Class clash still waged over Indiana tourney

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:02 PM

Michael Marot

LOOGOOTEE, Ind. -- Friday nights are still a special treat in Loogootee.

The dark, sunken gymnasium that seats more than 4,500 becomes the local hot spot. Here, most of the town's 2,751 residents can be found gossiping, or debating coaching moves, amid the aroma of popcorn and hot dogs. Old-timers relive "Little Loogootee's" magical 1975 run to the Indiana state title game, the one that nearly became known as the sequel to The Milan Miracle, the one they say could never be replicated under the current multi-class basketball system.

Back in '75, the Indiana schools decided the state championship with one, big tournament that crowned a lone champion. Those who still long for the days of single-class basketball, made famous by the movie "Hoosiers," are hopeful a push by the state legislature will prompt a return to the old system.

But after earning a spot in this year's Class 1A state title game this Saturday, even the most ardent Loogootee supporters seem to be revising their opinions.

"When it (multi-class basketball) first came out, I wasn't happy about it because I'm from the old school and a member of a team that went to the state finals in 1975," Loogootee coach Mike Wagoner said. "Along the way, we beat schools like Terre Haute North, Columbus North, Seymour, Washington, Jasper -- all a lot bigger than we were. On a consistent basis, Loogootee could compete with those schools. Now, with the AAU and transfer rules, I think this is the best way to go."

Yes, Wagoner reveres the days when a state champion was THE state champion, sectional winners were treated like royalty and standing-room-only crowds were the norm everywhere, not just in Loogootee, a 284-student high school located about an hour southwest of Bloomington.

But without the multi-class system Wagoner and his team probably wouldn't be here. The two schools that reached the 4A state title game, Carmel and Indianapolis Pike, have enrollments of 4,545 and 2,989.

Proponents of the current system contend that's exactly why change was made following the 1997 season -- to give schools like Loogootee a chance to win state titles.

Critics contend multi-class basketball has devalued the tournament and depressed attendance. The debate has been so fierce for so long that in January, state Sen. Mike Delph attempted to push through legislation requiring the Indiana High School Athletic Association to bring back the single-class tourney. Eventually, he rescinded the provision after IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox promised to take another look.

Cox has scheduled 11 town-hall meetings around the state between April 10 and May 16 to gauge interest in returning to the old format. Citizens will be allowed to speak for two minutes each and straw polls will be conducted at each site. Principals, athletic directors and coaches of boys and girls basketball teams also can provide input electronically during the state tour.

What he's likely to hear from the membership is what he's been hearing from Wagoner and other small communities like Tecumseh Jr.-Sr. High School in Lynnville, Ind., a one stop-sign town between Evansville, Ind., and Louisville, where the high school enrollment is about 270.

"It's a lot better for us now," Tecumseh coach Kevin Oxley said. "Before, I was in with all those 3A and 4A schools and we never won a sectional. Now we have won state championships in baseball, girls basketball and we've gone to the state finals in softball. I'll put it this way. When you let Hanover College join the Big Ten, we'll be for it."

Cox concurs with Oxley's points, something he outlined during his passionate testimony in front of the state legislature in January, though he hasn't always felt that way.

When Cox was athletic director at Carmel High School, in one of the state's largest and wealthiest districts, the school voted against going to multi-class basketball. That's also the same district Delph represents.

There's a simple reason the big schools want single-class hoops: They ruled the state for decades.

But after taking his new job, Cox became a full-fledged supporter of the multi-class format, which is used in every state except Kentucky and Delaware.

The bigger problem might be convincing the players to try the old way. They've grown up with multi-class basketball.

"I remember (Bloomington) North was the last one to win a state championship when it was just one class," said Jordan Hulls, who won the 4A state title and Mr. Basketball Award in 2009 with undefeated Bloomington South. He's now a junior at Indiana University.

"But I don't remember it too well, I was like 6 or 7 years old. If it went to single class, it would be a lot different from what I grew up remembering," he added.

Others don't even think it's necessary.

The last time the IHSAA surveyed school officials, Cox said 85 percent were opposed to going back, and the only way he would actually consider it would be if he saw a dramatic change in the membership.

"I would say there has to be an overwhelming change in attitude," Cox said. "If I saw a majority, and a vast majority, of the membership that wants to go back to the single-class system, then I'd think that warrants some serious debate."

Opinions aren't the only factor.

The increase of charter schools, magnet schools and private schools is already threatening to shift the competitive balance. Currently, there are 401 basketball-playing schools, and under IHSAA rules, they must be split evenly into four divisions.

Over the past six years, Cox said 18 schools have joined the IHSAA and nine more have petitioned for membership, with most having smaller enrollments than Tecumseh's or Loogootee. It's already pushed 18 schools from Class 1A to 2A and 18 more from Class 2A to 3A. If nine more are approved, it could push nine more schools like those in southern Indiana into 2A.

And size matters.

"We played Indian Creek, a 3A school, and I think we led them at halftime," said Jamie Satre, the boys coach at Greenwood Christian, a 120-plus student high school just south of Indianapolis."But we ended up losing to them by 10. You look at Butler and other (underdogs), and you know it can be done."

But even the old legends come with caveats.

Cox confirmed that it today's rules were used in 1954, when Bobby Plump led Milan to the state title, Milan would played in Class 3A, Indiana's second-largest division. He also points out that when Milan and Muncie Central met in a rematch for the 50th anniversary of that state championship game, the larger school won 81-40.

"If you look at the Milan Miracle, how long ago was that 60 years?" Oxley said. "There's a reason it was called a 'miracle."'

So as much as the adults want to restore Indiana's glorious past, most of today's high school leaders are likely to support staying with the new format.

Especially in a town like Loogootee, where one good tournament run has rekindled that old-style excitement. Local establishments are peppered with signs wishing the team well, players have become local celebrities and athletic director Bill Powell expects to sell most, if not all, of the school's 2,400-ticket allotment before Saturday's game. Heck, school officials even made a late change to the calendar to give students Friday off so they could travel with the team Thursday night.

Bob Knight, Gene Keady and Digger Phelps couldn't top that.

"It's called pandemonium, It's absolutely crazy," Powell said. "We love basketball here. Basketball is Loogootee. Our people take basketball very seriously. The whole town is excited, and it's definitely a community event."

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