What do 30 years of WrestleMania and the NCAA Basketball Tournament have in common? Find out in part five of this ten-part series.
Just last year, fans of World Wrestling Entertainment enjoyed watching the company’s 30th edition of their grandest annual event: WrestleMania. But no matter how many millions of fans get WrestleMania fever for these past 30 outings, just as many (if not more) are simultaneously in the thick of NCAA Basketball Tournament action known the world over as “March Madness,” arguably the most enjoyable three weeks in all of sports. But what about those fans that are one and the same? As a die-hard fan of both professional wrestling and college basketball (to the point that is almost sickly), there is a tremendous range of emotions and thoughts that I go through every year as WWE wrestlers gear up and step up to the biggest stage in all of pro wrestling at the very same time that college basketball’s finest follow suit in their respective dream: Going to the Final Four and winning the national championship.
Many times (20 of the 30, to be exact), the Final Four or national semi-finals has taken place the Saturday night before WrestleMania and the national championship final has done so the Monday after wrestling’s biggest show. There are some basketball moments in certain years that I have cherished more than the WrestleMania ones, and vice versa in other years, but I have always wondered to myself: Where is the connection? What has gravitated me towards both of these events so prominently over the years, with deep obsession and anticipation for the final match or final game, and left me coming back for more? What does Villanova’s upset over Georgetown and the very first WrestleMania have in common? How about the Bret/Shawn rivalry and the Pitino/Calipari rivalry? What made Rey Mysterio and George Mason such great underdogs in the same year? What about those B-plus players, Daniel Bryan and Shabazz Napier? Get ready to find out as we journey, year-by-year, through 30 years of shining moments and WrestleMania moments.
WrestleMania 13 (March 23)
Final Four (March 29) Kentucky d. Minnesota, Arizona d. North Carolina
National Championship Final (March 31) Arizona d. Duke
One of my favorite songs as a high school teenager was a song in 1998 by Semisonic called “Closing Time,” a quintessential post-grunge alternative rock ballad if you’ve ever heard one. One of the most famous lines that lead vocalist Dan Wilson wrote from that song was inspired by the writings of a Roman philosopher named Seneca the Younger: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” The song was released to and garnered immense popularity a good year before WrestleMania 13 in Chicago or the 1997 Final Four in Indianapolis, but that line always stays with me when I think of both of those events. By the time we reached 1997, WWF was fully embroiled (and on the losing end) of an all-out war with WCW for wrestling supremacy in North America. It was obvious just watching WrestleMania 13 that Vince McMahon, still a lead commentator at this time, had only dipped a few toes in the waters of change that would eventually tide over the WWF a year later. While he branded his Monday night show to “Raw is War” and allowed more curse words, there was still that classical resistance to change with the outdated WrestleMania theme music and generic purple and yellow logo in an age where you were wanted to be hip (like the New World Order in WCW) and not a square.
While the kids were still prevalent at ringside in the Rosemont Horizon, there was an audible change in tone as the 18-34 male demographic thirsted for more sex and violence in their carny shows just as they did in their movies and TV shows in the late 90’s. No match signified that trend in one masterstroke of motion quite like the Submission Match between traditional standard-bearer Bret Hart and brash, unapologetic bad ass Stone Cold Steve Austin. Rarely does a match further a rivalry that cannot get any more intense in the ring, but that is what Austin and Hart pulled off in Chicago that night along with a moment so magical that many believe that it was the birth of the forthcoming Attitude Era. As Bret Hart sunk in on his patented Sharpshooter submission and Austin passed out from the pain with blood spewing profusely out of his forehead, the tide had turned drastically from start to finish. Austin, by sticking to his word and never giving up through unfathomable suffering, became the fan favorite and Bret, the throwback good guy hellbent on vengeance, had become the villain. There was no more darkness or light in the WWF but differently tinted shades of grey, and Austin’s generation-defining performance at WrestleMania was the harbinger to the movement that saved the company from certain doom.
But that sign of new life in the WWF thanks to Austin’s ascent to the spotlight had a yin to its yang. WrestleMania 13 would turn out to be the last great match for Bret Hart, who had carried the WWF in its leaner years alongside Shawn Michaels (who had conveniently “lost his smile”) and the Undertaker (who won the WWF Championship in the main event against Sycho Sid). It didn’t have the ceremonial atmosphere of a farewell not only because we didn’t know it yet but because the company was so knee-deep in a ratings battle with WCW that the only options were to faintly mourn and keep going. Just as Bret Hart was unknowingly about to exit stage right from WrestleMania lore, little did we know that two legendary eras in college coaching were about to come to a halt at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, only 184 miles from where WrestleMania 13 was taking place. Although he officially retired months later, the late great Dean Smith, who had passed up Adolph Rupp during the NCAA Tournament as the all time winningest coach in men’s Division I history, coached his last game as the North Carolina Tar Heels played against a scrappy but talented Arizona Wildcats team.
When Arizona took down UNC by 8 points, many thought their number was up in the final game against another Wildcat: Defending champion Kentucky under Rick Pitino. Seriously, what is the likelihood of Lute Olsen beating Roy Williams, Dean Smith and Rick Pitino (whose teams were all #1 seeds) to win a national title? That is as likely as a foul mouthed loner with black tights and black boots becoming the biggest star in wrestling! Well, just as Austin began his climb to super stardom at WrestleMania 13, Olsen’s Wildcats (led by the tremendous back court of Miles Simon, Mike Bibby, and Jason Terry) went the distance with mighty Kentucky and beat those ‘Cats in overtime 84-79 to win Arizona its only national title (No Pac 12 team, including UCLA, has won a national championship since). While Smith’s exit surprised us much later, Pitino was already rumored to being wooed by NBA teams to leave what was growing into an unstoppable force at Kentucky, and Pitino took the bait when he became head coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics not long after his team lost to Arizona, costing them a chance at back-to-back national titles.
The thing about change throughout history is that no matter how deeply you look or how clear your vision is in hindsight, it is never easy to find the tipping point or the event that shifted the paradigm for years to come. That is not how life, business, sports, or even pro wrestling works; there are always things that lead to the big thing and they usually don’t correlate. But Austin’s bleeding image at WrestleMania 13 was the strongest wind of change that opened the window for the WWF to get some fresh air, find new voices, and thrive with smarter, more mature audiences. But with that wind of change came the final moments of Bret Hart as the Excellence of Execution in a changing landscape, just as Dean Smith, a pioneer in college basketball and life in general, shook hands with Lute Olsen in defeat and never coached again. And just as it seemed like Rick Pitino had reached a mountaintop in Kentucky almost as dominant and spectacular as what John Wooden built in UCLA, it was gone in a flash after Arizona beat them, as well. Arizona’s up-tempo guard play was a new beginning for college basketball, but it came at the expense of ending two unforgettable tenures in college basketball. That’s the other thing about change: It shows up when you least expect it, but it’s always at just the right time. Maybe Semisonic had a point.
Final Four (March 28) Utah d. North Carolina, Kentucky d. Stanford
WrestleMania XIV (March 29)
National Championship Final (March 30) Kentucky d. Utah
The old saying goes that you find your greatest strengths when your back is against the wall, that it is always darkest before the dawn. That was certainly the case for the WWF going into 1998, as their Raw program and pay-per-views were getting whooped week after week and month after month by World Championship Wrestling. Many pointed at Bret Hart’s disgraced exit at the Survivor Series in Montreal as the straw that broke the camel’s back, with Vince McMahon nearly having a talent mutiny on his hands as a result. But while McMahon was not yet willing to swim into the waters of mature content in 1997, he dove headfirst by the start of 1998 with an edgier WWF logo and the ushering of more “Attitude.” No face was better suited for the “Attitude” era than Stone Cold Steve Austin, a beer-drinking rebel whose vile misdeeds made him the most popular act in the company. It was the surging popularity of Austin, D-Generation X (led by WWF Champion Shawn Michaels) and special enforcer Mike Tyson (having recently ripped off the ear of Evander Holyfield) that created a main event so magnetic that tickets for WrestleMania XIV at the Fleet Center in Boston sold out in a matter of seconds.
As the first WrestleMania under the mature banner neared, the momentum slowly shifted as WCW was losing more and more ground in their ratings victories. By the time WrestleMania XIV was over and the Austin era began, as Jim Ross famously said at the close of the show, the race between WCW Monday Nitro and WWF Raw is War had become neck-and-neck. While WrestleMania is the grander of events, this was arguably the first year in this series that the Monday night show afterwards held just as much significance as the grand daddy of them all did, resetting many storylines in Albany that had culminated in Boston the night before. In the weeks following that March 30th Raw, the WWF officially took off as ratings for Raw reached 4.0 or higher for the first time ever, eventually surpassing Monday Nitro by the end of the year and writing the story for one of the greatest turnarounds in business history. Vince McMahon and his new lively crew had to make a lot of adjustments and soul searching in late 1997 as things looked grim against Ted Turner’s corporate amenities at WCW, but thanks to WrestleMania XIV, the comeback was complete.
At the same time that the WWF was finally giving a lion’s roar on Raw after being sullied in years of despair and second guessing, the 1998 Kentucky Wildcats were doing an amazing feat of their own by being a dominant basketball power that had to fight back for its legitimacy. Sure, Kentucky had gone 29-4 and were a 2 seed in the 1998 NCAA Tournament, but the doubters were out en masse to see when first-year head coach Tubby Smith would fall on his face. Gone were Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson and, most importantly, Rick Pitino all to the NBA. Now it was up to Smith and less heralded players like Wayne Turner, Jeff Sheppard, Cameron Mills, and Scott Padgett to continue the legacy and etch their own names in stone. Kentucky did just that by trailing by double digits in the last three games of their tournament run against Duke, then Stanford and Utah in the Alamodome in San Antonio, TX, the home of Shawn Michaels, who left wrestling for 4 and a half years after losing the WWF Title to Austin at WrestleMania due to a back injury.
They remain the only team to overcome a 10-point halftime deficit to win a national championship game. So, in this analogy, would the late Rick Majerus’ Utah Utes, a talented mid-major team that fell apart in crunch time, be compared with WCW as their sloppiness and overconfidence opened the door for the WWF to move back upwards? College sports is a lot more organic than simply that, but there is something to be said about how Kentucky’s now-fabled “Comeback Cats” not only endeared us to a familiar face, but reasserted them to a place with which they were plainly familiar at the top of college basketball. The WWF had been on top before, but it’s the arduous climb to persevere to get back there that makes the victory that much sweeter. History is written by the winners but also defined by the losers. Kentucky and the WWF needed the strong scent of losing in order to win the prize in 1998.
Final Four (March 27) UConn d. Ohio State, Duke d. Michigan State
WrestleMania XV (March 28)
National Championship Final (March 29) UConn d. Duke
By the time we reached 1999, the WWF had rebuilt itself at the heat of the Monday Night Wars to not only defeat WCW in the ratings on a weekly basis but also had found more mainstream notoriety than ever before. Only a couple months after airing a commercial promoting its gang of dudes with “Attitude” at Titan Towers for a Super Bowl commercial (“Get it?”), WrestleMania XV would emanate from the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, where ECW introduced the risk-taking uncensored content that the WWF later patented under the “Attitude” banner. Unfortunately, while the event was major success in terms of pay-per-view buy rate and weekly ratings, WrestleMania XV goes down in history as one of the worst ones in the show’s history from top to bottom (Many people blame the repetitive and unconventional tendencies of the company’s head writer at the time, Vince Russo, for the poor execution). Although there was criticism from within, the WWF train was rolling with more force than ever as Stone Cold Steve Austin, now the face of pro wrestling, faced off with his greatest in-ring rival of that era, WWF Champion The Rock.
The main event match between Austin and Rock, good albeit flawed, was a perfect time capsule as we saw the two most popular names in pro wrestling since Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair’s glory days. They would wrestle twice more at WrestleMania, but it seemed almost predestined that the two most transcendent figures of pro wrestling’s big boom in the late ’90’s would have to duke it out for supremacy. Austin may have won back the WWF Championship on the surface, but the company had won overall thanks to the millions of eyeballs that the two attracted as the years went by. In the realm of college basketball, there was no movement or popularity boom in 1999, but like Steve Austin and The Rock, there were certainly two omnipresent teams at the top of the food chain in Duke and Connecticut. UConn, coached by Jim Calhoun and featuring super guards Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin, were 28-2 as Big East champions going into the tournament. They were only topped in the standings by 32-1 Duke, where Mike Kryzyzewski had assembled top talents like Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, William Avery, and Trajan Langdon. It was the best team in a Blue Devils uniform since Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley were still playing there, and they looked the part, averaging 91.8 points per game in the regular season and winning by a 30-point scoring margin on their way to the Final Four at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL.
Duke had lost a heart breaker to Kentucky in the same city the year before, but many felt that the Blue Devils would find retribution against UConn. However, the Huskies were up to the challenge as the game went back and forth all night thanks to Hamilton’s 27 points. Wooden Award winner Elton Brand was still effective with 15 points and 13 rebounds, but Avery shot 3 for 12, Maggette played only eight minutes, and Langdon slipped and lost the ball with Duke trailing by three in the closing seconds. The clock went red and the faces of Duke fans followed suit (along with some ghostly white) as their most talented team maybe ever suffered its first loss since late November and El-Amin screamed at the camera that they had “shocked the world.” To be honest, it wasn’t as shocking on paper as it seemed on television as UConn was the most formidable opponent college basketball could offer to Duke along with a future star in Hamilton, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. At the end of WrestleMania XV, as Steve Austin pinned The Rock to win the WWF Championship for a third time, the character Mr. McMahon may have shown a look of shock and disdain as his most hated adversary reigned supreme, but deep down, Vince McMahon could not have written it up any better. This was not the first time Austin and Rock would duel in the main event of WrestleMania, and like Duke and UConn in the Final Four, they would meet again. But there is always something special about that first time.