Northwestern basketball has had many tough decades over the past century, especially since the glory days of the 1930s. None were worse than the 1970s, the only decade in history where NU suffered through ten losing seasons. However, that decade delivered one of the most memorable highlights in program history — an 83-65 win over Magic Johnson and the eventual national champion Michigan State Spartans. The last-place Cats pulverized the Spartans, pushing their season to the brink of elimination. The loss galvanized MSU, which went on to beat Indiana State in a National Championship game that would alter the history of basketball.
The game – simply remembered as “The Magic Johnson Game” by many NU fans – took place on Saturday, January 27, 1979. It was played at McGaw Hall, four years before the renovation to Welsh-Ryan Arena. Among the features of McGaw Hall was a dirt floor – something not uncommon to field houses built during its era. Cable television was still in its infancy (ESPN would launch until eight months later), so there was no TV coverage. A total of 4,965 fans attended – although in subsequent years, many thousands more claimed to have been there.
The 1978-79 NU season featured a new coach, former Wildcat player Rich Falk. He took over the program from Tex Winter, who he served as an assistant. Winter, who came to NU in 1973, resigned in April 1978 to take the head-coaching job at Long Beach State. Falk had an excellent playing career at NU, achieving All-Big recognition in 1963 and 1964, and was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1964. The NU administration hoped that Falk’s youthful energy would boost the program, which was falling further and further behind the rest of the conference. NU had some respectable teams during the 1950s and 1960s, but by the late 1970s NU’s academic standards and facilities had sunk the program to the bottom of the league. As professional basketball gained popularity in the late 1960s and 1970s, the ABA was formed as a rival to the NBA; this increased salaries for players. Dreams of big paychecks caused top high school recruits to care less and less about academics. Northwestern had little to offer players who simply wanted the easiest route to a professional career, and it showed in the standings. NU’s best record during the 70’s was a 12-15 mark in 1976. NU’s hopelessness was reflected at the box office: during the 1977-78 season, average home attendance was less than 3,000 people per game.
Falk’s first season got off to a rough start, as NU went 4-5 in nonconference play. One of those four wins was against Oklahoma City University, a school that later dropped to the NAIA during the 1980s. The highlight of the preseason was an overtime loss at DePaul. Unlike nowadays, DePaul was a nationally prominent program — in fact, they would go on to make the Final Four that season. The Big Ten season began with seven straight conference losses, including a 74-45 beatdown at Indiana on January 20. With eleven games left, a winless Big Ten season (something that had not been seen at NU since 1924) seemed a real possibility.
As the Wildcats’ season drudged on in anonymity, the Spartans provided a sharp contrast. MSU featured sophomore sensation Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a 6-foot-8 guard who had playmaking ability never before seen in a man of his size. In addition to his skills, Magic’s personality and smile dazzled the nation, bringing unprecedented national media attention to Michigan State. For example, Magic donned a tuxedo on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college basketball preview issue. The Spartans were surprise Big Ten champs in 1978, compiling a 25-5 record before falling to Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Based on the 1978 breakout season, many national pundits pegged MSU as a strong contender for the 1979 National Championship.
MSU’s season started well enough, winning nine of their first ten games, with only a one-point loss to North Carolina. By early January the Spartans were ranked No. 1 in the nation and had a 3-0 Big Ten record. Then they ran into some trouble. They dropped three consecutive road games at Illinois, Purdue, and Michigan, each by only one or two points. Their Big Ten record fell to 5-3, a major disappointment. However, their next game was in Evanston, and the Cats seemed the ideal tonic to fix Sparty’s woes.
MSU, which had fallen to No. 4 in the polls due to its earlier losses, was a 14-point favorite in the matchup with NU. Northwestern, not a strong shooting team, made its first three shots to keep pace with the Spartans early. The game was tied 10-10 in the middle of the first half. Then MSU ran into foul trouble, and NU went 13-of-13 at the free throw line to take a 39-29 halftime lead. Word of the brewing upset spread around campus via radio, and students began arriving at halftime — in fact, the size of the crowd actually grew throughout the second half.
Skeptical Wildcat fans expected to see a strong Spartan run at the beginning of the second half. Indeed, there was a huge early run, but it was Northwestern scoring the first ten points of the half to open a 49-29 lead. Johnson did his best to keep the Spartans in the game, closing the margin to 15 during the second half. However, NU guard Rod Roberson then scored 8 of NU’s next 10 points to help put the game away.
How did NU pull off the upset? One key was Falk’s game plan. NU prevented Magic from getting penetration, forcing him to pass off to the wings. Normally, this would not be a huge problem, since Magic was known as a tremendous facilitator. However, his teammates had a horrible shooting night, as the team shot only 33 percent from the floor. During the second half Magic, started settling for 25 foot jumpers, something he was not accustomed to. NU also started a small lineup that night, with three guards. Senior captain Jerry Marifke did an outstanding job handling MSU’s press in the second half, and also scored 12 points. Roberson, who led the Wildcats with 20 points, masterfully handled the wing position in the three-guard lineup. Forward Mike Campbell had 16 points and helped center Bob Klaas control rebounds. Free throw shooting was also essential to the win — NU went 29-of-33 from the line, while MSU was only 20-of-28.
Magic Johnson had a tremendous stat line in defeat — he finished the game with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. However, he took the brunt of the criticism after the loss. Chicago Tribune columnist David Israel had a piece in the next day’s paper entitled “’Magic’ Act Losing its Edge.” MSU coach Jud Heathcote also took plenty of abuse for the team’s January struggles. At his TV show the week after the game, he joked that he only received one letter demanding his resignation. “Unfortunately,” he said, “it was signed by ten thousand people."
The loss put MSU at 5-4 in Big Ten play, and in serious danger of missing the NCAA Tournament. The tournament was expanded from 32 teams in 1978 to 40 teams in 1979, but at-large spots were still very rare. Michigan State would win ten of its next eleven games to earn a three-way tie for the Big Ten title with Iowa and Purdue. MSU got the NCAA tournament bid based on tiebreakers, and Iowa received an at-large bid. Despite a 13-5 conference record (27-8 overall) and a tie for the conference title, Purdue was relegated to the NIT.
As everyone knows, the story has a happy ending for Michigan State. The Spartans went on to defeat Indiana State for the national championship in Salt Lake City, Utah. ISU reached the Championship game with a two point Final Four win over the Depaul team that NU took to overtime in December. Tiny Indiana State provided a “David vs. Goliath” theme, and America was hooked. The game drew a 24.1 Neilsen rating, which means that one in four US televisions were tuned in. This remains the highest rating for any college or pro basketball game in history — a record that is unlikely to ever be broken due to the modern proliferation of TV channels.
Larry Bird, leader of the upstart Indiana State team, would join Magic in the NBA the following season. The two players became the poster children not just for the fabled Lakers/Celtics rivalry, but for the NBA.
Sadly for NU, the popularity of Magic and Bird only compounded the program’s problems. The large viewership of the 1979 NCAA Championship led to the rapid expansion of the NCAA tournament and by 1985 the field had been expanded to 64 teams. By the mid-1980s, “March Madness” became a mainstream obsession. Americans from coast to began filling out NCAA Tournament “bracket pools” -- a new springtime tradition. The opening Thursday of the tournament eventually became an unofficial holiday, with many employees taking sick days to watch the action. As college basketball continued to soar in popularity, more and more schools pumped resources into basketball while NU remained left behind.
After their epic win, the Wildcats returned to their usual ways. NU lost nine of its final ten games, finishing last in the Big Ten at 2-16 (6-21 overall). Northwestern would finish dead last each of the next two seasons, and finish ninth in 1982. Rich Falk’s tenure reached its peak in 1983, when NU qualified for the NIT, the first postseason berth in school history. However, the program returned to last place in the 1985 and 1986 seasons, after which Falk was fired and replaced by former Duke coach Bill Foster.