Hollywood always tries to sensationalize. In 1986, a movie called Hoosiers was produced; Hoosiers was about a small-town Indiana high school that wins the state basketball championship game against a much bigger school. Everybody knew the movie was based on the story of the 1954 Milan Indians, but the Hollywood filmmakers reflexively tried to make the story even better than it really was. While Hoosiers was a good movie, it is my contention that the real “Hoosiers”, those 1954 Milan Indians, would have made a better story than the fictional Hickory Huskers.
I grew up in Aurora, Indiana, in the 1970s and 80s when Hoosier Hysteria was still running wild through the state. I remember going to games at the old Aurora High School gym, which seated 1,000-1,500 people(I am guessing) and was permeated with popcorn. The school was electric, and every game felt huge.
In 1977, the Aurora Red Devils went on a magical run similar to what the Milan Indians had done in ’54. Aurora was a bigger school than Milan but still small for a team with a shot to go to the state finals. I remember listening to that state tournament with my family and how big a deal it was. Aurora had never advanced past the Sweet 16 and when they won the regional to advance to the Sweet 16, that’s all the town could talk about for a week leading up to the game.
The Sweet 16 game would be played at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Aurora would be facing one of the top teams in the state, Lawrence Central, led by soon-to-be Indiana Hoosier Steve Risley – the Red Devils were given little chance of even making the game competitive. Again, the venue was Hinkle Fieldhouse, where Milan had won the 1954 state title.
The IHSAA High School tournament played the Sweet 16 all on one day in 1977, so the Red Devils would be playing that morning and a win would put them in the elite 8 round to be played that night. Led by star guard Tim Johnson, Aurora upset the heavily-favored Bears in overtime and were just one win away from the state finals the following week. Unfortunately, our Red Devils would lose this second game, 61-57, in another classic battle just coming up short of their very own Hoosiers story. Why do I bring this up, you might ask? Will I can only imagine the excitement in Milan, Indiana, 23 years earlier when Milan advanced even farther than my Red Devils had.
I loved Hoosiers and still do; the movie did show the world precisely what Hoosier Hysteria was like, but I think the original story of 1954 Milan would have stood on its own without the Hollywood embellishments. My big problem is that the story is seen through the eyes of a coach who is, let’s just say, not the most likeable fellow in the world. Coach Dale had lost a college job for hitting a kid and was more of a “my way or the highway” guy. He had an alcoholic assistant coach and another assistant with heart problems. The way Dale showboated probably didn’t help these characters: Stress was perhaps the last thing they needed.
Hickory High was terrible until star Jimmy Chitwood arrived to save the day, which means that without Chitwood’s dramatic appearance, the team was screwed, and Coach Dale would have been fired. The team that the Huskers played on film for the title (and so the villain) was a predominately all-black team. Remember: In 1953, the IHSAA voted 40-7 against allowing a black man to be an official in IHSAA games. Also, no IHSAA championship team was completely black until Oscar Robertson led Crispus Attucks High to the title the next year.
So, maybe the white team with the asshole coach should have been the villain…?
Expectations were high in the 1952-53 season. These were realized as the Indians won their first regional game in school history and went on to shock the state by winning the regional title and sweeping the semi-state tournament to advance to the final four, finally bowing out in a 56-37 semifinal blowout to the Bears of South Bend Central High School.
The nucleus of that Milan team returned for the 1953-54 season with expectations of tournament success unprecedented for such a small school. The only losses Milan suffered were to Frankfort, 49-47, and the Bob Fehrman-led Aurora Red Devils; Fehrman would go on to play at Purdue, and in Aurora, when you bring up the ’54 Indians, those who remember will quickly tell you about the great ’54 Red Devils who beat Milan and gave them fits in the regional championship game.
After the hard-fought regional championship win over Aurora, Milan moved on to the Sweet 16 to face Montezuma. In its first game in the Semi-State at Butler Fieldhouse (now known as Hinkle Fieldhouse) in Indianapolis, Milan found itself in the unexpected position of playing Goliath to Montezuma’s David, as the Aztecs, with an enrollment of 79 – less than half of Milan’s – shocked the state by advancing past the regional for the first time. Milan capitalized on the experience gained from their 1953 visit to Butler Fieldhouse and outlasted the Aztecs with a fourth-quarter cat-and-mouse tactic to preserve the victory.
The Elite Eight round would bring a matchup with the legendary Oscar Robertson and Crispus Attucks High School. Attucks had a 17-16 lead after one quarter before Milan jumped out to a seven-point halftime lead and preserved it by playing the cat-and-mouse throughout the second half. Attucks would win the 1955 and ’56 titles, becoming the first all-black team to win the IHSAA Championship.
Coach Wood prepared the Indians intensely for Gerstmeyer, who, like Milan, had been in the state’s Final Four the previous year and, like Milan, had come into the tournament with only two losses. Milan’s defense held Arley Andrews, one of the state’s best players, to nine points as they coasted to victory.
Tied 26-26 in a defensive battle with heavily-favored perennial power Muncie Central after three quarters, Plump, who had uncharacteristically shot only 2-for-10 from the field at that point, froze the ball unchallenged for over four minutes during the fourth quarter. Tied at 30, Bobby Plump hit a 14-footer from the right side as time expired to seal the win in a low-scoring defensive battle, denying the Bearcats a fifth state title.
Instead of a player showing up mid-season to save the day, maybe a better story would be a group of small-town Indiana boys who started playing basketball together as third graders, stay friends and as teammates win a state title.
Instead of a coach who has hit players ultimately winning, we could have a young coach who is a good and decent man leading these kids to the title – which story is more feel-good to you?
Coach Marvin Wood had been hired by Milan High two years before winning the state title, at the age of 24, after a collegiate career at Butler University and a coaching stint in French Lick. His hiring followed controversial superintendent Willard Green’s firing of coach Herman “Snort” Grinstead, who had ordered new uniforms without authorization. Wood’s coaching style was the opposite of Grinstead’s in many ways: He closed practice to outsiders, which removed one of the significant forms of leisure time entertainment for the town’s basketball-crazed population and angered many.
Wood was impressed by the unusual scope of size and talent available in such a small school among the many boys trying out for the team, talent forged by a solid junior-high program. He taught them more patience than the run-and-gun Grinstead, culminating in a four-corner ball control offense he called the “cat-and-mouse”.
To show how vital the Milan Indians were to the state of Indiana, think about this: Tiny Milan, Indiana, hosted 40,000 people waiting to greet these kids as they showed up in town the day after the championship! In my opinion, the real story is much better than the fictionalized version.
The Milan story was of small-town high schoolers realizing a dream they had worked their entire lives for. They were led by a 24-year-old coach who helped the team win by installing the proper values it takes to become a champion.
In the state tournament, Milan High beat an even smaller school in the Sweet 16 Montezuma and then beat one of the greatest players in the sport’s history in Oscar Robertson. Robertson’s team was stopped from becoming the first all-black school to make it to the final four. Robertson would get them there in the next two years.
The final four saw Milan beat two teams from much bigger cities, and then finally, you have the welcome home from 40,000 people in a town where just 1,100 lived. To me, there is no doubt which is the better story.
If you enjoy hearing from the legends of pro sports, then be sure to tune into “The Grueling Truth” sports shows, “Where the legends speak”
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