Years after Bird, Indiana St. on way up
Sycamores on the verge of fourth consecutive 17-win season
Indiana State's incredible run to the NCAA championship game in 1979 that led to Larry Bird's clash with Michigan State's Magic Johnson is one Sycamore fans -- and college basketball fans in general -- will never forget.
Bird, winner of the Naismith and Wooden Awards that season, sparked the Sycamores to their first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance, until the team fell to Michigan State, 75-64, in the national title game.
While Indiana State had experienced at different levels in the past, including winning the 1950 NAIB National Championship and a 1968 runner-up finish in the NCAA College Division Championship, the success of the 1978-79 team was like no other since the Sycamores made the move to Division I in 1969.
While the Sycamores did post a winning record of 16-11 in 1979-80 -- the season after Bird graduated and started his NBA career with the Boston Celtics -- the program endured a long stretch of disappointing seasons. The Sycamores did not achieve a winning record over the next 17 years, although ISU went .500 in the 1983-84 and 1990-91.
Bill Hodges, the former assistant who had convinced Bird to play at ISU, was the Sycamores' head coach during the magical 1979 season, but was not able to capitalize on the program's unprecedented success.
"People criticized him and said Indiana State didn't take advantage of the NCAA run by recruiting players," Tom Reck, former sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, said. "What people don't know is that he went after the best players and it came down to Indiana State, Indiana and other big name schools in the area. He got some pretty good players, but it just didn't work out."
Hodges was eventually dismissed after the 1981-82 season. Four more coaches came and went, as the Sycamores were still searching for that elusive winning season.
"Because of all the rich tradition of Indiana high school basketball, not only the major schools in the state are recruiting Indiana players, but coaches come from all over," Reck said. "Recruiting is very difficult because you're not only competing against IU, Purdue, Notre Dame and Illinois, but you're recruiting against all of these other [national] schools."
Finally, when Royce Waltman was hired before the 1997-98 season, ISU went on a little winning spurt. Waltman led the Sycamores to four consecutive winning streaks between 1998-2001, including back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2000 and 2001.
But the Sycamores could not keep up the level of consistency, and suffered through eight years of losing seasons until posting a 17-15 mark in 2009-10.
Before the 2010-11 season, Greg Lansing was promoted from associate head coach to head coach, and has kept up the winning trend. Also a former assistant on Waltman's staff, Lansing led ISU to a 20-14 record and NCAA Tournament appearance in his first season at the helm. The Sycamores followed it up with an 18-15 record last season, giving the program at least 17 regular season victories for the third consecutive year -- the first time ISU has accomplished the feat since the Larry Bird era (1976-77, 1977-78, 1978-79).
With one more victory in its final four regular games this season, Indiana State can reach the 17-victory milestone for four consecutive seasons, which hasn't happened in Terre Haute since 1960-64.
"There's a really good feeling about Indiana State basketball now," Reck said.
While the current state of the Indiana State basketball program may be on the upswing, Sycamore fans know they will probably never see the likes of another Larry Bird again. Bird went on to win three NBA titles with the Celtics and was a member of the gold medal-winning 1992 U.S. Olympic Team, and was voted an NBA All-Star 12 times.
"In looking back, people realized that you only get a Larry Bird once in a lifetime," Reck said. "He was so much responsible for the success and there was no way that would ever be duplicated. That raised the expectations to a disproportionate level."