LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Indiana is basketball country

A visit to Assembly Hall was one to remember

Loran Smith

Loran Smith

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Last week I was here for Indiana’s upset of Wisconsin in a Big Ten basketball game that became a study in perseverance — keep it close and something good might happen. The evening concluded with the guys in the candy stripe warm-ups prevailing, which led to a thunderous stampede onto the court for an embracing of their heroes.

Wisconsin was favored but as the nail-biting finish was taking shape, it appeared that Indiana was destined.

Pre-game, a Hoosier fan in blue jeans and work boots allowed that he had just come in from the farm and “smelled” an upset. One of the fascinating features to big time universities is that so often you find them ensconced in rural countrysides. No campus reflects that humbling tradition more than Indiana.

Many Hoosier fans reserve their greatest affection for being able to produce the highest yield per acre with their corn crop and witnessing Indiana make a run for the Final Four.

Can you imagine the energy that comes about when Assembly Hall, built in 1971, is throbbing with 17,472 fans? The building was a robust red, in color and intensity. The place was energized and intimidating. The Hoosiers became the Lions, Wisconsin the Christians.

It was fun cheering for a man I have never met, but whose father-in-law is a good friend. Tom Crean, the Hoosier coach (not to be confused with the Irish polar explorer), is the son-in-law of Jack Harbaugh. Crean’s brothers-in-law, John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens) and Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco 49ers), who will speak at the UGA Hall of Fame Chapter dinner in April, met in the most recent Super Bowl.

I have never composed a bucket list but have always wanted to see a game at Indiana. The Indiana sports landscape has much to offer, beginning with the Indy 500, which attracts more than 250,000 every Memorial Day weekend. The Colts won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning and the NBA Pacers are good, but for an electrifying evening, Assembly Hall is the place to be. Purdue at West Lafayette, 115 miles away, and Notre Dame, 195 miles away at South Bend, might take exception, but Indiana holds sway with any basketball aficionado.

After driving over from Indianapolis, taking note of the snow piled high in several places, there was the benefit of parking, arranged by an old friend, Jon Fabris, a well-traveled football coach. For an Indiana game, you want to arrive early to enjoy the build up to tipoff. The crowd arrived late, but the band got early arrivals in the mood with its peppy rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” I felt right at home with the music and familiar signage — Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola and Kroger. Hoosteria was not evident at that point, but it soon would be.

There are images of Bobby Knight — oversized photos on the concourse walls and on the pre-game video, recalling his three NCAA championships. The press row billboard proclaimed that Indiana has the largest student section in the country. On one end of the building, the banners, reflecting Indiana’s five NCAA titles, were as prominent as the Hoosiers’ candy stripe warm-ups.

The cheerleaders, like cheerleaders everywhere — pretty, becoming, and athletic — put on a stunning halftime show, befitting their back-to-back national championships. Indiana, with plenty to boast about, is not reluctant to point out its points of pride. If they were trying to impress one visitor from three states away, they succeeded.

If you recall the history of college sport, you are easily persuaded that no conference has had more success in both football and basketball as the storied Big Ten. You note the reversal of status when you compare Indiana with Georgia. Indiana football would like to be more like Georgia, and the Bulldogs covet the Hoosier basketball traditions and sellouts.

Even several nights later, in your memory banks, there were vibrant images of the band revving the crowd up, the energy the full house brought about. You could feel it as if it were an object you could reach out and grasp. It was nice to be a fan in a classic sports setting.

Basketball is big time in the Big Ten, and one night in Bloomington makes you pine for more. There was one disappointment, however. Why, here in corn country, was corn on the cob not on the concession menu?