"We just naturally used that term," said Scott Johnson, the Illinois association's unofficial historian. "It kind of stuck."
Basketball-obsessed Chicago businessman Charles Besser picked up on the name. His company, Intersport, produced the one-hour "March Madness Coaches Show" previewing the tournament on television.
No one had trademarked "March Madness." Besser did so in 1989. The reasons behind registration No. 1571340 ran deeper than protecting an asset.
"I was a complete basketball nut on the edges of basketball craziness," Besser said. "If I hadn't have been so in love with college basketball I wouldn't have thought of doing it."
That trademark touched off a two-decade legal tussle over who controlled the two words. The NCAA began licensing use of the term in 1988 and in November 1993 sent its first cease and desist letter to the maker of a trivia game that planned to include March Madness in the title.
After a brief partnership, Intersport assigned its rights to the Illinois High School Assn. in 1995. Intersport retained the ability to use the name in certain circumstances. Then the NCAA and Illinois association sparred over the name for the next five years until they pooled their rights in 2000.
The Illinois association eventually surrendered its ownership stake, but retained the high school rights. The NCAA bought out Intersport's license for $17.2 million in 2010.
"It's a little bit of a metaphor," said Douglas Masters, Chicago-based outside counsel for the NCAA. "It captures something that resonates with people. It has that kind of power."
Porter's coinage is one of the most-used elements in the NCAA's arsenal of trademarks. The slogan once inspired by fans crammed into Huff Gymnasium at the University of Illinois to watch high school basketball now includes derivatives such as "Munch Madness" and "Print Madness" to hawk things such as chips and shipping.
When March's bracket-driven frenzy arrives each year, Masters and associates prowl for uses that infringe on the trademark. The NCAA is a regular customer in front of the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to swat away unlicensed attempts — Live the Madness, March Radness, Midnight Madness — to use permutations of the name.
"The collective value of March Madness to the NCAA cannot be understated," one sports media consultant wrote in a January court filing in an unrelated lawsuit against the NCAA.
The consultant meant that the cash connected to the tournament that comprises the vast majority of the NCAA's annual income. In 2010, CBS and Turner Sports paid the NCAA $10.8 billion for 14 years of rights to broadcast the tournament.
The FBI estimated $2.5 billion is illegally wagered during March Madness. One contest offers $1 billion for a perfect bracket.
A mathematics professor at DePaul University calculated 9.2 quintillion combinations in the 68-team bracket.
At the retirement home in Peoria, Ill., March Madness is one more creation by an uncle remembered for shooting home movies at family gatherings. Leading efforts to promote sportsmanship and codify rules for high school basketball and football. Playing the violin and mandolin. Encouraging writing. Meagher laughed about the frequency the phrase appears in advertising these days.
She recalled visiting the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. — her uncle entered with John Wooden in 1960 — and alerting staffers that Porter's biography didn't include one mention of March Madness.
"I told them they need to correct that," she said. "I don't think they were terribly impressed."