Terre Haute, 1979

It was my freshman year attending college on the east side of my home town.  The city was experiencing notoriety on a stage it had never really been on before. Following up from an impressive season the year before, the Indiana State Men’s basketball team was undefeated, and moving up the national rankings. There was debate: Were they worthy of the rankings or did they just play a weak schedule? The debate was valid, both sides of the argument had their points, and people cared. The team and the school were the talk of the town, the state, and sports enthusiasts everywhere.

It was a giddy time to be a “Hautian”

The season prior, the team’s star player was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Indianapolis’ Channel 4 began carrying most if not all of our games statewide, an honor only afforded the state’s Big 10 schools previously. When we couldn’t watch, we listened intently to the passionate call of the voice of the Sycamores, Bob Forbes. Channel 10 had a locally produced children’s program that regularly featured impromptu visits from various members of the “Magnificent 7”.  The national coverage that year featured Al McGuire and Billy Packer as the main college commentators for NBC. They were the leading the worthy, not worthy debaters. We hated Billy Packer.  Al was our pal. 

I attended as many games as I could; ISU students got in free, but I was going to Rose Hulman. It was worth whatever I had to pay for admission. The environment was electric, Hulman Center literally rocked. Streamers of TP stolen from dorm bathrooms cascaded on to the floor. There was pageantry, Chief Wabashi and his princess celebrated in their teepee, a curious monkey played drums on the back of a R/C car while following the men that swept he floor at halftime, the sparkettes sparkled. And there was basketball, winning basketball. This wasn’t Bloomington, South Bend, or West Lafayette where this was happening. It was right here in good ol’ Terre Haute.

I made excuses to be on campus often. The ISU library had resources that our library didn’t, and it was closer for me. I would run in to friends from high school and there was buzz on campus about the team. I remember overhearing high school students visiting campus and wondering if they could get tickets for that evening’s game. People cared.

Indiana State continued through the regular season and finished undefeated, including winning the Missouri Valley Conference championship. They finally received the number one ranking in the national polls as the Tournament was approaching. 

It was a little bit awkward when the tourney started because NBC had the rights to the tourney. We were all accustomed to following the team on WTHI locally, the CBS affiliate. No matter, the team kept winning on channel 2, and we continued through the tournament. Billy Packer was sure that Sidney Moncrief and Arkansas would end the run. He was wrong; ISU beat Arkansas and DePaul to make it to the championship game. We were giddy.

It ended in Salt Lake City where Ervin Johnson, Greg Kelser, and the Michigan State Spartans ended the dream season, but people took note. Larry Bird was the Naismith award winner and Bill Hodges was coach of the year. It was a legendary season and a kick to be attending college in Terre Haute.

It has been 40 years. ISU has made the tournament 3 times since that season and advanced only once. A statue has been erected for the team’s star and his jersey hangs in the rafters. But it’s time to do more.

ISU will be recognizing the accomplishments of that magical season during one of their regular season conference games this January. The coach is being inducted into the school’s hall of fame, and #22 will be joining #33 in the rafters.

In 1979, Terre Haute was the center of the basketball universe. We weren’t the town with the horrible smell or the corrupt city wither wide open red light district. The city changed a little that year. We were giddy.

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