The way the Evansville Purple Aces came back home last Wednesday night was by running through a purple paper barrier and out onto the court, with the band playing and the cheerleaders tumbling and the people roaring. There was not a misty eye in the place, because it was basketball season again, and that is a time of raucous joy in the little river city in southern Indiana.
Of course, there was also an altogether different group of Purple Aces that the people of Evansville knew well, but all of them had gone down in a chartered plane. It shattered on a muddy hillside just outside of town last Dec. 13. But it is another season now, another winter's dream, and as the Evansville Courier wrote last week of that desperately sorrowful night less than a year ago, "that was once upon a time."
The good people of Evansville are not hard folk, not disrespectful of their dead—29 in all, 14 players, the coach, a number of staff and fans—but they had grown weary of grieving and of the fruitlessness of grieving. Condolences had come from all over the world; $330,000 in unsolicited funds had been mailed in; there had been memorial services, a memorial tournament.
At first, the fans had even found it hard to embrace the new coach, whose name is Dick Walters. They wished him well. They were polite to him when he talked about "rebuilding the program." But in their sorrow they were not able to give him their hearts. Then, in October, came the first day of practice, and 450 fans showed up to watch the new team that Walters had assembled. Mike Blake, the Aces' TV play-by-play announcer, recalls, "It all changed then. Once the people saw boys playing basketball again, they could accept Dick." He did not really exist in Evansville until he had a team and a season.
Stan Blackford, a student who works in the sports PR office and who knew just about everybody killed in the crash, was watching practice the other day. "For a long time, I couldn't stand to even come into this building," he said.
How can he stand it now? He waved toward the floor, where the boys were playing. "Why, the Aces are back now," he said matter-of-factly.
So this is why, when the time came, they put up the purple paper instead of asking for a moment of silence.
You must understand that the plane crash was more than just a horrible snuffing out of a large number of young lives. The university basketball team had great meaning for the whole Evansville community—the city even more than the school. When the Aces won the first of their five NCAA Division II titles in 1959, Evansville was in an economic and spiritual depression, and anybody will tell you that the city's resurgence began then. Soon, the social fabric of the town revolved about the Aces' schedule and fortunes, and the team helped Evansvillians better tolerate the ignominy of being citizens of the largest municipality in the country without an Interstate highway.
The coach of all five championship teams, the coach from 1946 to 1977, was a down-home Hoosier named Arad McCutchan, who doubled as an algebra teacher. He dressed the Purple Aces in orange shirts on the court (for better passing vision) and full-length robes on the bench (for warmth). In 31 years he spent a grand total of three nights on the road recruiting, and he won 514 games from fancy Interstate coaches.
When McCutchan retired after the 1977 season, Bobby Watson, an assistant at Oral Roberts who stood 6'7", was hired and charged with the task of leading the Aces into the big time, Division I. By now the fans were jaded with success at the secondary level. It was to be the beginning of an exciting new era for the Aces. "Coach Watson was so big and nice and all, he just about swallowed you up with his enthusiasm," McCutchan says. But then, of course, Watson's era lasted only four games.
Walters was hired last March from DuPage, a junior college in Glen Ellyn, Ill. The fact that he was a successful (202-56) JC coach, that he had had to create a team from scratch every year, were marks in his favor. Because of the crash, the NCAA waived the rule that requires a transfer to sit out a season before he can play at his new school, and Walters formed his squad with six transfers (three from Iowa), a couple of his own JCs and a large complement of freshmen.
In Evansville he "sold the program." He spoke at 157 meetings, and he was ideal for the role. College basketball coaches tend to be brash front men—vain, often foppish. And no one is more stylish than Walters: contained, slick, earnest, handsome and absolutely sure of what he wants. He is only 31, so confident and, for Evansville in its despair, so perfectly vernal.
"But I'll have to be out of this by 41," he says. He knows himself. Every hair is in place, every color coordinated, everything about him is impeccable—except for one. His nails are bitten to the quick.
Assembling a reasonably good team was easier, it seems, than battling ghosts. "On the one hand, there's the legend of Coach McCutchan and his five titles," Walters says. "On the other, there's the memory of Coach Watson and the thoughts of what he might have done. That's been almost a JFK kind of thing. It's made it harder for me to establish an identity for myself and for my program."
Coaches talk about programs instead of teams. After all, the team belongs to the players, it is the players, and it can be a very sloppy affair. Teams graduate, get injured, flunk out, fall in love. The program belongs to the coach and is more reliable. Watson was a different sort of person from Walters, and he might have coached a little differently, but he had gone about building a program the same way.
And like Walters, Watson was a young man with a wife and three children; as it was for Walters, the Evansville job was Watson's first major head coaching position. As Walters' team does now, Watson's Purple Aces wore purple shirts. It was eerie and wrenching in the team meeting last Wednesday when Walters went over the opposition, DePaul. A year ago, almost to the day, another new coach with a wife and three children and a new program had gone over DePaul.
Stafford Stephenson sat there in the meeting, intently keeping his mind on DePaul. He is the one link to both teams of purple Purple Aces. He was an assistant to Watson, off recruiting in Florida when the plane went down. He agreed to stay on as a member of Walters' staff. "I knew Bobby well, and he'd have wanted me to stay, to be a part of putting it back together. Bobby'd want me to be thinking about these guys right here," Stephenson says, though Watson probably never knew any of these guys.
Walters told his players before Wednesday's game that he would not make any special appeal to their emotions. He said good players should be emotional about every game. And he told them this; "I'd rather be exactly who I am right now than anyone else in the world." Then he paused. "Except for one thing. I'd rather be you with this chance. I'd rather be playing tonight."
What followed was a shame. The players all said they were not caught up in the moment, but they must have been affected in ways they could not comprehend. They had opened on the road against a first-rate Southern Illinois team, performing most creditably before losing in the last three minutes. But against DePaul, before a nearly full house at home, they choked something awful.
The fans cheered when Mike Watley, a transfer from Arkansas, scored the Aces' first basket, but it was already 6-0 by then. Soon enough it would be 15-5, 27-7, 33-10. The Aces could not handle the press; they stood about, shot poorly and made 32 turnovers. The final score was 74-55, and Walters, dispirited, said that his charges "had played worse than any team I've ever coached."
But the fans did not appear to be all that dismayed. Evansville has very knowledgeable fans. "They cheered for rebounds here long before I heard that anywhere else," McCutchan says. Already, too, they had made a sellout of Saturday's second home game, against Indiana State and its All-America, Larry Bird. (Evansville lost 74-70.) People wanted to see Bird more than they wanted to see the comeback. It's a basketball town, in the basketball season.
The fact is, nobody really had to rebuild anything at Evansville. Not before the tragedy occurred, and not after it. Teams play and programs carry on, but the tradition that Evansville possesses is the greater thing, because it has a life all its own.