INDIANAPOLIS – More than four decades have passed since Bob Hammel, the former sports editor of the Bloomington Herald-Times, would rush back from the airport after Big Ten road games, pound out his Indiana basketball column on a typewriter for the afternoon edition and emerge from the office well after sunrise.
He’s a throwback from an era when sportswriters traveled with the team and frequently ate chili and pie with Bob Knight at local diners.
With Gonzaga in Indianapolis attempting to be the first Division I men’s team to complete an entire season and postseason undefeated since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, few are more qualified to link eras than the man who most diligently chronicled college basketball’s last undefeated team.
“I think that’s the best year any college team ever had,” said Hammel, 84, in a phone interview this week. “It won’t be superseded by what Gonzaga may do. Partly because all the things that were out of Gonzaga’s hands.”
A conversation with Hammel is a peek into the soul of basketball in the state of Indiana, via a time when copy traveled by Western Union. He worked as the sports editor for the Bloomington Herald-Times for 30 years, covered 23 Final Fours and authored or co-authored 11 books. Amid his starry career, covering the Indiana team of Scott May, Quinn Buckner and Tom Abernethy remains a definitive highlight. “It was a professional pleasure,” he said. “You got to see Hamlet that many times.”
A comparison of teams more than four decades apart is largely a futile exercise, as so much changed — the installation of the 3-point line, the addition of conference tournaments and the proliferation of players toe-touching college before heading off to the NBA.
But Hammel helped roar back to life the greatness of Indiana during that time, accomplishments so significant that the former players feel no need to root against the Zags. While this Gonzaga team has been linked to undefeated chatter since early in the season, that Indiana team was chasing the ghost of the disappointment from the 1974-1975 season. That Hoosier team was so elite that four players made the five-man All-Big Ten team.
But Scott May’s broken arm late in the season derailed Indiana in the 1975 NCAA tournament, which suffered its only loss to Kentucky in the Mideast region final. Hammel said he’s heard Knight say over the years that the 1975 team was better, but his answer later evolved to the 1976 team. “It’s a real argument,” Hammel said. “They were both really good teams.”
The strength of the 1975-76 team was apparent immediately. One of the first games that Hammel mentioned in contextualizing the 1976 title team was an exhibition against the Soviet Union National Team at Market Square Arena. The Soviet team had two starters from the 1972 gold medal team, and IU blew them out, 94-78, in front of more than 17,000 fans.
Indiana opened the season with UCLA, the first season after John Wooden’s tenure. Indiana won that game by 20. IU then snuck by Notre Dame, 83-80, in the third game. Hammel recalled Knight’s famous line after a languid performance: “This team needs an enema.” Hammel added: “I suspect they got one.”
The Hoosiers didn’t run through their undefeated season with the same dominance as the current Gonzaga team, which has won 29 of 30 games by double-digits. IU needed overtime to beat Kentucky in Louisville, beat St. John’s by seven in Madison Square Garden and needed a furious comeback to beat Michigan in overtime at home in February.
Indiana finished the Big Ten season undefeated for the second straight year, capping that run with a 29-point home win over Ohio State. Overall, they beat 11 top 20 teams in 1975-76.
“The true joy we got as a team for the most part was when we clinched our fourth Big Ten championship and when we played Marquette at LSU for the regional to go to the Final Four,” said Jim Crews, a senior on the team who became a long-time college basketball coach. “Those were really happy moments. The national championship was more of a relief, really. The others were really happy.”
When Indiana did reach the Final Four in Philadelphia, the storyline of the team going undefeated wasn’t nearly the din of Gonzaga’s current run to perfection. Part of that came from the relative normalcy of an undefeated season — Indiana was the seventh team in 20 years to pull it off.
“I think the furthest thing from our mind was that this would be an oddity,” said Tom Abernethy, a senior on that IU team who owns the Indiana Basketball Academy. “We did it. It had been done by some of the UCLA teams and other teams before us. It’s become sort of a phenomenon that’s developed over the decades.”
Knight was 36 when IU won that title in Philadelphia and he told Hammel postgame that he was taking a train to Washington D.C. to recruit at a high school all-star game. “They pay me pretty well at Indiana,” Knight told Hammel, “and they don’t pay me to relax.”
Only five teams have emerged from the regular season and conference tournament undefeated since then – Indiana State (1978-79), UNLV (1990-91), Wichita State (2013-14), Kentucky (2014-15) and Gonzaga’s current crew. (Hammel points out that both UNLV and Kentucky lost in Indianapolis and also that every title team since Indiana has lost at least two games.)
As the years have passed and that Indiana team has become the standard for undefeated teams, the players made clear that that team doesn’t define their identity. They aren’t group texting about it or celebrating another team losing.
Abernethy said that he, Quinn Bucker and Scott May visited Knight last week in his home. Knight is 80 and the three players spent a two-hour visit with Knight where both the IU coaching search and Gonzaga’s undefeated season failed to come up.
“In a number of ways, you can’t allow yourself to be defined by what someone else does that is compared to what you did,” Abernethy said. “It’d be a real tough life to navigate that way.”
Knight’s son Pat said that Gonzaga coach Mark Few and his dad bonded over the years over basketball and fishing. Few would call to talk hoops and sought Knight’s advice when suitors called while he was at Gonzaga (including once when Knight famously told him to turn down a job using some colorful language).
Pat Knight said his dad has enjoyed watching Gonzaga because of the way they move the ball. “That’s the sad thing,” Pat Knight told Yahoo Sports. “If he wasn’t 80 and having the effects of old age, he’d be rooting for Few.”
Crews, who coached college basketball for nearly 40 years, said he’s also actively rooting for Gonzaga. “How many times do they actually dribble the ball,” he said. “It’s like they have a rule that they can’t dribble more than three times. They have more passes than dribbles, which is the absolute opposite of the way the vast, vast, vast majority of teams in college basketball play. Just how they play the game is awesome.”
Hammel admits with a chuckle that the general tenor of Indiana fans may not be the same. “They aren’t the most popular team in the world here,” he said. “That’s natural, of course.”
What’s not intuitive is how the 1976 Indiana team has refused let that lone undefeated season be anything more than a great year. They don’t pop champagne like the undefeated 1972 Dolphins. They don’t root against teams that have come close to matching them.
They come from a throwback era where they are comfortable enough with their own accomplishments. “We’re very boring,” Crews said with a laugh. “I’m jealous of the Dolphins. I admire them. We’re very boring.”
A team from another era has been brought back to life by a modern team that’s on the cusp of being one of the sport’s defining champions. And maybe what’s best is that more than four decades later, there’s more mutual appreciation than comparison.
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