It was the 1954 Final Four, the year La Salle won the national title. The Explorers’ gym didn’t have state-of-the-art smoke machines yet, but neither did any other program’s. The game had evolved in recent years, though, and college basketball’s coaches met in March to discuss rule changes that would better manage the new, faster-paced game. One of the recommendations coaches approved was adding a description of basketball as “a negligible contact sport.” Doc Carlson, recently retired as Pittsburgh head coach, told the assembled: “Coaches should get away from the illusion that basketball is a non-contact sport.”
That particular description of basketball isn’t in the sport’s current 147-page rule book (I checked). But one rule that coaches approved that weekend is still in effect. Nearly 70 years later, because of a decision in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Muehlebach in Kansas City, men’s college basketball games are played in two 20-minute halves.
I first learned of this in John Gasaway’s Miracles on the Hardwood: The Hope-and-a-Prayer Story of a Winning Tradition in Catholic College Basketball. Coaches decided to limit end-of-period stalling by simply getting rid of two periods. Gasaway recaps the meeting in his book:
Yale coach Howard Hobson was still lobbying for his 30-second shot clock, and he presented his proposal to fellow National Association of Basketball Coaches members at the 1954 Final Four. His motion for a clock was defeated in “emphatic” fashion and, in fact, drew just one supporting vote. The assembled coaches did however adopt one recommendation intended to reduce what was termed “stalling.” Now that 10-minute quarters had been used in college basketball for three years, the coaches recommended that the basketball rules committee return the sport to 20-minute halves. According to the NABC, the problem with quarters was that teams were playing for the last shot for one to two minutes or even longer at the end of each 10-minute period. While a shot clock would have prohibited holding the ball, coaches instead chose to reduce the number of cues to hold the ball.
The rule change that got the most attention that year in the press was the free throw rule. For the 1952-53 and 1953-54 seasons, basketball had a weird “one and one” free throw rule: Every common non-shooting foul would result in one free throw. But if the player missed the free throw, he’d get a second chance at a point. It basically gave players two chances at one point. Coaches voted almost two-to-one in favor of eliminating this rule in a pre-meeting straw poll. A newspaper in Canada called the old rule “notorious.”
The new rules made all common fouls a one-and-one, with a shooter who makes the first shot getting a chance at a second—for the first 37 minutes of a game. For the final three minutes, every foul would result in two shots. “We are trying to take away the objectionable feature of the present rule, which puts a premium on mediocre foul shooting,” Ohio State coach Floyd Stahl said. “The recommendation would give a bonus for good shooting and help do away with fouling for profit.”
Coaches were torn on how that rule would be received. Loyola Chicago’s George Ireland told the press there would now be too many free throws, predicting “teams will be spending much of their time around the foul lines.” Minnesota’s Ozzie Cowles disagreed: “Fans won’t object to seeing a boy going up to the line and making a shot.” Oklahoma’s Hank Iba was happy that there would be two free throws awarded in the final three minutes, otherwise “the final three minutes would get pretty bloody.” And this in a sport with “negligible” contact!
In contrast, the monumental and inexplicably enduring switch to 20-minute halves instead of 10-minute quarters received notably less ink in North American papers. Coaches interviewed were generally in favor of it. The Charlotte News interviewed local college coaches and all of them appreciated two halves as a way to prevent teams from stalling—if only in the sense that there were now only two opportunities to hold the ball for the last shot. Both Clemson’s Banks McFadden and Lenoir-Rhyne College’s Jim Hamilton lamented the loss of two jump balls from the game, however. Back then, each period started with a jump ball. Still, all six coaches quoted in the paper liked the new rule. “It will eliminate stalling which had become at least three minutes of a 40-minute game,” Hamilton said. All the coaches also wanted more timeouts, which is not surprising given that they’re coaches, and coaches always want more timeouts.
One coach thought the move away from quarters would give bigger schools an advantage. “The 20-minute halves will help the bigger schools with the larger squads,” Louisville’s Peck Hickman said. “Full 20-minute halves without those quarter rest stops will put a stronger strain on the stamina of the squad that has only five or six or seven good players.”
Preventing teams from holding the ball for minutes on end was a good idea at the time. But it has long since outlived its usefulness. As Gasaway writes, when the NCAA adopted a shot clock for the 1985-86 season—then 45 seconds, now 30—there was no more need for two halves to prevent stalling. Before the 2015-16 season, the NCAA changed women’s basketball to a game of four quarters.
I think it’s better! The game moves a bit quicker this way; teams simply shoot two free throws after five fouls each quarter. All those Jurassic coaches would surely be happy to learn that there are fewer free throws in general. (As one of the few things in basketball I did well, I like free throws, too. But I’d rather see fewer of them.) There are already media timeouts after the first stoppage after 12 and 8 minutes at most games; eliminate those in favor of a quarter break and you have a little snappier game. Ken Pomeroy wants four quarters. Jay Bilas wants four quarters. In 1955, after one season back at two halves, Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp wanted four 12-minute quarters, calling it one of the “changes that are necessary for the very life of the game.”
I don’t think it’s as huge deal as Rupp did; halves and quarters aren’t that much different. But sports are always looking to get a little more brisk and fast-moving. It’s fun to look at the box score and see that South Carolina was beating up on UConn 22-8 after one quarter in the national title game. In the men’s final last night, North Carolina won the second 10 minutes of the first half 26-7, but you won’t see that many places, let alone in a box score. Kansas won the faux third quarter 31-10. How fun this all is to you probably depends on how much you like seeing numbers separated by a dash, but it’s also illuminating information that’s buried completely in the scores of the various halves.
Maybe you’re not as psyched as I am at seeing these numbers, and that would be your right. I just like the little break, and I like seeing four quarters on a box score. I’d also like teams to shoot fewer free-throws and would love to get rid of the one-and-one, although that’s all neither here nor there. The bigger point is that a decision made in 1954, for reasons that are no longer applicable, is probably due for a re-evaluation.