News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News Columns

June 7, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Single-class basketball not likely part of Indiana’s sporting future

TERRE HAUTE — Single-class basketball not likely part of Indiana’s sporting future

Television hasn’t been the same since “Seinfeld” ended.

Music never recovered from the breakup of The Beatles.

AM radio was better when it featured Top 40 hits instead of cranky, ranting talk-show hosts.

Teenagers became more skilled behind the wheel when they learned to drive using a stick shift.

Yet, things changed. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer left the NBC lineup in 1998. John, Paul, George and Ringo all went solo in 1970. The AM dial veered toward all-anger, all-the-time in the 1990s. And, manual transmissions — present in 70 percent of American-made autos in the 1940s — can be found in just 7 percent of domestic vehicles now.

Given all of its current weirdness, Congress could try to force the “Seinfeld” cast to reunite, mandate all-music formats on amplitude modulation radio stations, and require automakers to build cars and trucks that reintroduce the U.S. driving public to a clutch. Likewise, the British parliament could order surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to tour and record together for as long as they’re physically able.

But it wouldn’t work. Those genies can’t be stuffed back into their bottles.

The same goes for Indiana’s old single-class high school basketball tournament.

Like it or not, that tradition — envied around the country for its unaltered, time-worn, David-and-Goliath structure — died in 1996 when the Indiana High School Athletic Association voted to divide its postseason hoops tourney into four separate classes, based on enrollment size. No longer would all 382 schools compete for one state championship.

Big metropolitan schools would play other schools with four-digit student bodies. Tiny rural schools faced only those of similar enrollments. 4A’s vs. 4A’s, 3A’s vs. 3A’s, 2A’s vs. 2A’s, and A’s vs. A’s. No more mismatches.

At the same time, the little guys’ dreams of re-creating the 1954 Milan Miracle by knocking off the giants and winning it all — resurrected every March — ceased.

The death of those against-all-odds aspirations, immortalized in the movie “Hoosiers,” was sad to watch. A significant slice of our culture took its last breath.

But, unfortunately, it happened. And, despite the perception of state legislators now trying to pressure the IHSAA into reviving the single-class basketball tournament 16 years later, the association’s 1996 decision to adopt multiple classes involved extensive public debate. This past spring, a few lawmakers threatened to force a return to a one-class tourney through an amendment to an education bill, but IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox averted that action by agreeing to a series of 11 town hall meetings on the topic around the state. At one of those meetings last month in Connersville, Mike Delph — the Republican state senator from Carmel leading the single-class effort in the Legislature — said, according to an Indianapolis Star report, “The time is right for public feedback. We didn’t have that in 1996.”

My memory of 1996 differs from that.

Indeed, back in ’96, the IHSAA did not conduct town hall meetings to solicit opinions about its basketball tournament as it did this year. But the volume of input from the average fan 16 years ago was an avalanche compared with the modest turnouts at those 2012 gatherings. In ’96, everybody and their cousin weighed in on class basketball in advance of not one, but two affirmative votes by separate IHSAA bodies. The second vote, which followed nearly five months of intense controversy, was triggered by grassroots petition drive that resulted in an unprecedented statewide referendum of all 382 IHSAA member school principals. (The multi-class idea won decisively, 220-157.)

Hoosiers wrote letters to the editor, cussed and discussed it at ball games, coffeeshops and after-church lunches. As sports editor of this newspaper during that era, I know that debate received more coverage than any single topic since Larry Bird took the Sycamores to the NCAA Final. The Tribune-Star sports staff talked to coaches, players, former coaches, former players, parents, fans, IHSAA officials, principals and even, yes, politicians.

Rest assured, state legislators, we’ve had this argument. A long time ago. And, that is why the level of statewide interest in this revisitation of single-class basketball is so mild, by comparison. There is no groundswell to go back, regardless of polls. Yes, a phone survey of 500 Indiana residents conducted by a Washington-based opinion research firm, Wilson Perkins Allen, revealed that 52 percent of those contacted favored a one-class tourney, and 73 percent would like to express their views through a ballot question in the coming fall election.

That survey, though, included one other finding that glares like the sun — while 85 percent felt basketball was important to Indiana’s identity, only 36 percent said they closely followed high school hoops.

As comedian Bill Engvall says, there’s your sign.

The multi-class tournament — with its strange, dispassionate, long-distance sectional matchups — helped erode prep basketball passions, but not all by itself. March in Indiana no longer is the sole turf of high school boys hoops. Since 1990 — the year that Damon Bailey (Bob Knight’s phenom Indiana University recruit) and his Bedford North Lawrence teammates won the IHSAA championship in front of a national-record 41,000 people in the Hoosier Dome — Indianapolis has hosted the NCAA Final Four five times. In nine other years, Indy has hosted NCAA regionals. Since ’90, NCAA Big Dance berths — once the domain of primarily IU, Purdue and Notre Dame — have also gone to six other Division I Hoosier colleges: Butler, ISU, Evansville, Valpo, Ball State and IUPUI.

Our March Madness attention-span contains far more slices now.

Other prep sports, both girls and boys, have grown and draw moms and dads, and grandparents, too.

Did multi-class hoops take a piece of Indiana’s heart? Undoubtedly, but the state has adapted. Current high-schoolers have no recollection of single-class basketball. Despite the fond memories of older Hoosiers, tourneys structured on fairness, rather than dramatic “To Dream the Impossible Dream” showdowns, are what these young people know and expect. Forcing kids, especially those at small-town high schools, to return to their fathers’ postseason reality of one-and-done sectionals because “it’ll be good for you,” is like asking adults to voluntarily give up their jobs so they can be toughened by the experience of unemployment.

At its meeting next month, the IHSAA executive board will consider the public input at those town meetings, but don’t expect big changes. An overwhelming majority of member schools favor four classes. That’s the reality. Politicians should accept it, and stay out of it.

Communities longing to recapture the single-class atmosphere should take a page from Terre Haute, where the wildly popular Pizza Hut Wabash Valley Classic pairs big and small schools in a well-attended four-day tourney every December. That’s as close as Indiana can get to its prep basketball glory days.

In ’96, I and others argued strongly in these pages for Indiana to stick by its revered tradition. It changed anyway. This is 2012, and it’s better to look forward than back. As Cosmo Kramer once said, “Giddy up.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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