Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hoosier basketball: heart or head?

Posted By on Tue, Apr 3, 2012 at 4:30 PM

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America, the cliché goes, keeps refighting the Civil War.

And, closer to home, here in Indiana, we keep rearguing class basketball.

Over the next two months, the Indiana High School Athletic Association will hold 11 public hearings about whether the state's basketball tournament should return to a single-class format after 16 years of operating on a four-class system. The IHSAA came up with the plan for the hearings as part of a deal with Sen. Mike Delph, R-Indianapolis, who had introduced a bill this past legislative session to return Indiana to single-class basketball tournament.

(An aside: I do love it when self-proclaimed "small government conservatives" such as Delph decide to intrude the power of the state into something like high school athletics. What's next – legislative oversight on whether high school teams should use the pick-and-roll on offense or trap on defense?)

When the IHSAA announced the switch to a multi-class tournament all those years ago,The Indianapolis Star sent me to historic Milan High School to see how the home of Bobby Plump and "the shot heard 'round the world" and the inspiration for the movie Hoosiers would respond to the change.

I spent three days in Milan trailing after basketball coach Randy Combs and the team.

Combs opposed the change to a multi-class system. His opposition, he acknowledged, was based in part on his experience. He had been a role player on the 1981 Vincennes Lincoln team that won the state title and cherished the memory.

He also, though, had reasons for opposing the change that were part of his philosophy as a teacher and a coach. Students from a small, rural school such as Milan faced long odds in finding success in a large, competitive world and confronting that reality was the first step toward achieving that success. Because winning as a small school against big schools was hard was not a reason not to try, he said.

The players, to a man, disagreed with their coach.

They were routed into a sectional with much bigger schools, they said. It was beyond frustrating, they said, to know that, after a long season of practicing and playing hard, their season inevitably would end on the sectional's first night.

"All we learn from that is how to lose," one said.

One player with aspirations to play college ball also said that the college scouts rarely came to regular season games but instead would focus on regional, semi-state and state contests. A player on a team that got bumped out of the tournament in the first game rarely got a look, regardless of how talented he might be.

The players said they wanted to compete, but on a level playing field with schools that were close to their size.

I left Milan torn – in part because my heart was with Combs' position but my head was with that of his players.

I loved Indiana high school basketball tournament. When I was a kid, my hometown squad went to the state finals. I remember with fondness the community spirit that run inspired – the packed gym on game nights, the rallies and everybody in the school system walking around in school colors during tournament time.

I didn't want the state to lose that.

When I mentioned that as a reason for my misgivings about a multi-class system to a high school principal, Combs shook his head and said the old system already was gone.

High schools used to have gyms with seating capacities three and four times the population of the schools because going to games often was the only option for Friday and Saturday night entertainment in Indiana small towns 50 years ago.

With better systems of transportation and technology providing more options for people, he said, the crowds had diminished, even for good teams. And they wouldn't be coming back.

That's why I doubt my heart will win this one.

Much as I would love the Indiana high school basketball tournament to be the glory that it once was, my head knows that time is a river.

And rivers rarely flow backward.

John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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John Krull

John Krull

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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