SALT LAKE CITY — The headlines that week were all about Middle East peace talks, the sharp rise in the U.S. inflation rate and a special counsel investigating President Jimmy Carter’s family peanut business. A local newspaper story touted the advantages of spring in Utah, how one could go skiing in the mountains for $7 one day and play 18 holes of golf in the valley for $2 the next.
That last weekend in March 1979 was also a time when the sports world was focused on Salt Lake City as the NCAA Basketball Tournament Final Four made its first and only appearance in Utah's capital city.
And what a weekend it was, 40 years ago.
The Final Four featured a pair of amazing college basketball players in Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, aka the Hick from French Lick, who weren’t quite legendary yet. Those two would go on to forge a decadelong rivalry as two of the NBA’s best players for two iconic franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The weekend also featured a beloved old coach named Ray Meyer and his “men of steal,” as well as a Cinderella squad from the Ivy League that had fashioned four unlikely upsets on its way to the Final Four.
All these years later, the final between Michigan State and Indiana State remains the most-watched NCAA championship game ever with a 24.1 rating, edging out the 1985 game’s 23.3 rating. Some 35 million people watched that game, more than double the number that watched last year’s NCAA Final between Villanova and Michigan.
The Final Four had been awarded to the University of Utah five years earlier in 1974, giving the U. plenty of time to get ready. By 1979, the NCAA Tournament was in the process of rapid expansion, going to 40 teams for the first time that year with seeding for the first time, before making a big leap the following year to 64 teams.
Tickets cost just $15, if you can believe it, but they weren’t available to the general public as fans had to apply a year in advance just as they do now (when the tickets cost $210) and hope to get them through a lottery. And less than 5,000 seats were available, with the rest going to competing teams and NCAA officials.
Many folks who were lucky enough to get tickets, expecting to make a killing, were disappointed when the market dried up. Scalpers were reportedly expecting around $150, according to media reports at the time. However, the market fizzled and scalpers outside the Special Events Center for the semifinals couldn’t even sell them for face value. According to one local story, “one despondent scalper ... settled for $3” for his single ticket.
The 1978-79 college basketball season turned out to be the zenith for local colleges, with 10 percent of the field coming from Utah as all four major colleges qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Although it wasn’t likely, Utah, BYU, Utah State and Weber State each had a chance to make it to the Special Events Center for the semifinals and finals in their home state on March 24 and March 26.
Utah, Utah State and BYU all played in Los Angeles with the Utes and Aggies playing first-round games as the eighth and 10th seeds, respectively, while BYU got a first-round bye as the No. 5 seed.
The Utes lost a heartbreaking first-round game to Pepperdine, 92-88 in overtime, while the Aggies were beaten handily by USC, 86-67. Playing in the Midwest Regional in Lawrence, Kansas, Weber State was a seventh seed and got by New Mexico State, 81-78 in overtime, before losing to Arkansas, 74-63.
With a win, BYU had a chance to advance to its home court for the West Regional at the Marriott Center, but lost to San Francisco by 23 points at Pauley Pavilion.
During the regionals the following weekend, Michigan State cruised to three double-digit victories in the Mideast Regional in Indianapolis, while Indiana State stayed unbeaten with two easy wins and a two-point win over Arkansas in the Midwest Regional finals in Cincinnati.
In the West Regional in Provo, DePaul knocked off favored UCLA in a game where the Marriott Center fans became DePaul fans after UCLA players rudely interrupted a halftime show by BYU dancers, and cheered the Blue Demons to a 95-91 victory.
Penn was the ninth seed in the East and had won four games by a total of 15 points, including a one-point upset of No. 1 seed North Carolina and a two-point win over St. John’s.
Indiana State defeated Virginia Tech and Oklahoma handily in its first two tournament games and edged Arkansas by two points in an Elite Eight game in Cincinnati to punch its ticket to Salt Lake.
As it turned out, three No. 1 seeds — UCLA, Notre Dame and North Carolina — failed to advance to Salt Lake City, with Indiana State being the only No. 1 to survive.
Because of what happened in Provo the week before and with 65-year-old Ray Meyer coaching in his 37th year, DePaul was the sentimental favorite when it showed up in the Special Events Center.
Indiana State came with rookie coach Bill Hodges, who had already been named the national coach of the year with the only unbeaten team in the country.
The Sycamores led most of the game and by as many as 11 midway through the second half until DePaul, which unbelievably played the same five players for 40 minutes, came back to take a 74-73 lead in the final minute. But the Sycamores scored on a basket by Bob Heaton and later added a free throw.
DePaul had one more chance to send the game to overtime, but freshman Mark Aguirre’s 20-footer from the right baseline with three seconds left bounced away, leaving Indiana State with a 76-74 victory.
The star was Bird, who scored 35 points on 16-of-19 shooting from the field and quipped afterward, “I kind of feel sorry for the other guys, when I hit like I did today. When you’re as hot as I was, you beg for your guys to throw you the ball.”
The other semifinal was as big of a blowout as the Final Four has ever seen as Michigan State treated Penn like a high school team in winning 101-67.
The Quakers couldn’t find the basket, making only 6 of 36 shots in the first half and falling behind 50-17 at halftime. They went nearly nine minutes without scoring and a 29-2 run made the score an embarrassing 33-6 as fans squirmed in their seats. For the game, Penn shot just 26 percent, compared to 63 percent for MSU, which was able to rest key players in the second half. Despite not playing the whole game, Johnson finished with a triple-double of 29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
“People say I can’t shoot,” Johnson said afterward. “But I know if I’m straight up to the basket, it’s a-gonna go in. I don’t care how many points I score, though, as long as we win.”
At least Penn was able to erase some of its embarrassment from its awful semifinal showing in Monday’s third-place game, a meaningless contest that was eliminated by the NCAA a couple of years later. The Quakers took DePaul to overtime before falling 96-93 in a foul-plagued game in which six players fouled out.
The final game
It was the matchup everyone wanted to see — Magic vs. Larry — and it became an even bigger deal in retrospect because of the success Johnson and Bird had as professionals and their rivalry in the NBA, which continued for more than a decade.
Unfortunately, the game didn’t live up to the hype as Bird had an off night, shooting just 7 for 21 from the field and scoring 19 points, 10 below his average, in a game that was never really close.
The Spartans took control from the start, racing to a 16-8 lead that quickly moved to double digits before settling for a 37-28 halftime lead. The Sycamores pulled to within six at 52-46 with 10 minutes left, but the Spartans pulled away from there for a 75-64 win, their fifth double-digit win during their NCAA tourney run.
Johnson finished with 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting and pulled down seven rebounds and handed out five assists. Underrated forward Greg Kelser finished with 19 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.
Guard Terry Donnelly, who averaged just 6.4 points during the season, came up big in the final, scoring 15 points on 5-for-5 shooting from the field and 5-for-6 from the foul line. He said later he found himself free with the Indiana State defense trying to stop Johnson and Kelser. Most of his shots were from 3-point range — however, the 3-point line wasn’t implemented in college basketball for another seven years.
Bird, who had shied away from reporters for most of the historic season, refused to speak to the media after the disappointing loss. This was before the days when star players were required to go to the podium and be interviewed while the rest of the players stayed available in the locker room for 45 minutes after the game.
Instead, Bird dressed in an adjoining room to the main locker room and was ushered into a training room before walking out red-eyed. That left his teammates to speak of their disappointing defeat.
“We made believers out of a nation,” said ISU’s Leroy Staley. “This loss can’t take away from our season. I’m not ashamed.”
Later Bird gave a statement to an ISU spokesman, which read, “I hate to lose, just like all the other guys on the team. But I guess we did all right, we won 33 games.”
The normally effusive Johnson wasn’t too talkative in the locker room, perhaps because he’d already been interviewed on TV and on the dais.5 comments on this story
“I’m done with questions,” Johnson said, more than an hour after the game ended. “I’m tired right now. I really can’t enjoy it. It hasn’t soaked in yet. I can’t answer no more questions.”
Earlier this year, the University of Utah reached out to Bird and Magic to see if they would come out to Utah at some point to commemorate the historical Final Four, but nothing could be worked out with the two men’s schedules.
Just like 40 years earlier, they weren’t talking.
Instead, we’ll just have to live on with the memories of that historic weekend in March 1979 when the final Final Four came to Utah and gave us Larry and Magic.