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Commentary Bob Lutz: Former coach recalls Indiana State’s near-perfect season

  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, at 8:04 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, at 8:01 a.m.

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Bill Hodges, who coached Indiana State and Larry Bird to a 29-0 regular season in 1978-79, says being unbeaten isn’t about pressure. It’s about luck.

“You’ve got to have it,” said the 70-year-old Hodges, whose Sycamores won 33 in a row before losing to Michigan State and Magic Johnson in the NCAA championship game. “You have to have luck.”

Indiana State is one of only two Missouri Valley Conference teams since 1950 to go unbeaten in conference play.

Wichita State will try to improve to 24-0 against Indiana State on Wednesday night in Terre Haute. Hodges, who was a first-year coach for the Sycamores’ Final Four team and lasted only three more seasons with ISU, will be watching.

“I’ve seen Wichita State play a number of times this season,” Hodges said. “They’re good and really good defensively. They play hard and they play smart. But it’ll be a challenge for them at Indiana State. Wichita hurt them with their big guys earlier this season but I think Indiana State matches up fairly well.”

The Shockers haven’t needed much luck this season. Yet.

They were down by 19 points midway through the second half at Missouri State before a furious comeback led to a one-point win. And WSU trailed Evansville by 15 on Saturday at Koch Arena before rallying to win easily.

But there hasn’t been that moment like there was during Indiana State’s unbeaten run 35 years ago. The Sycamores had two brushes with great fortune, really.

The first was in a game at New Mexico State in early February. The Aggies, who finished 22-10 that season, led by two points after forward Cy Cormier, one of the Aggies’ best players, had made the first of two free throws. But Cormer, a 76 percent foul shooter, missed the second, one that would have clinched the win in the days before the three-point line.

“We had called a timeout before that second free throw,” Hodges said. “And we put two guys at midcourt on both sides of the floor and said that whoever gets the rebound just get it to one of them and they shoot it.”

Indiana State’s Alex Gilbert got the rebound and whistled a pass to Bob Heaton at mid-court. Heaton turned and shot from 50 feet. The ball caromed off the backboard and through to tie the score. Indiana State won in overtime despite playing most of the extra period without Bird, Gilbert and standout guard Carl Nicks.

The Sycamores had another close call at Southern Illinois two weeks later when they needed an offensive rebound off a missed free throw and resulting three-point play to beat the Salukis 69-68.

Hodges has been coaching off and on since leaving Indiana State. He spent five years at Georgia College, an NAIA school, then six at Mercer from 1991-97. Most recently, he coached high school basketball in Virginia. He is currently retired and staying with a daughter in North Carolina.

“I enjoy being with family and grandkids,” Hodges said. “But I miss the coaching. I’ve been going to some of North Carolina State’s practices and games. I spend some time at East Carolina because their coach, Jeff Lebo, is a friend. I go over to Wake Forest because a kid who played for me is there. That’s how I get my basketball fix.”

Hodges said he’s still in touch with many of his former Indiana State players, including Bird.

“But he’s so busy and he’s never been good about returning calls,” Hodges said. “We text now. I’m high tech. I texted him on his birthday and he texted me back. That’s how we stay in touch.”

Indiana State knocked off Wichita State twice during the 1978-79 season, beating the Shockers 94-84 in Wichita, and 109-84 in Terre Haute. In that one, Bird broke his own single-game scoring record with 49 points. But he did so in a non-traditional way.

“I think that was the first time we were on national TV that season,” Hodges said. “And I took Larry out of that game before I knew he was close to the record. So I put him back into the game because if I hadn’t done that there would have been a lot of angry people around here.”

This way, the only angry person was Wichita State coach Gene Smithson, who was in his first season with the Shockers.

“Gene stayed mad at me for the longest time after that,” Hodges said. “Really mad. It took a few years for us to get that one resolved. But he took revenge on me a couple of years later. I think Wichita State beat us by 40 at their place.”

Hodges said the pressure of being undefeated shouldn’t be a problem for the Shockers. It wasn’t for his Indiana State team until the Sycamores reached the Valley postseason tournament, which he felt they needed to win to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Incredible as that sounds, it was a different time in college basketball. It was a smaller NCAA field and fewer at-large teams.

“You’ve got to be lucky to go unbeaten and you’ve got to be ready,” Hodges said. “The old adage is that luck favors the one that’s most prepared. That season we had at Indiana State is obviously the one that sticks with me the most. Unfortunately, it was my first. It was hard to follow that up. I could never satisfy anybody after that.”

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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