Wisconsin State Climatology Office


The STATE TOURNAMENT MYTH

Edward J. Hopkins, PhD.

Center for Climatic Research and Wisconsin State Climatology Office

Originally prepared 13 March 2001
Updated 15 March 2006

      A commonly held belief around many areas of the state is that a major blizzard “always” strikes south central Wisconsin in mid-March during the “State Tournament”.  The State Tournament typically refers to the WIAA (Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association) state boys basketball tournament held in Madison for more than 80 years. 

      A review of the weather records for Madison since 1950 was made, focusing on the run of five days that include the WIAA tournament, starting with Wednesday, the day before the start of the tourney when the teams arrive, through Sunday, the day after the final championship game when essentially all the out-of-town teams and fans have departed from Madison.  The first games in the three-day tournament have been as early as the 14th of the March and as late as the 20th.

      The month of March is one of significant contrasts in Madison, as average high temperatures increase from about 40 degrees at the end of the second week of March to 45 degrees a week later, while average low temperatures increase from 20 to 25 degrees.  In 1966, fans went to the Field House in shorts because of the high temperature of 77 degrees on Thursday, the 17 March, but on Saturday, 0.3 inches of snow fell.  The record warmth occurred one year to the day after freezing rain and a 6.9 inch snowstorm closed the UW campus the day before the start of the tourney on St. Patrick’s Day, 1965.  This storm was followed by cold air, with a 7 degree below zero low temperature on the morning of the championship game (Saturday, 20 March 1965).

      During the last half-century, slightly less than one-third the game days had measurable snow (0.1 inches or greater).  While most of the snow that fell were from nuisance storms, only four major snowstorms of 4 or more inches actually fell in Madison during the three days of the tournaments in 1970 (4.3 inches), 1971 (14.5 inches), 1992 (5.3 inches) and 2005 (9.3 inches).  As mentioned above, another major storm had hit the capital city during the early morning hours of Wednesday, 17 March 1965, the day when the participating teams arrive, These storms developed over the Plains and brought significant moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.  In addition, several other major snowstorms occurred on the previous weekend when sectional games were played in various locations throughout the state, such as in 1950 (6.3 inches), in 1959 (9.7 inches) and during the first part of tourney week in 1951 (5.8 inches).  In 1956 and 1957 major snowstorms reached Madison later on Sunday and into Monday after the out of town fans left.  The 1993 tourney was bracketed by a 6.8 inch snowstorm one week before and a 5.0 inch storm at the beginning of the next week. 

      Apparently, memories tend to focus upon those years with extraordinary events, such as times when fans were stranded in Madison or elsewhere because of inclement weather conditions, especially due to heavy snow.  To place the three major tournament snowstorms in perspective, one needs to realize that March is a snowy month in Madison, behind December and January in average snow totals.  Of the 28 major March snowstorms in Madison since 1950, 11 storms with 4 or more inches have occurred during the first seven days of the month.  But on the other hand, the last 7 days of the month have had only two major snow storms.

 

Special thanks is made to Julie Kage (jkage@wiaawi.org) for supplying the dates of the WIAA tournament from 1950.

 

Latest revision: 15 March 2006

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