will rise above the domed stadium in Indianapolis.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us every Ash Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford