For nearly 20 years they have nodded (politely) and smiled
(awkwardly) when the subject comes up, listening to the old
refrain with their heads tilted slightly to one side, as if the
weight of an idea they were hearing for the umpteenth time had
finally tipped the balance in their brains. This is what it is
like to have been a player on the 1975-76 Indiana basketball
team--the last major-college team to go through an entire season
undefeated (32-0) and win the national championship. People
remind you what a great team you were part of. Then they tell
you the '74-75 team was better.
Like a parent who makes no attempt to hide his preference for
one of his children over another, Hoosier coach Bob Knight has
spent two decades saying his 1975 team, which didn't win a
championship, was clearly better than the '76 team, which did.
Knight reasons that the '75 team had all the same players as the
'76 team, plus starting forward Steve Green and super sub John
Laskowski. Indiana's combined record during those two seasons
was 63-1, but it was from the single seed of that loss that the
'76 team's garden of good--and evil--grew.
"Not a day goes by that people here don't talk about our
season," says Kent Benson, the starting center on both those
teams. "Not a day." Benson pauses for a moment, then seems to
realize that even a perfect record and a national championship
aren't enough to make it clear which season he's referring to.
"About the '76 team," he adds quickly.
When the Hoosiers pitched their perfect game 20 years ago, there
was considerably less of the numbing parity that has overtaken
the college game today. It had been only three seasons since an
undefeated UCLA team had won the national
championship--something the Bruins accomplished four times under
coach John Wooden--and it would take only three more years for
Larry Bird's team at Indiana State to make it all the way to the
NCAA title game undefeated, before losing to Michigan State
75--64. (If the freshman Bird hadn't fled Knight's flock in 1974
to go home and work on a garbage truck in French Lick, Ind., it
seems unlikely that Indiana's '76 team would have been
overshadowed by any other.)
October 23, 1995
There have been several great college teams since 1976--the 1982
North Carolina Tar Heels, with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and
James Worthy, who won the title but lost twice; the UNLV Runnin'
Rebels who were undefeated during the 1991 regular season, only
to lose to Duke in the NCAA semifinals--but no other team has
done what Indiana did.
It may be that no team has ever accomplished as much with as big
a bull's-eye painted on its chest. Unlike the previous year's
team, which had blossomed into greatness at midseason, the
'75-76 Hoosiers started the season at No. 1 and then defended
"It became a magnificent obsession. That's what it was, a
magnificent obsession," says Benson, who seems to have
epiphanies the way other people have headaches. "That
magnificent obsession made us do what it takes to be successful.
Successful people do the things that unsuccessful people don't
and won't do. That's what each and every member of our team did.
That's why Coach Knight is so successful, because he does the
things that unsuccessful people don't and won't do."
In the fall of 1975 there was very little that Knight didn't or
wouldn't do to drive his team to the national championship he
felt had rightfully belonged to Indiana the season before. That
team had finished the regular season 29-0--completely
overwhelming most of its opponents, three of them by more than
50 points--but failed to achieve what had seemed manifestly its
destiny until forward Scott May, the team's leading scorer,
broke his wrist in a game against Purdue three weeks before the
NCAA tournament. People in southern Indiana still refer to May's
untimely injury as they would a great flood that wiped out all
the crops that year.
After brooding for months about the Hoosiers' 92-90 loss to
Kentucky in the Mideast Regional final, Knight unleashed all the
fury of his acid reign on the players who returned the following
season. "You would have thought we were starting from scratch,"
says Tom Abernethy, who filled the starting forward spot left by
Green. "From Day One, it wasn't an atmosphere of a veteran club
that already knew what needed to be done. Coach Knight didn't
take anything for granted, and we worked as if we were freshmen
or sophomores just coming in for the first time. What had
happened in the past was history, and we had to start from
If there was anything more stunning to Knight than the Kentucky
loss itself, it was that his team had surrendered 92 points when
it mattered most. To make sure that such a loss didn't happen
again, Knight delegated more decision-making power to the
players than he had ever done before. Much of that authority
fell to senior guard Quinn Buckner, who cast himself so
completely in Knight's ferocious image that when he tried
coaching for the first time himself two seasons ago with the
NBA's Dallas Mavericks, the players all but mutinied against
him, and he was dismissed after a single bitter season. "Buckner
dominated our games with his personality," says Jim Crews, one
of the first Indiana players off the bench that season and now
the coach at the University of Evansville. "He had such great
presence. He really wasn't like that off the court, but he
commanded things when he was on it."
The other guard, Bobby Wilkerson, was as shy as Buckner was
imperious, but no less predatory, with arms that stretched
nearly to the floor. At 6'7", Wilkerson also jumped center when
he wasn't jumping opposing guards. "I think Bobby Wilkerson was
the most dominating player that I've seen in college basketball,
except probably for Bill Walton," says Crews.
"For us, it all started out front with Quinn and Bobby," says
Abernethy. "They'd gobble up the guards at three-quarter court,
just annihilate people." Indiana opened its scorched-earth
campaign by frying the clay feet of defending national champion
UCLA 84-64 in St. Louis. But there followed a pair of desultory
performances against detested rivals Notre Dame (63-60) and
Kentucky (77-68), the latter victory coming only after a loose
ball that had been batted into the air by Benson sailed above
the rim and through the basket to tie the game and send it into
"We were lucky to win that game," says Abernethy. "After that we
had some of the hardest practices I ever went through at
Indiana." The Hoosiers would be pushed to overtime once more
that season (against Michigan on Feb. 7) and would win nine of
their games by 11 points or fewer. The average margin of victory
was 17.2 points, a trifle compared with the 22.3-point average
margin of the season before. The '75 team was so dominating that
it never trailed at halftime, while the '76 team was in trouble
a lot, falling behind five times in an eight-game stretch during
January and February.
"It was probably good that we didn't just roll over every team,"
says Abernethy. "Because of some of our tight games, we couldn't
walk in like we were these big superstars. It was almost as if
we had to prove ourselves all over again in every game, not only
to ourselves but to Coach Knight. We had to earn our positions
every day in practice."
The players who survived it talk ceaselessly about the
beneficial effects of Knight's bullying that season, but one
unintended consequence was that even the most confident players
began to glance nervously at the bench after they made mistakes.
"I don't know if we felt the pressure of being undefeated or
not," says Crews. "I can remember Coach saying, 'Why do you have
to get beat to wake up? Why do you have to get beat to learn a
After receiving counsel from former Long Island University coach
Clair Bee, one of his trusted team of seventysomething advisers,
Knight commenced blistering the players on a less frequent
schedule. "I think maybe we've talked too much about the
negative and not enough about the positive," Knight said near
the end of February in one of his periodic grand understatements.
One of those negatives had been the listless performance of the
formerly mighty Quinn, which had compelled Knight to remove
Buckner from the starting lineup for two games in late January.
Buckner was so agitated by this development that he
hyperventilated after a practice.
Indiana coaches suspected that Buckner, who lived in an
off-campus apartment with May, had been eating poorly balanced
meals, so they remanded the entire team to a dorm cafeteria for
a nightly training table.
"I think Coach knew he had to make an impression on everybody,"
Benson says. "We got a little out of focus, and that was one of
his ways of getting our attention back." The strategy seemed to
work for Buckner, who came off the bench to score 11 points and
regain his starting job in an 88-73 rout of Iowa on Jan. 26.
Even so, then-Hawkeye coach Lute Olson grumped, "Personally, I
don't think they're as good as they were a year ago. They're not
the outstanding shooting team that they were."
The ability of Knight, who's now entering his 25th season as the
Sage of Bloomington, to improvise these motivational
masterstrokes is well-known. But in the winter of 1976 he was
only 35 years old and still deeply into his Plaid Period. He
inspired fear and considerable loathing in his players, but he
also commanded unusual respect and steadfast loyalty. "There
were times I had my bags packed, ready to leave," recalls
Benson. "And I wasn't the only one. I used to go to bed at night
praying that he would come up and grab me, just so I could deck
him. But everybody was willing to submit their egos and their
pride. A lot of people think submission is a dirty word, but we
willingly submitted our egos to Coach Knight and said, O.K. now,
you mold and make us what we need to be in order to be a
Knight, of course, then did the things that unsuccessful people
don't and won't do: He kicked a chair, jerked the jersey of
reserve guard Jim Wisman during the stirring come-from-behind
victory over Michigan and, when The Indianapolis Star ran a
picture of him holding Wisman by the numbers on its front page,
threatened to ban all photographers from the next game. (The ban
was never instituted, and Knight eventually moved on to throwing
chairs and kicking players.)
"Coach Knight was such a key to that season," says Abernethy. "A
lot of the things that he had always believed in--stuff that
sounds cliched now, like playing up to your potential--we really
bought into. We were a unique group of people who listened,
believed what was being told to us and just followed it. We ate
all that stuff up and didn't allow our individual egos to get in
Unlike the great UCLA teams with Lew Alcindor and Walton that
had dominated the game during the preceding 10 years, Indiana
had no single overpowering player. Much of the mythology
surrounding Indiana's '76 champions contends that the coach
extracted heroic efforts from average players. "We were a very
good unit," Buckner says. "The whole was infinitely better than
the parts." But the parts weren't bad either. All five starters
went on to play in the NBA for at least five years, and
collectively they played 39 NBA seasons.
Still, in some ways the '76 unit is interchangeable with
generations that followed it at Indiana--the Stepford Fives.
"People do remember my name," Abernethy says, "but I'll bet I've
been called Steve Green or Ted Kitchel or even John Laskowski on
50 occasions." (Just for the record, Kitchel didn't arrive on
campus until three years after Abernethy graduated.)
The one part of this big red machine that was not
interchangeable was May, as had been demonstrated to the
Hoosiers' everlasting regret a season earlier. His points were
not merely plentiful (23.5 per game), but they seemed to arrive
at precisely the moment of greatest need. It was at just such an
instant that Indiana turned to May on Feb. 7. Its unbeaten
streak imperiled, Indiana trailed Michigan by two with 10
seconds remaining in the second half. "Everybody in Assembly
Hall knew where the ball was going," Benson says. "And Michigan
With May smothered by Michigan defenders in the corner--one of
his favorite shooting spots--the inbounds pass went to Buckner,
who misfired. The ball bounded to Crews, who flung up something
that must have made every duck hunter in the state of Indiana
instinctively reach for his shotgun. Benson, timing his leap
perfectly, found this wounded bird under glass and tipped it
into the basket as time expired. The Hoosiers won 72-67 in
"I knew right then we were not going to be denied that year,"
says Benson, who is back in Bloomington now after 11 seasons in
the NBA and one playing in Italy. More than any other player
from that championship season, Benson has capitalized on his
glory days; in addition to working at a travel agency, he has a
piece of a contracting company and runs what he refers to as an
"international multinational marketing business" that
acquaintances liken to selling Amway franchises. At the end of
many conversations Benson's hooded eyes look off into the
distance, and he asks if the person he is speaking to would like
to "maximize and energize your profit potential" by peddling his
"Being recognized as probably the best college basketball team
ever to play the game is a tremendous responsibility," says
Benson, "because people expect you to win in the game of life.
And I feel I am winning." Not long ago there was talk of
Benson's representing Bloomington's pro-development community by
running for mayor, but the talk didn't go anywhere. Now he is
content to coach his four daughters. Andrea, 16, played on a
girls' 14-and-under team that was undefeated and won the AAU
national championship in 1994. Elizabeth, 14, who is 6'1" and
wears a men's size-14 shoe, is also on an AAU team. Gennie, 9,
and Ashley, 6, also want to be basketball players.
If revenge is a dish best served cold, the path taken by Benson
and his Indiana teammates to the national championship must have
seemed like a trip through a giant meat locker filled with the
undead and unhappy carcasses of teams the Hoosiers thought they
had already disposed of. The first of these was 16th-ranked St.
John's, a loser by seven points to Indiana in December, then by
20 in South Bend in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That
was followed by a narrow 74-69 escape against No. 6 Alabama,
setting the stage for a match between No. 1 Indiana and No. 2
Marquette in the finals of the Mideast Regional in Baton Rouge.
The two teams were billeted at the same hotel, which provided an
illuminating study in the personal styles of the two teams and
their coaches. After their pregame meals, the teams went out to
get some fresh air; as always before a game, the Hoosiers were
wearing jackets and ties. "We're walking along in a nice orderly
group," says Crews, "and there's Marquette, lying in the sun on
a grassy knoll, some of the players with their shirts on, some
with their shirts off. They were looking at us like, 'You guys
are a little weird,' and we probably thought they were a little
weird. The contrast was pretty evident." It was further apparent
a few hours later, when the disciplined Hoosiers won 65-56.
The rematch against fifth-ranked UCLA in the national semifinals
at the Spectrum in Philadelphia provided Indiana with the
unusual opportunity to avenge the loss of a national
championship for which it had never actually played. The Bruins
had won 10 NCAA titles in the preceding 12 years under Wooden,
and though they had improved under first-year coach Gene Bartow
since the Hoosiers defeated them in the season opener, Indiana
handled them again, 65-51. Against the UCLA front line of
Marques Johnson, Richard Washington and David Greenwood,
Wilkerson had a staggering 19 rebounds. "They don't have as much
natural talent as we do," acknowledged Johnson, the Bruins'
silky forward, "but Coach Knight takes advantage of what he has.
Indiana is very mechanical, but they are very well drilled."
Michigan's victory over Rutgers in the other semifinal brought
about the first NCAA championship game between two teams from
the same conference--in this case, the Big Ten. If the Wolverines
had faced Indiana one more time that season, they would have
been eligible for disability from the effects of repetitive
stress syndrome. In addition to the overtime loss to the
Hoosiers in February, Michigan had been beaten by them 80-74 in
the teams' first meeting, on Jan. 10.
"Everyone in the country knew we were better than Michigan,"
says Crews. "We knew we were better than Michigan, Michigan knew
we were better than Michigan, and yet we knew Michigan could
beat us because they were really good. You couldn't help sitting
in the locker room thinking how unfair it was that we were even
playing that game. Obviously, we had everything to lose."
And everything to gain, too. "Everybody was saying you couldn't
beat a team three times in one season," says Benson, "but we
just took the attitude that they were wrong. It was that feeling
when you know that you know that you know."
All the Hoosiers knew at halftime was that they were down by six
points and that one of their best players had been carried off
the floor on a stretcher, his body limp and motionless.
Wilkerson had taken an accidental elbow to the head from
Michigan forward Wayman Britt only 2 1/2 minutes into the game,
and for 10 minutes he had lain sprawled on the court. "It was
weird," says Abernethy. "I never had any concern that he might
be dead or whatever. I also had confidence that one or two of us
going down wasn't going to stop us from winning the game."
"We were kind of struggling, so when we came in at halftime we
were expecting the whole riot act," says May, who now owns and
manages apartment buildings in Bloomington. "Coach didn't write
anything on the board, and for a while he didn't say a word.
Then he said, 'If you guys want to be champions, if you want to
make history and do something that maybe no other team will ever
do, you've got 20 minutes to prove it.' And that was it.
Somebody told me later he had waited two years to be in a
position to say that."
After halftime May and Benson triggered a 10-point run that
turned the game into a rout, as the Hoosiers outscored the
Wolverines 57-33 in the second half to win 8668. May, who was
later named national player of the year, had 26 points overall,
and Benson, 25.
After the final buzzer Buckner, tears streaming down his face,
wrapped his arms around Knight. He continued to weep for several
minutes as the pressure that had built up over two seasons
seeped out of him. "It was as happy as I can ever remember
being," Buckner says. "We worked so hard for that very moment. I
can't even imagine what it would have felt like if we hadn't won."
The purest expression of Indiana's hard-earned joy may have been
Wilkerson's. He was unconscious for most of the championship
game, and when Knight and his former Ohio State teammate John
Havlicek visited his room at Temple Hospital after the game,
Wilkerson was so groggy he could scarcely speak. "Did we win?"
was all he asked before drifting peacefully off to sleep.
When he awoke the next day in his hospital bed, he was still
wearing his uniform. The nurses had tried to remove it the night
before, but Wilkerson deliriously insisted he wouldn't let them
have it. And he didn't.
On the drive from the Indianapolis airport to Bloomington the
day after the game, fans stood alongside the road just to watch
the team bus go past. Wilkerson, who is now the director of a
recreation center in his hometown of Anderson, Ind., wasn't the
only one who missed this emotional homecoming tour. Knight
elected to go to a high school all-star game instead, already
laying the groundwork for his return to Philadelphia five years
later, when he would win his second national championship with
But that title did not come at the end of an undefeated season.
"It's one of those things you figured somebody else would have
done by now, but nobody has," says Abernethy. "It's great to
have a piece of history, but it's hard to have to judge yourself
by something you did 20 years ago."
Benson was the only starter that season who wasn't a senior, who
didn't leave town riding on a contrail of perfection. The
following season, with Benson again starting at center, the
Hoosiers finished 14-13 and did not qualify for the NCAA
The once-beaten '75 team achieved, in memory, a perfection it
had been denied in reality; its season is a remembered
masterpiece, exquisitely hewn but, like the Venus de Milo,
flawed. The team that followed more often looked like Atlas--the
weight of the world borne aloft on its shoulders--until finally
it had the world at its feet.