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Mike Lopresti | | January 6, 2016

40 years later, remembering the undefeated 1976 Hoosiers

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Forty years later, the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers still stand alone.

They are men in their 60s now, college basketball’s last unbeaten champions, their feat still unmatched by future generations. Indiana hosted them for their 40th reunion at Tuesday night’s Wisconsin game – minus the coach who would not come. That springtime of their lives still means something.

To Quinn Buckner, the team leader at guard. ``It has stood the test of time . . . Coach Knight said it (then) and none of us knew what he meant. He said, take a look at this team, you’ll never see another one like it. And I’ll remember that till the day I die, and I sit here humbled by that thought.’’’

To Kent Benson, the All-American center. ``We’ve got to live that every day for the last 40 years, so it’s like it happened yesterday.’’

To Bobby Wilkerson, the defensive specialist who played guard, but was known to be assigned to stop centers. ``I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.’’

They were Bob Knight’s creation, roaring through the season of their dreams 32-0. A relentless powerhouse who in the day before NCAA Tournament seeding, had to beat four top-10 opponents in the Sweet 16 and Final Four to get to the trophy, and perfection.

Nine of the 1976 Hoosiers made it Tuesday, sitting just behind the Indiana bench, watching the current team rally past Wisconsin 59-58.  ``That’s something I’m going to remember,’’ Yogi Ferrell said.

``To say all of us don’t feel that a little bit would be an understatement,’’ coach Tom Crean said of the pressure of playing in front of their famous predecessors. ``Because you don’t want to disappoint on a night that is so important to so many people, and a night that brings that memory. I didn’t realize they were sitting right behind the bench, so I had to catch my breath a couple of times early when I walked out there.’’

Knight, still estranged from the school that fired him, was the conspicuous empty chair. During the halftime ceremony, he was dutifully introduced, his picture put on the video board to loud applause. But that was as close as he got.

``We were special because of one man, Bob Knight, who’s not here,’’ Buckner said to the Assembly Hall crowd. ``But that doesn’t matter. In spirit, he’s here.’’

 It mattered to some. At least one, 1976 national player of the year Scott May, considered not attending since Knight would be absent. But he was cajoled by a younger man sitting in the audience Tuesday night. Son Sean.

The younger May won a national championship himself for North Carolina in 2005, and is now a Tar Heels’ assistant. ``He wasn’t going to come,’’ he said of his father. ``I said, `Dad, you know what, it’s not about you, it’s about the 13 other guys who were on that team.’’

Sean did not hear from his father that he was coming for sure until Tuesday morning, while driving to work in Chapel Hill.

``First thing I did was go to the airport and book a ticket,’’ he said. ``I called coach Williams (as in his Carolina boss, Roy) and he said he’d be mad at me if I didn’t come, because he knows how important it is.’’

So Sean was in the audience with a lot of folks in red, hearing stories from the last perfect team.

Wilkerson, on the demanding taskmaster that was Bob Knight: ``We didn’t know what day we were going to be in the doghouse, but we were sure it was going to be at least two out of the five.’’

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Reserve guard Jim Crews, now coaching Saint Louis, remembered the closeness of the team. He mentioned the time, as a freshman, he was put in late in the game and threw an assist to May: ``Scott is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the best player in the country. He makes the bucket and gets fouled. It’s not important, we’re up 25 points. But Scott May sprints to the top of the key and gives me a big bear hug. Here’s a guy that comes off the bench, not that good of a player, and he makes you feel like a million dollars. That’s what’s really cool about the teammates you’ve had for 40 years that Coach Knight put together.’’

May on how Knight kept his team focused and in a cocoon, far from the outside world that would cause trouble by bringing up such subjects as perfect records: ``He made it pretty normal for us. If you’re asking me how much pressure, there wasn’t any, I don’t think, for us. I’d say we didn’t feel it, if it was there, even after we got to 20, 25, 30. We just didn’t feel it. We just played.''

Here's Buckner and May, about the time Knight came to them before the season to ask if they thought the Hoosiers should accept a made-for-TV game with defending national champion UCLA for an opener. Remembered Buckner, ``There was not a not a hint of pause.’’ Remembered May, ``You want to play every good team. You don’t want any cupcakes. I just think that’s what it’s all about, taking everybody’s best shot. And that’s kind of what we did.’’

Indiana won 84-64. One down, 31 more to go.

Some of the Bruins said that night they’d beat the Hoosiers if they got another shot at them in the tournament. ``I honestly don’t remember one word that the UCLA players talked about,’’ starting forward Tom Abernathy said. ``Coach Knight had a way of making sure we didn’t get caught up with the media and worrying about that stuff.’’

The rematch came in the Final Four. Indiana won 65-51.

For Indiana University, there is an iconic picture taken after the 86-68 championship game win over Michigan of May and Buckner, with a smiling Knight. Four decades later, can they remember what they were thinking at the moment?

May: ``I think for me, it was mission accomplished.’’

Buckner: ``It was jubilation. It was relief. I think for all of us, the biggest part of that was to see the smile on Coach Knight’s face. We didn’t see that very often. You know it’s a memorable moment when you see that on his face.’’

There have been several near-misses since. Indiana State and Larry Bird made it to the championship game unbeaten only three years after 1976. UNLV of 1991 got to the Final Four. Same for Kentucky, to considerable fanfare last year. None finished the job. At least one Hoosier said they were not the 1972 Miami Dolphins, celebrating a little when the last unbeaten falls each season.

``I don’t care what anybody else does,’’ Buckner said. ``This team will always be remembered for what it did, and that is the part, if you will, I hang my hat on. Somebody else may be undefeated, but they won’t do what this team has done. I really don’t mind some kids who have the same aspirations, and achieve the same goal. It doesn’t take away anything from what we’ve done.’’

Several of his teammates on the dais nodded in agreement, but you wonder if some still don’t mind owning the last perfect season. Sean May ratted out his father.

``My dad talks about it every year when (the last unbeaten loses),’’ he said. ``Every time, he’ll call me and say, `Someone else, they tried and failed.’’’

Sean said being around the 1976 Hoosiers later in their lives gave him his first glimpse of what a real team is supposed to be, with its permanent friendships. He grew up calling Buckner, Uncle Quinn.

So he wanted to be there Tuesday. And he really wanted his father there. One more bow for the Hoosiers of 1976; perfect then, perfect forever.

``My dad’s a really private person. He doesn’t do well with emotions. I think just being here, being able to reminisce . . . these guys have their own lives, doing separate things now,’’ Sean said. ``But when you get them in this room, it’s like they’re 22 back on campus again. He’s loving that.

``I think he’s really happy he came.’’

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