Last April, I watched the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team win the National Championship, celebrate on the court, accept a trophy on a hastily created podium, and then proceed towards the basket in an accepted-but-strange ceremony: cutting down the basketball nets.
The players surrounded the basket on a ladder brought in specifically for this purpose. Each one snipped once with scissors around the net, and head coach Dawn Staley was given the last one. She wore the net around her neck for the next hour, while taking celebratory photos, hugging her players, and even then at her post-game press conference. It even fulfilled a promise given to her by the only other African-American female head coach to win a national title.
But why? Why do college basketball champions do this?
Conference tournament winners and the eventual national championship winner all cut down the nets, and this tradition dates back decades. There are two stories about how cutting down the nets became a college basketball staple.
Cutting down the nets supposedly originates in Indiana high school basketball during the 1920s and 1930s. Hoosiers made the state’s love for basketball famous, and the 1986 movie was loosely based on a 1954 championship-winning team. But the basketball tradition goes back even further than that.
Long before the internet was even invented, the localized tradition would have never made it to a larger stage without Everett Case, who won four Indiana high school championships — and subsequently cut down four nets — while compiling a 756-75 record as a coach. Case then went on to coach for 18 years at North Carolina State University.
Case took the tradition to a national level at NCSU
His team won the 1947 Southern Conference championship, and Case wanted a souvenir. There weren’t any ladders available, so players put Case on their shoulders so he could cut it down himself.
That’s the event that’s credited with popularizing the tradition. Maybe it didn’t spread across the nation immediately, but slowly but surely, other teams caught on until it became an essential part of the conference or championship winning experience. The Penn men’s basketball team even cut down nets at 3 a.m.
Some head coaches even make net cutting a part of their motivational speeches. From The Mercury News:
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has cut down a few nets in her time. Her teams have won 21 conference titles, two national championships and an Olympic gold medal.
“When we go into a gym where there is net-cutting involved,” she said, “I tell our team right away: ‘Look at those nets. Do whatever it takes to get those nets because that’s what we’re here for.’ “
What are the unwritten rules to net cutting?
Over the years, the tradition has developed specific rules. Every player gets one cut conducted on an official NCAA ladder that has a platform about six feet up, so players can easily make a cut with official NCAA scissors. Players typically go in order of seniority: freshman first, seniors last, and the final cut being saved for the head coach. Players often get small clips of the net as souvenirs, since obviously not every player can each have the whole thing.
So that’s why players cut down the net, and how an obscure 1920s Indiana high school tradition became an essential part of college basketball’s biggest game, all thanks to one coach who bridged the two.