NEW YORK – In today’s college basketball landscape, most observers overlook the historic National Invitational Tournament (NIT), claiming that the NIT is to the NCAA Tournament as to what junior varsity is to varsity.
Those observations are not wrong, per se, but they discount the fact the NIT is one of the most historic events in American sports.
Founded in 1938 by the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association, the NIT is one of the most important institutions in college basketball. The tournament has always been contested at Madison Square Garden, the World’s Most Famous Arena, in New York City. Because of the gravitas of the Garden, and the overarching exposure that the New York media provided, teams found the NIT to be much more prestigious than the NCAA Tournament back in the day.
Before 1970, teams could compete in the NCAA Tournament and the NIT in the same season. But in 1970, Al McGuire, the head coach of Marquette, decided that he wanted his team to play in the NIT in New York, instead of the NCAA Tournament. His Marquette team was one of the best in the country that season, and this move indirectly forced the NCAA to adopt a rule change: teams could no longer play in both tournaments.
From that point on, the NIT has served as the NCAA Tournament’s younger brother. The better, more prestigious teams played in the “Big Dance,” while others went to the NIT.
But the NIT still employs very good teams to this day. The 2022 edition featured numerous teams that could have had success in the NCAA Tournament, including the St. Bonaventure Bonnies.
The Bonnies have won three road games in this tournament to get to Madison Square Garden. This week, they head to the Big Apple to try and win it all for the first time since 1977. In doing so, they have brought back fond memories of many Bona alums and families.
One such memory begins when the Bonnies first competed in the NIT, in 1951.
That spring, Joan Costanzo Hanna was in her second year as a student at St. Bonaventure. At the time, only a dozen or so women were enrolled at the University.
Women were not allowed to live on campus.
She is from Bradford, Pennsylvania, and lived there while attending St. Bonaventure. She explained to me that she would “day-hop” her way to class every morning, just to return to Bradford by the afternoon to help her mother operate her family’s corner store and gas station.
But how she first discovered St. Bonaventure is an amazing story in and of itself.
“My father always wanted my twin brother Joe to go to Notre Dame, so my brother went there,” she said. “So I was helping out my mom in the store on the Saturday after my brother left for school, and we had a parish priest stop by who had gone to Christ the King Seminary. His name was John Kennedy. He came into the store that day, and he said to me, ‘get in the car.’ I responded by saying, ‘what for?’ He then told me, ‘your brother is going to college, and so are you.'”
So on that Saturday afternoon, Father Kennedy drove young Joan Costanzo up to St. Bonaventure and enrolled her for classes.
That day changed everything for her. She would go on to receive a wonderful education and meet the love of her life.
On Valentine’s Day 1951, she received a valentine from someone named Jed Hanna.
“He was in one of my classes, so after I received this valentine, I thanked him,” she jokingly recalled. “He had no idea what I was talking about since his roommate sent it to me for him!”
Rather hysterically, Jed’s roommate knew that he fancied Joan and took it upon himself to send her a valentine as Jed was too shy to do so himself.
The plan worked.
Shortly thereafter, Jed took Joan out for a date. Their first date was a success.
The couple’s second date was at Madison Square Garden.
That’s right, Jed and Joan headed to New York City with their classmates to cheer on the St. Bonaventure basketball team in their first-ever appearance in the NIT. It was Joan’s second visit to the Big Apple as she and her future-husband watched Bona lose to St. John’s in the Quarterfinals. She recalls being a part of a huge crowd and seeing a terrific game.
Her memory holds true as the Johnnies narrowly beat the Bonnies that day, 60-to-58. Even to this day, Joan, at 91 years young, never misses a Bona basketball game. She either watches when they are nationally televised or listens to Gary Nease call the game on WPIG radio.
Two years after their NIT date, in 1953, Joan and Jed were married. That was also the same year that Joan graduated from St. Bonaventure.
The couple would go on to have five children, all of them boys. Two of those boys, Patrick and Jed Jr., would follow in their parent’s footsteps by attending St. Bonaventure. You can spot Pat and Jed at almost every Bonaventure basketball game.
Within this big, wonderful family, 16 Hanna’s went on to attend St. Bonaventure. Of those 16, Maggie, Tess, Tim, and Erin all met their significant others at Bona’s, now bringing the family total to 20.
If you are a Bonnie, regardless of age, chances are you know a Hanna or two.
And there are still two Hanna’s at St. Bonaventure today. Jed Jr. has two daughters currently enrolled. Megan is a member of the class of 2023 and Annie is a student in the new Occupational Therapy (OT) program, which I wrote about last fall.
To bring things full circle, Francis Hall, where Annie currently has her OT classes, used to be Christ the King Seminary, which is where Father Kennedy prepared for the priesthood some 75 years ago.
This week, the entire Hanna clan will head down to New York City to cheer on the Bonnies, just as the matriarch and patriarch of their family did more than 70 years ago.
But the Hanna’s are not the only ones with a long history with the NIT and Madison Square Garden.
St. Bonaventure Coach Mark Schmidt has some connections to these two institutions as well.
Schmidt played his college basketball at Boston College in the 1980s. At that time, the Boston College Eagles played in the Big East, which contests its conference tournament every year at Madison Square Garden.
“As a player, you always dream about playing at Madison Square Garden,” Schmidt said to the media. “But as a coach, you do as well. It’s the Mecca of basketball both professionally and collegiately.”
Schmidt got to play at the Garden all four years. His freshman season, in 1982, BC lost to Villanova in the semifinals by three points. A year later, he helped Boston College reach the Big East Tournament finals, but his Eagles lost to St. John’s 85-to-77. During his junior and senior seasons, in 1984 and 1985, Boston College lost in the quarterfinals by a single point in each instance.
Schmidt’s experience with Madison Square Garden does not end there.
In 1999, while Schmidt was an assistant coach at Xavier University, the Musketeers went all the way to the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden. Xavier lost to Clemson by three in the semifinals and then thumped Oregon in the third-place game.
“Those were great times with great teams [under] Coach [Skip] Prosser,” Schmidt noted. “You look back and [those] were great experiences.”
Of course, the Bonnies will take on the Xavier Musketeers on Tuesday in the NIT Semifinals.
As older fans know, Xavier used to reside in the mighty Atlantic 10 conference before joining the Big East in 2013.
Schmidt took over as the head coach at Bona’s in 2007. His teams have a 1-7 overall record against Xavier, with the lone victory coming in the 2012 Atlantic 10 Championship in Atlantic City.
Now his team will play the Musketeers on a big stage yet again.
This time, it will be at the World’s Most Famous Arena, with the Hanna’s, and thousands of other Bonaventure fans, cheering his team on.
To add to all of this? This year will mark the final time that the NIT is held at Madison Square Garden.
Talk about full circle.
Jack Milko received his B.A. in Political Science from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is now working to get his M.A. in Sports Journalism from St. Bonaventure University. A lifelong fan of the Bonnies, Jack covers the team for @A10Talk. Follow him on Twitter for more Bonnies coverage at @Jack_Milko.
Featured image courtesy of Dan Nelligan, St. Bonaventure Class of 2020, who serves as a photographer for @A10Talk.