From the top of Reitz Hill, where the kids go to park, you can see almost all of Evansville, Ind. The Mead Johnson plant, which is where they make Metrecal, is right at the base of the hill, and about as far northeast as you can see is McCutchanville, where the Johnson executives live. It is the Ohio River, however, that dominates the vista, as it curves mischievously into a fishhook, forcing the streets to run all which ways—mostly, it seems, into railroad tracks. Still, there is a saving grace to that monstrous bend in the Ohio, for it inspires Evansville to call itself (like New Orleans) "The Crescent City"—and that sure beats "The Bar-B-Q Capital of the World," which is the alternative.
Downtown they have built up a big flood wall with federal funds so that now The Crescent City is protected from the kind of terror that the river brought in 1937, when it overflowed all over Evansville. But many people still talk about that flood as if it were yesterday, for Evansville, with 141,543 people, is that kind of normal smallish city that is vain about anything special in its past.
Of late, though, memories of the past are not needed in Evansville, because the present is sufficiently special—the city has the best small-college basketball team in the country, the Evansville College Purple Aces. Everyone talks about the Purple Aces. They are fun, but more than that, they bring the city distinction. The people are thrilled. The Purple Aces are like a benign flood that has come to Evansville, Ind.
The Purple Aces wear uniforms of orange, bench capes of blue, red, green, yellow and silver and their fans dress all in red, but there is no confusion about the basketball. Evansville is ranked No. 1 among the small colleges, just as it was last year when it went on to win an unprecedented third NCAA college-division title. The Aces have two All-Americas, Jerry Sloan and Larry Humes, and have won all 18 of their games this year, not only against schools their own size in the Indiana Collegiate Conference but against such major-college (technically known as university-division) opposition as Northwestern, Notre Dame and Iowa (which beat the national champion, UCLA).
February 15, 1965
Even more impressive is the reaction to the team, for the Purple Aces have become the cynosure not just of the city, but of the whole surrounding three-state countryside. Evansville drew 134,622 last year at home—sixth highest in the country—and another 31,895 showed up for the NCAA college-division tournament finals, annually played in Evansville. This year, with half a million copies of the team's schedule covering the area—on everything from place mats to change purses—attendance is up even more to an average of 10,700 per game.
This is especially noteworthy because Evansville College—the Methodists first called it Moores Hill Male and Female Collegiate Institute—was in operation for 102 years without attracting attention at all—except, maybe, for the one time in 1915 when the school building burned down and they moved everything that was left from Moores Hill to Evansville. Basketball began there in 1921, featuring such early high scorers as Slim Stuteville and Bounce Harper. Games at first were played in the local high school gyms, and later in the seclusion of the National Guard Armory. "And we couldn't even practice in the Armory on Friday," says Coach Arad McCutchan, "for religious reasons. The Catholics used the place for bingo."
Indeed, the phenomenon that is the Purple Aces can be dated from 1956, when Roberts Municipal Stadium was built. Roberts is a handsome place, seating 13,000 or so, and it was the immediate pride and joy of Evansville, a fact that did Mayor Roberts no good—since by opening day he had already been voted out of office. Still, he does have the stadium for Evansville to remember him by. Next to Roberts is Hartke Swimming Pool. Mayor Hartke went on to the U.S. Senate, but in Evansville they do not talk about Hartke's pool; the topic is Roberts' Stadium because that is where the action is.
The city is devoted to the team now, though the Aces are not worshiped just because they are winners or even because of the spectacle they offer. They have become an obsession, or at least an overwhelming fad. "I'm so glad to meet you," a lady told Mrs. Arad McCutchan at the beauty parlor one day. "My husband and I are dying to get tickets to these games. We're new in town, and we've never been so lonely on Saturday nights."
The Evansville following is characterized by its age—much more advanced than that of the typical college-game crowd. Students make up only a small fraction of the regular audience, and are more reserved than the townspeople. For the traditional game against Kentucky Wesleyan last month, 3,300 Purple Ace fans made the trip across the river, but less than 50 of these were students. At Roberts the Evansville undergraduates are often hard to find. The school has an enrollment of 2,542 but hardly more than 1,000 seats are reserved for the students, and they are poor seats anyway. Perhaps because of this, the students hardly bother to participate in organized cheering, except when the frenzy of the adult mob sweeps them into obliging their cheerleaders with the single chant: "A-sez, A-sez!"
Although the bulk of the crowd is mature and deep of throat, it is not nearly so violent as some losing coaches have suggested after they have left Evansville. One referee who concedes that point nevertheless insists: "It's the noisiest big place I ever heard. When you've got adults screaming, it's different. It's penetrating. But it's just enthusiasm, and it's very good for the team." Coaches who have complained of the Evansville fanaticism have usually ended up saying they wished their own home fans were as zealous.
Sammy Newman, who is in the shoe business and who went to Evansville games back in the Armory days, is generally considered the most vocal Ace rooter. Sammy is this violent: he calls all officials "finks," and when really inflamed goes on to "rat fink," a pale extremism that would not even get him into many of the arenas where malice is more the fashion. Sammy is expert at a spiel that one hears all over Evansville, as if the citizens had been ordered to memorize it. "In what other town this size," he begins the litany, "would you find a crowd like this?" Then come the following points: the Aces have been a great thing for Evansville, they have united the city and they have Put The City On The Map. Furthermore, nothing else—business or social—is scheduled in conflict with Aces games, and (the speech concludes with admirable frankness) before the Aces there was never much to do in Evansville anyway.
Evansville people substantiate these generalities with the following collection of specifics: 1) some unruly fans once paid their way in to Roberts three times, coming back each time they were ejected; 2) season-ticket rights have been a major point of issue in divorce suits and 3) season tickets of the deceased have been fought over publicly. All these tales are true. In connection with No. 3, one ticket holder died at night, and the man who owned seats to his immediate left showed up at 8:30 the next morning to request that they be passed on to him. He was denied his petition because the seat holder on the deceased's right had had the foresight to show up at 6:15.
Part of this enthusiasm for the Aces comes about because their rise has paralleled Evansville's own growth in the past few years. The school has constructed some impressive buildings and strengthened its curriculum, while the city has attracted considerable new industry in a strong comeback after its largest employer pulled out a few years ago. So rooting for the Aces is caught up with cheering for the whole city; and Evansville is a pretty progressive place for a city its size. It has a philharmonic orchestra, a museum and a zoo that elicits almost as much pride as the team does.
"This is the kind of people they are—I mean the people who go see the games and support everything," a former Evansville resident says. "This zoo was the only zoo in Indiana, and the newspapers were always making noise about that. Well, one day someone writes in and says there is also a zoo in Gary or Indianapolis or some place. Fine. But a week later the newspapers and everybody else are back to saying that they have the only zoo in Indiana. Everybody in town will give you that only-zoo-in-Indiana stuff now [they do], and nothing is going to change it. It's the same way with the small-college tournament. These people are convinced that they're getting big Evansville headlines all over America, when mostly they're just getting a couple of inches buried somewhere."
Despite the lack of headlines and their small-college status, the Aces could compete favorably against any team in the country, and last year—when they had more height and a better bench—they were among the best by any definition. "This way, we make them guess how good we are," Coach McCutchan says. "And besides, if we had major status, we'd be just another good team, and we wouldn't be getting all this attention." The Aces are virtually bound to remain small college through 1967, since the NCAA finals are committed to Roberts until then. Of more concern now is the threat that the big-name schools may stop playing the Aces, if they decide that the hefty $6,000 a game they take out of Evansville is not enough to salve pride wounded by being beaten by a small-college team.
Evansville fans are surely getting more than their money's worth, and not just because the price scale ranges all the way from $1.50 to $2 a game. For in Sloan and Humes, Evansville has as good a pair of players as any team in the country. Sloan runs the team's attack, which is at its best, and simplest, when he is working the ball in to Humes. The Aces like to fast break, but are also meticulous in setting up. The offense is marked further by its versatility, since all the starters are close to the same size and can play back and forecourt. Forward Humes is 6 feet 4, Forward Russ Grieger (a local boy) only 6 feet 2, and Guard Sam Watkins 6 feet 3—but all can interchange. Center Herb Williams is a mere 6 feet 3 (though he can touch 11 feet 4) and can move outside. Sloan is a 6-foot-6 guard who leads the team in rebounding. He is also the very best defensive player on campus, agile and strong enough to have successfully guarded men from 5 feet 6 to 6 feet 11. He turned down a $17,000 no-cut contract from the Baltimore Bullets last spring to play out his eligibility, and this year he will certainly be one of the first three or four players drafted by the NBA. Humes, a junior, averages 32.7, more than twice Sloan's mark, but he is less a pro prospect because he may be too small to use his fantastic inside one-on-one moves among the professionals. As a collegian he is extremely dangerous with the ball, and he and Sloan are thrilling to watch. "The only thing I regret about us being in the college division," McCutchan says, "is that Jerry and Larry won't get the recognition they deserve."
McCutchan says these things with absolute sincerity. He was high scorer at Evansville for three years back in the '30s, took over the coaching in 1946 and is athletic director now, too, but he still teaches physical education and mathematics. ("Factor out does not mean throw out, like some of you seem to think.") Mrs. McCutchan is an English teacher, and their diverse talents have helped a lot of basketball players along. McCutchan comes from the farmland north of Evansville and north, too, of that rich bedroom suburb of McCutchanville, which was named for his forebears. Now he lives in town, almost equidistant from the college and the stadium. He eats his breakfast cereal with Metrecal. and he feeds his players Nutrament, which is sort of a high-cal Metrecal. Son Alan graduated from Evansville into Yale Medical School last year, daughter Marilyn is a junior there now and daughter Jeanne will no doubt be a freshman there in the fall of 1967. He has had offers from other and bigger schools but, at 52, Arad McCutchan has no ideas about leaving. Some anonymous fans paid his initiation dues into the Evansville Country Club, and he has the use of a station wagon, ostensibly for being commissioner of the Evansville Little League. Everybody calls him Mac (from McCutchan, naturally; he says it means "son of shield bearer," whereas Arad's Biblical derivation is "wild ass"). "I was named for my grandfather," he explains. "There were three brothers, and their father—that would be my great-grandfather—named them by opening up the Bible and running his finger down the page. He would use the first male name he came across. The oldest son was Arad. The second didn't do too bad—Bartholomew. But the third son came up Arphaxad, and he died within a year. As I understand it, they thought maybe poor little Arphaxad had been killed by that name, because he was the last one they named just by opening up the Bible."
McCutchan is a fine, precise coach, who is quite casual and unmoved by all the fuss about Evansville. He remembers the Armory days. He is not the least bit afraid to think about a day when interest in the Purple Aces will approach normality. "But I don't know," he says. "We had a bad season three years ago, and we still drew 91,000 and they just took more interest in the freshmen. They just can't wait for the season to start. We had 8,000 this year for the freshman-varsity game. They were all out there, trying out their red, helping me to discover some sleeper. But I know it can't go on. What are we going to do when this thing starts to break?"
When—indeed, if—it does, the memories of the golden age of the Purple Aces no doubt will be less concerned with McCutchan's coaching (308-180 record now) or his team (three national championships) than with all those colors the team wears. It is the first thing most people ask about, and the answers all vary. Purple was always there and at some point they just got around to tacking it in front of "Aces." The true meaning of Aces has been lost as sure as the purple. It was, actually, a tribute to the World War I variety, but today the team's mascots are small children decked out as four of another kind. The capes of many colors are strictly gimmicks. McCutchan had to get some new ones, and he thought they would be a little more lively. The selection of orange for the uniforms is, on the other hand, by pure scientific design. McCutchan found that orange is the easiest color to pick out when, say, Jerry Sloan is trying to make a pass.
But red is really the color, and it is all by accident—just because McCutchan happened to wear a pair of red-and-black socks to a game in 1959. Evansville won, a few fans noticed the red (if not the black), and red items began to show up at Roberts. Publicist Bob Hudson, who does an imaginative and energetic job of marshaling all this crazy interest, pushed the idea, and once it caught on there was no stopping it. The Evansville red in Roberts Stadium is a stunning sight. It flowers from the benches, and there is a red carpet for the visitors' feet. Among the Aces themselves, it starts with McCutchan's young assistant, Tom O'Brien, who wears a red vest. McCutchan also wears a red vest and a red tie, too, and—of course—red socks. He even gives out commemorative red socks now. The color flows back into the stands, where the $100-a-season Tip-Off Club members sit in the lower seats with their names on them. Red is densest through here, but it proliferates throughout the place, and is spotted into the far reaches—as if a bomb had burst at mid-court, the shrapnel drawing less blood higher up.
Red is everywhere in Evansville and environs now. There is sort of an overkill of red about The Crescent City, for the hottest fans have whole wardrobes of red—the red tie this game, the red shirt for the next, and so on. Sammy Newman wears red on red. A man came into town recently in anguish because in Jasper, Ind., 60 miles away, there was not a red sweater to be had.
It is a strange cult that produces this sort of thing. It is emotion and pride and social status and fun and games, all these things intertwined—an effect loud enough to properly demand red and to put a city on the map, and even to take the heat off the fact that there really is another zoo in Indiana.