Kentucky Basketball History: The Helms Foundation

The Helms Foundation was created in part to support the Olympic Bread brand. (via chelseagirl)

This is a guest blog by Jon Scott of BigBlueHistory.net, Kentucky Basketball historian extraordinaire, who is also a contributor to Wildcat Tip-Off 2010-11.

In February of 1943, Willrich (aka Bill) Schroeder sent out a packet of type-written information to sports editors around the country.  Inside was a list of who Schroeder thought were the top teams and players in college basketball from years past (1920 to the present).    This was the culmination of a number of years of research by Schroeder under the auspices of the Helms Foundation.

Schroeder actually had wanted to dig further back into the very early years of basketball history but the task proved too daunting at the time, so he went ahead and released his choices back to 1920 but titled it "Part II", suggesting that "Part I" containing picks from an even earlier era was in the works.  Schroeder finally made good on his promise in 1957 when he released Part I of his picks, which reached back to 1901.

Schroeder was an interesting person.  He was a sports enthusiast and avid collector of sports memorabilia, so much so that in the 1930's after many rejections, he was finally able to convince another sports enthusiast, Paul Hoy Helms (owner of the Helms Bakery) to underwrite his passion and house his collection.  Schroeder was installed as the managing director of the newly formed non-profit, The Helms Foundation.  The Helms Foundation was intended as a means to support athletic endeavors, recognize achievements and promote the Helms Olympic bread brand.

This role proved a perfect fit for Schroeder, as he tirelessly worked on this mission for the remainder of his life.  He was by all accounts an affable, well-liked and generous person who was extremely knowledgeable and interested in sports history.  Largely through his efforts and the financial support of his benefactor, the Helms Foundation grew in stature to become the world's largest and probably most respected sports-related resources open to the public.

Beyond Schroeder's retroactive picks, the Foundation continued to name contemporaneous choices for top teams and players, however this practice more and more became little more than a rubber stamp for the NCAA tournament champion.  By the mid-1980's, the practice ceased altogether.  Schroeder passed away in 1987.

The fate of these early picks has proven to take a life of their own.  At the time they were first released, there appears to have been very little notice of them by the media or general public.  They did find themselves in a few reference books and media guides, but overall they were on their way to becoming a relic and forgotten, like so much basketball history before it.

But Schroeder's contribution has proven to be too valuable to toss away.  As one of the only entities (and the first) that has attempted to single out great teams and players from these by-gone eras, Helms picks have been relied upon by the NCAA as one of its recognized bodies for naming All-American players of the past.  In addition, the NCAA since 1995 has listed pre-NCAA tournament Helms team selections in their media guides for informational purposes.

In addition, with the rise of computers and the Internet, the trend now among many University sports information departments is toward preserving, archiving and improving information of these early teams and players, rather than slowly allowing this knowledge to erode away, and Helms picks provide a bridge to acknowledge and celebrate these early players and teams.

Schroeder most certainly deserves accolades for the vision he showed at the time and the personal efforts he made in recognizing these early players and teams when no one else was doing so.  He has done a tremendous service not only to those named but also to anyone interested in the history of basketball.

However this must be tempered by a relatively recent phenomenon where a few people have attempted to place far more historical significance on Helms titles than they deserve.  The fact is that Schroeder's choices were just that, the choice of a single individual, made years or even decades after the fact, for a time period where there were serious obstacles for anyone to accurately compare players and teams from different regions of the country.

In part due to the recent rise of misinformation concerning the Helms Foundation and in particular misinformation concerning who made the choices, this web article has been prepared.  It not only confronts some of these misconceptions, but goes into deeper detail concerning the issue of early national titles and hopefully provides people context concerning the Helms Foundation and Schroeder's role in it.

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