On Feb. 9, 2009, a financial advisor from Kent, Ohio, named Tim Trowbridge sent a letter to Bristol, Connecticut. He wanted someone — anyone — at ESPN to confirm or deny that he and two friends had started the very first NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament pool in American history.
"On a wintry February afternoon," Trowbridge's letter read, "we found our way to a local pub. The mission was to once and for all determine who knew the most about college basketball ... . There was no format to follow, but after a few beers, we established the format used in every office pool across the country today."
These days, Trowbridge works in a well-appointed corner office at the Kent branch of Stifel, a brokerage and banking firm. He's the senior vice president for investments, but he managed to carve out some time for Scene one morning in early March. The MAC tournament was underway in Cleveland, and Kent State had just defeated the Chippewas of Central Michigan in a record-setting contest, a game Trowbridge was eager to recap. (Kent would ultimately take the MAC title, winning their four games by a total of 16 points and upsetting the No. 2-ranked Ohio University and the No. 1-ranked Akron in the semifinals and finals. They drew UCLA in the opening round of the Big Dance.)
It doesn't take long for Trowbridge to point to the plaque near the door in his office. It used to be housed at the the Rusty Nail, a Kent watering hole: "Trowbridge Hunt & Trowbridge Annual NCAA Tournament," it's titled, "est. 1981." It memorializes the winners in each of the pool's 36 years.
Back in its inaugural year, the local golf pro Gary Bauer won the pool and Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers won the tournament. Back then, there were 15 guys paying a $5 entry fee. In 2016, the Chicago Tribune investigative journalist Jared S. Hopkins, a friend of Trowbridge's son Wesley, emerged victorious. "I need a new one," says Trowbridge, holding aloft another wooden plaque with 18 blank name plates. It'll be affixed to the bottom of the current two, full up with victors. "The more of these I can put on there, the better life I've had."
Trowbridge hails from Upstate New York, a little town called Carthage in the foothills of the Adirondacks — "God's country," Trowbridge avows. Growing up, he was 90 miles north of Syracuse, so naturally, he's been a lifelong fan of Jim Boeheim and the Orange. It's perhaps no surprise that the only year he won his own pool was 2003, when Carmelo Anthony led 'Cuse to a championship.
"People laugh at me because every year I put 'Cuse a lot farther than I should," he says. "Everyone out here is all Big 10 and Ohio State. One year,  Syracuse played Indiana in the Championship. 'Cuse was winning, but Indiana came down and made that pass to Keith Smart on the left side of the court with about a second left. He launches one and, boom — Syracuse loses. That's still a nightmare for me."
Trowbridge attended Walsh University and after a four-year stint in Florida, moved back to Ohio to open a sub shop in Kent. In 1981, he and his friends just wanted to find a way for more people to participate in the fun of the tournament. Maybe it's because he lives in a college town, but Trowbridge still self-identifies as a "college guy."
"They aren't all prima donnas yet, and the coach actually has a little bit of influence," he says, of collegiate vs. pro sports. "And that's on the court and on the football field."
In '81, office pools and family pools weren't yet popular. There weren't even cellular phones. But newspapers still printed the tournament bracket every year, and due in part to the personality of Bobby Knight in Indiana, college basketball was becoming increasingly popular. ESPN had launched in 1979 and in 1980 secured the rights to the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, broadcasting a full slate of games and helping to christen March Madness.
Trowbridge and his friend Jeff Hunt would gather all the papers — USA Today, the Beacon-Journal, Portage County's Record-Courier, the Plain Dealer — and pick the one with the best, most copiable bracket. They'd cut it out, copy it, bring it down to size and then run off a bunch of copies. Then they'd hit the bars.
"We'd got to Dominic's, we'd go to the Rusty Nail. We'd go to the Tavern. We'd go to the Country Club," Trowbridge says, listing off the local dives. "Those were pretty long nights, but not as long as Wednesday night, when we picked up the brackets and the money. Or that first weekend."
The first weekend is of course the onslaught of the tournament's first two rounds — nonstop games Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Trowbridge and his wife Ruth would mark off the sheets by hand.
"We used magic markers into the wee hours of the morning," Trowbridge wrote to ESPN.
"And a lot of these people were filling out their brackets late at night," Trowbridge tells Scene. "Often you couldn't even read them. And then you've always got the guys who just want to use the numbers. They didn't want to take the time to write the name. On top of that, we'd be getting brackets in the mail from out of state through the weekend. But as long as they were postmarked by Thursday ..."
The newer, digital system is a lot easier, he admits. It's less work for him — and for his son Wesley, who oversees the tournament these days from Chicago — and it makes it more convenient for non-locals to participate. Today, the pool gets brackets from participants in New York, California, Illinois, Vermont and elsewhere, but about 70 percent are still from Kent, Trowbridge estimates, and everyone can track their progress in real time. Plus, he can't be accused of tinkering with brackets or making mistakes in tabulating point totals. (Trowbridge won the pool in 2003, the year after his son did, and he was worried that people might suspect foul play). But there are tradeoffs.
"It was much more social back then," Trowbridge says, shaking his head wistfully. "You were going to the bars, talking to people, hanging out."
By the fourth or fifth year, there were more than 200 participants — the pool was well-known around the Kent bar scene. A few years later, office pools became popular and there was a slight drop-off in participation, but to this day the pool gets more than 100 participants.
The Trowbridge Hunt & Trowbridge pool uses the same scoring system as all the major online bracket hosts — ESPN, CBSSports, Yahoo, NCAA.com — 1 point for each correct pick in the first round, then 2, 4, 8, 16, and 32 for each correct pick in subsequent rounds. It's structured so that players who guess the correct champion stand the best chance of winning the pool.
"Back when we started," Trowbridge says, "there weren't even 64 teams."
He's right. The tournament featured only 48 teams until 1983, when five more were added. The tournament expanded to its current 64-team structure in 1985, the year Villanova upset Patrick Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas. (No one in the Trowbridge pool correctly picked Villanova that year.)
Trowbridge spoke with Scene before selection Sunday, and said he hadn't yet picked a favorite, but admitted that, just like every year, he'd probably advance Syracuse and Notre Dame further than advisable. (Syracuse ended up not getting a bid.) He says he's expecting the number of participants to be about the same.
"But whenever new people come into this pool, we always tell them, kiddingly, you're in the first pool in the country. We say, 'This was started in Kent, Ohio, in 1981.' Why I wrote that letter, I just wanted someone at ESPN to look into it, to see if there was any pool that started earlier than we did."
No one at ESPN ever responded, but it turns out there's at least one. The bracket craze is thought to have originated in 1977 at a Staten Island Bar called Jody's Club Forest. According to reports, 88 people entered the pool the first year at $10 a pop. But the Jody's pool was shut down in 2006 when, with more than 150,000 entrants in a winner-take-all format, the IRS came knocking. So the Trowbridge Hunt & Trowbridge pool may be the longest continuously running pool in the United States.
For the record, tournament pools are legal as long as organizers don't charge a fee for the service, which Trowbridge certainly does not.
"It was never about the money," he says. "The key is bragging rights. It was always about the bragging rights."