BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Mike Woodson hasn't had anything to do with Indiana's current nine-game losing streak to Purdue, other and watching and agonizing from afar just like every other Hoosier fan.
But this intense in-state rivalry still means a lot to Indiana's first-year coach, mainly because his college playing career ended in 1980 with a loss in the most important of the 223 games played between these bitter rivals.
It was March 13, 1980 in Lexington, Ky., when the two teams met in the NCAA Tournament for the one and only time. Purdue won that day, upsetting Bob Knight and Indiana 76-69 in the Mideast Regional semifinal on its way to the Final Four. The Hoosiers were the No. 2 seed in the region and Purdue, the sixth-seed led by Joe Barry Carroll and coached by Lee Rose, ended Woodson's illustrious Indiana basketball career on that night.
Woodson's comeback from major December back surgery that season was one of the greatest stories ever told in Indiana basketball. He played only six Big Ten games after he healed up — he missed both regular season games against Purdue — and the Hoosiers won them all, winning the Big Ten title on the final of the regular season.
He was named the Big Ten's player of the year — and he earned it in just those six games. It was one of the most courageous performances ever by an Indiana player.
It took every ounce of energy he had to come back. The pain from losing, though, even trumped the pain from recovering from back surgery.
"Well, it's tough because, if you recall back when I was a senior, there was a lot at stake that year for me personally,'' Woodson said. "The Final Four being in Indianapolis where I grew up, on my birthday to be exact, on March the 24th, and this being my last year, there was just a lot. There were a lot of accolades on the table in terms of scoring in the Big Ten, Indiana history scoring.
"To lose and go out the way we did, it was a tough day for me. I didn't have as much in the tank that I thought I had coming back from the back surgery. That was tough. And I played. I asked Knight to play me; don't baby me. When I came back from the surgery, I think I averaged probably 36, 38 minutes all the way out.''
Woodson literally couldn't even get in and out of bed on his own during that final month of his career, but he played through it anyway.
"By the time we got to the Purdue game — there's no excuse, they were the better team that night in Lexington, there's no doubt about that — but I just didn't have much left in the tank.
"To go out that way was tough because it's Purdue, you know? But hey, for me it was a hell of a run. That's all I can say. It put me back in the position to be able to still continue to play, and that meant more to me than anything. Instead of ending my career, I was still able to go on and continue to play. But that was a tough year, ending it that way. But hey, we've moved on since then and now I'm here back coaching, so it's all great.''
Woodson is an Indianapolis native, so he grew up with the rivalry, one that stretches to every corner of the state, and still does. He understands its intensity very well. And meeting in the postseason ramped it up another notch. The same thing happened a year earlier, when Indiana beat Purdue in the finals of the NIT Tournament in New York City.
"The games were a major battle. Nobody wanted to give,'' Woodson said. "Playing at Purdue was tough, and I'm sure they feel the same way when they come here. It's tough. We happened to meet the one year in the NIT championship, and it came down to a last-second shot. It's just always been a battle over the years.
"They've kind of had their way here of late, but hopefully we can make that change. We've got to just commit ourselves for 40 minutes. It's not going to be something that's going to be hand-delivered to us. You've got to go get it.''
Purdue coach Matt Painter is an Indiana native too, and as a small boy, he idolized Indiana and remembers watching Woodson as a player. Painter played at Purdue, and his career followed Woodson's by a decade.
The two have a lot of respect for each other.
"Well, I've always had a great deal of respect (for Painter), and that's awful nice of him to say something like that as a young kid. You never know how young kids view you, but that's kind of some nice words.
"Listen, I've watched him coach over the years, and I've watched Purdue teams, and they've always been competitive. He's built his system the right way. I've got nothing but big respect for him. I know that this game (Thursday night) means a lot to him, but it means a lot to us as Indiana Hoosier fans, as well, too.''
Related stories on Indiana basketball
- RELIVING MIKE WOODSON'S 1980 SEASON: Mike Woodson had one of the best playing careers in Indiana history from 1976 to 1980, but he left without a ring in the class between two national champions. What he accomplished in 1980 with a team ranked No. 1 in the preseason was both miraculous and courageous. Woodson and his 1980 teammates were featured in the book "Missing Banners,'' and those three chapters are included in this story. CLICK HERE
Here's how to get your copy of the book "Missing Banners,'' which chronicled the 1980 season, along with 1975, 1993, 2002 and 2013:
- AUTOGRAPHED COPY: If you would like an autographed copy of the book. simply email Tom Brew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- AMAZON.COM: The link to order the book on Amazon.com is here. CLICK HERE