The Spirit of '76 A quarter century has passed since there has been a champion--the '75-76 Indiana Hoosiers--tough enough to go undefeated

March 19, 2001

Bob Knight's 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers may have been college
basketball's last Boy Scouts. They wore candy-cane-striped
warmups on the court, coats and ties off it, and a cloak of
rectitude at all times. They got worked like washerwomen at
practice and hollered at like Marine recruits during games but
never raised their voices in protest. They passed up shots to
get better shots, set rib-rattling picks and played straight-up
man-to-man without spending so much as one second in a
catch-your-breath zone defense. They never popped off during
interviews--indeed, they rarely did interviews--and didn't have
highlight shows on which to preen and prance and inform the
world that they were No. 1, even though they were. "We didn't
have much of a highlight style anyway," says Tom Abernethy, who
was a starter at forward.

Here's another thing about them: They didn't lose a game. They
are the last NCAA champions to finish with a zero on the right
side of their ledger, a distinction that has survived this season
as well.

So as we celebrate the silver anniversary of that memorable 32-0
team, a milestone that for those Hoosiers is bittersweet because
the coach they still revere is in exile, we also look for reasons
why no one since has duplicated Indiana's perfecto. A minor one
is that a quarter century ago the mental barrier of going
undefeated didn't seem so formidable, the concept that we're
better off losing one before the tournament wasn't so en vogue.
Between 1964 and '73, four UCLA teams had ended their seasons as
unbeaten champions, while two others (San Francisco in '56 and
North Carolina in '57) had gone unblemished before that. When
Knight gathered his team in the preseason, he presented an
undefeated season as a reasonable objective.

Forget the notion that today's top teams have tougher schedules
than Indiana did. The 1975-76 Hoosiers, who went wire to wire as
No. 1, opened against defending NCAA champion UCLA; took on a
strong Kentucky team at Louisville's Freedom Hall; played four
other nonconference teams (Florida State, Notre Dame, Virginia
Tech and St. John's) that were ranked in the Top 20 at some
point; survived 18 games in the customarily tough Big Ten; got a
brutal draw in the NCAA tournament (facing No. 6 Alabama, No. 2
Marquette and No. 5 UCLA); and had to beat an outstanding team
(No. 9 Michigan) for the third time that season to win it all.
They did all that with a big No. 1 target painted on their backs.

As much as memory might suggest that Indiana's season was more
coronation than crusade, the Hoosiers were nearly upended several
times during the regular season and were in trouble in three
tournament games, including the final. In the face of these
challenges, Indiana demonstrated character, composure and
cojones, largely because of what Knight did to the players during
practices. Drills to teach the Hoosiers how to draw a charge and
ask-no-quarter scrimmages left them bruised and battered.
Abernethy, who would've run barefoot through a snake pit had
Knight asked him, recalls looking down at his scabby knees during
a brief Christmas break and thinking, 'Wait a minute. I'm a
senior, and I'm still going through this?' At one point late in
the season some players prevailed upon team leader Quinn Buckner
to ask Knight to cut back on the time and intensity of their
workouts and Knight complied.

Knight also wasn't afraid to use benchings as motivation. Can you
imagine the publicity that not starting the leader of the
nation's No. 1 team would generate today? Yet Knight did that to
Buckner midway through the season to send a message. He was
unhappy not only with Buckner's play but also with the fact that
Buckner and co-captain Scott May had moved out of their dorm and
into an apartment. "He told us we weren't sleeping right and
eating right, and we weren't," says Buckner, who now works as an
analyst on ESPN college basketball telecasts. "And you know what?
We moved back into the dorm." Guard Bobby Wilkerson was also left
on the bench for the start of a game. "I don't really remember
why," says Wilkerson, who coaches the boys' team at Northwest
High in Indianapolis, "but all you can say is that Coach Knight
was an equal opportunist in terms of getting pissed-off at
people. I'll tell you part of the reason we were so good: Under
Coach Knight, the games seemed like a vacation."

Indiana also had a load of talent. The starters all had NBA
careers, as did backup swingman Wayne Radford. There was plenty
of talent on the bench too. And Knight, at 35 and already a head
coach for 10 seasons, might have been at the peak of his
considerable powers.

The Hoosiers were experienced to a degree that few, if any, top
teams are these days. Abernethy, Buckner, May and Wilkerson were
battle-tested seniors; Kent Benson was a three-year starter as a
junior. The 1975-76 season was in fact the continuation of a
championship drive that had begun in '74-75. It's axiomatic
around Bloomington that the '74-75 Hoosiers, who included
sharpshooters Steve Green and John Laskowski, were better than
the team that won the title. But a broken left arm suffered by
May late in the regular season and a fired-up Kentucky team had
combined to give Indiana its only defeat, 92-90, in the '75
Mideast Regional final. (Knight's greatest accomplishment was not
going 32-0 in 1975-76; it was going 63-1 over two seasons,
including two straight unbeaten Big Ten campaigns.) The loss
filled the Hoosiers with motivation. "Because of the
disappointment we felt after the Kentucky game," says Buckner,
"we gave ourselves up to the idea of winning it all."

Give they did. Though he shone in the tournament, Abernethy did
almost nothing but garbage work the entire season. Still, he
scored more than Buckner and Wilkerson, both of whom averaged
single figures. Imagine a shooting guard being selected today in
the first round of the NBA draft with a 7.8-point average, as
Wilkerson was after that season. Benson was an All-America
center, but in 10 games he had 10 or fewer field goal attempts.
May, college basketball's player of the year that season, was the
only Hoosier with what amounted to carte blanche on offense, but
Knight made sure he wiped his feet on May's back from time to
time. "He'd call me in before practice and tell me he was going
to go after me to send a message," says May, who owns and
operates apartment complexes in Bloomington, "and that's exactly
what he did."

The reserves sacrificed, too. As a freshman, Jim Crews had
started in the backcourt with Buckner on a team that made the
Final Four in Knight's second season after coming to Indiana from
Army. As a senior, Crews's backside cut a groove on the bench,
but he never complained. "Jimmy epitomized what we were all
about," says Buckner. "He's the best teammate I ever had."

The Hoosiers were also essentially unscoutable. Every opponent
knew that Indiana ran a motion offense--"If you're standing,
you're wrong" was one of Knight's pet expressions--and played
exclusively man-to-man defense, but Knight's genius lay in making
rapid adjustments at both ends of the court. In the 1975 Holiday
Festival final at Madison Square Garden against St. John's, for
example, Knight instructed his two ball handlers, Buckner and
Wilkerson, to remove themselves from the offense temporarily and
brought out his forwards, May and Abernethy, to handle the ball
down the stretch because they were better from the line; indeed,
they combined to make 13 of 14 free throws as Indiana won 76-69.
During the national championship game against Michigan, the
Hoosiers suddenly found themselves without one of their stars
(more on that later). Knight tried two players in relief before
settling on sophomore guard Jim Wisman. In the second half Knight
told Wisman to keep himself out of the offense without looking as
if he were. "Stay on top, Jimmy," Knight told him. "You can pop
back for relief, but you don't have to shoot." In that way, too,
Indiana would have a man back against the Wolverines' potent fast
break. Result? Wisman took only one shot in his 21 minutes, but
his floor game was a major factor in the Hoosiers' 86-68 victory.

But even with all they had going for them, the Hoosiers still
needed a lot of luck. SI collected memories of that season from
players and coaches (efforts to get in touch with Knight weren't
successful) with a particular emphasis on the close calls that
might've ruined the perfect season.

PRECONFERENCE PLAY

Judging by how decisively the Hoosiers pounded defending NCAA
champ UCLA in their opener, the season looked as if it would be a
waltz. The nationally televised game was played at St. Louis
Arena on a court laid over ice, and both teams complained about
the footing. Obviously it hurt Indiana less, as the Hoosiers got
out to an early lead and won 84-64, with May scoring 33 points.
However, two weeks later, at Assembly Hall against Notre Dame,
the Hoosiers revealed a capacity for blowing leads that would
haunt them the rest of the season. They were ahead 51-37 with
about 11 minutes left when the Irish, helped by a zone press,
outscored them 13-2 over three furious minutes. When star Adrian
Dantley converted a follow shot, Notre Dame was within a point,
59-58, with two minutes to go, but the Hoosiers put away the game
when Buckner sank two free throws with 11 seconds remaining
(after just having missed two with 23 seconds left). Final score:
63-60. Talk of a "super team" ceased, particularly with an
always-tough Kentucky looming four days later.

Following a 98-74 regular-season rout of Kentucky the previous
year, Knight had slapped Wildcats coach Joe B. Hall on the back
of the head. He said it was meant to be playful, but Hall took
umbrage. Add in Kentucky's payback victory in the NCAA regional
final and there was much pregame attention--and tension. Again,
Indiana jumped out early, leading 23-11 after 10 minutes. Again
it failed to build on the margin. The Hoosiers couldn't find a
consistent offense. May would finish with 27 points, but during
one span he missed seven straight shots and the Wildcats found
themselves with a 62-60 lead and the ball with a little more than
a minute to go. Much to Hall's consternation, though, guard Larry
Johnson inexplicably took a wild shot (there was no shot clock
then and Hall wanted his players to eat up some time), Indiana
rebounded the ball, and May hit a jumper that tied the game.
Kentucky's Rick Robey untied it, and, with nine seconds left,
Abernethy missed a four-footer. The ball bounced off the rim and,
as the Wildcats' fans started to celebrate, Benson stuck out his
hand and in went the tip to put the game into overtime. "What I
was trying to do was get the ball back on the board, so I could
go after it again," says Benson, who now works as a financial
planner in Bloomington. "That's what I had always been taught."

Buckner chuckles at that explanation: "I still say that Bennie
just stuck out his hand, and the ball happened to go in." At any
rate, the Hoosiers dominated in overtime and won 77-68.

The games against Notre Dame and Kentucky convinced Knight that
Indiana, experienced as it was, had work to do. "He depended a
lot on Quinn's leadership that season," says Crews, "but around
this time he really let us have it, sarcastic, riding us, working
our butts off." Abernethy in particular felt the heat. "I was the
only different starter from the year before, and I remember
feeling a lot of pressure during that time," says Abernethy, who
now owns and operates the Indiana Basketball Academy. The
Hoosiers got the message and sailed through the rest of their
preconference schedule, going into the Big Ten with a 9-0 record
and looking very much like the best team in the land.

THE BIG TEN SEASON

If Indiana was overconfident about winning the Big Ten, which it
had ripped through the previous season, that feeling was gone
after the first league game, in Columbus, Ohio, three days into
the new year. Knight had been a member of the 1959-60 national
championship team at Ohio State under Fred Taylor, and he revered
the man. He especially wanted to beat the Buckeyes because he
felt that his alma mater was pushing Taylor out the door. (In
fact, Taylor did resign at the end of the season.)

Ohio State led only twice but kept hanging around and was poised
to tie the score when sophomore Jud Wood made a clean steal off
Crews at midcourt with 1:16 left. But Wood blew the layup, and
Abernethy, trailing the play, got the rebound. He looked at Crews
and said jokingly, "You need any more help tonight?" That's how
cool Indiana was under pressure. The Hoosiers held on to win
66-64, but says Radford. "We lose that game if that kid doesn't
blow that layup."

Five days later the Hoosiers could have lost another one, this
time against Michigan in Ann Arbor, where they built a 16-2 lead
in the first six minutes but let the home team creep back to
within 36-33 by halftime. Indiana ran the lead back up, to 72-60,
but found unseemly ways--a three-second violation, a traveling
violation, a missed free throw--to cough up the ball in the delay
game. The Wolverines closed to 73-68, but Indiana held on for an
80-74 victory, largely due to Benson's 16 of 18 shooting from the
floor.

That was only a warmup for the memorable rematch, on Feb. 7 in
Bloomington:

--Memorable because Chapter 1 in the Bob-Knight-loses-it-saga was
written in this game. With Buckner on the bench for a blow,
Wisman threw the ball away twice in a row when Michigan pressed
the normally unpressable Hoosiers. After the second turnover,
Knight literally pulled Wisman from the game, grabbing his shirt
so that it stretched comically. A photo of the scene ran all over
the country. "It was perfect," says Wisman, who's an executive
with a Chicago ad agency. "It caught Coach Knight in a fit of
rage, and I looked like a scared little boy."

--Memorable because Abernethy, Buckner and Wilkerson combined for
a horrific 2-of-22 shooting performance and May was only 11 of
30.

--Memorable because Radford was pressed into emergency offensive
service. "When Coach Knight told me to go in and start shooting,
I almost said, 'Excuse me?'" says Radford, who today works for a
Bloomington-based company that produces medical devices. "Nobody
except maybe Scott got told to start shooting." But Radford did
and finished with 16 points.

--Memorable, above all, because Indiana again needed a Benson
buzzer-beater to force the game into overtime. With 33 seconds to
go, the Hoosiers trailed 60-56. Assistant coach Bob Donewald
remembers thinking, I was sitting here when the streak began, and
I'm going to be sitting here when the streak ends. Buckner hit a
field goal, his only one of the game, to cut the lead to 60-58,
and Indiana fouled usually deadeye Steve Grote, who missed the
first of a one-and-one. Knight chose May as the first option to
attempt the tying shot--no surprise there--but May was covered, so
he passed to Buckner who fired and missed. The rebound caromed to
the left where Crews, in the game for the first time, chased it
down. Barely looking, he threw the ball back up at the basket to
keep it alive, whereupon Benson tipped it up and watched in
exultation as the ball went through the hoop.

In overtime a May jumper gave Indiana a 68-67 lead, its first in
43 1/2 minutes, which it preserved with stout defense--one blocked
shot and one intimidation--by Benson. Final: Indiana 72, Michigan
67.

Indiana's final Big Ten close call came on the road against
Purdue on Feb. 16. The Boilermakers rushed to a 27-16 advantage
and were ahead 39-35 at halftime. Knight made one of his
adjustments, ordering Benson, who had been double-teamed, to act
almost entirely as a decoy. Benson took only one shot in the
final 20 minutes, while May and Abernethy scored 31 of Indiana's
39 points. Still, with 10 seconds left, Purdue freshman Kyle
Macy, who later transferred to Kentucky, hit a miracle jumper
from the corner to cut the lead to 72-71 and force May to make a
pair of clutch free throws to preserve a 74-71 win.

THE NCAA TOURNAMENT

With a 32-team NCAA field, Indiana had to win five games to
complete its perfect run. Game 1 was no problem: The Hoosiers
rolled over St. John's 90-70. The opponent in Game 2, in the
Mideast Regional in Baton Rouge, was Alabama, which, almost to a
man, the Hoosiers feel was the best team they played all season.
As usual, Indiana got out fast, building a 37-29 halftime lead,
but the final 20 minutes--well, almost all of them--belonged to the
Crimson Tide. With the Hoosiers nursing a 70-69 lead and 40
seconds to play, Abernethy missed the front end of a one-and-one.
"I wanted to crawl into a hole," says Abernethy, "but luckily I
got the chance to redeem myself." He was fouled with 14 seconds
left and converted both shots. Two more free throws, by
Wilkerson, put the final margin at 74-69. "I think of that game
and come up with one conclusion," says Buckner. "They should've
beat us."

The Game 3 matchup with Marquette was even more intriguing
because it paired the polar opposites of college basketball. When
the Indiana bus had pulled up to the teams' hotel a couple of
days earlier, Warriors coach Al McGuire's motorcycle was leaning
against the front entrance. As the Hoosiers--decked out in sport
coats and ties--took their customary postmeal walk the night
before the Marquette game, they passed by several Warriors on the
lawn, shirtless, listening to music on boom boxes, just chillin'.
"Well," Crews said to Abernethy, "different strokes for different
folks, I guess. We're pretty good, and they're pretty good."

They were indeed. (All 10 starters would go on to play in the
NBA.) As Indiana warmed up, Wilkerson noticed Bo Ellis,
Marquette's star forward, pointing to the Hoosiers' retro warmups
and laughing. Clearly, this game matched the cool dudes from
Milwaukee against the tight-asses from Bloomington. Its funkiness
notwithstanding, Marquette was a disciplined team with an
excellent half-court offense. Indiana was worried most about the
Warriors' quickness and was delighted when the game was played at
a moderate pace. What's more, of the two coaches, it was McGuire,
not Knight, who lost his cool.

With Indiana leading 51-41 early in the second half, McGuire drew
a technical for kicking the scorer's table, and then, with about
25 seconds left and the Hoosiers ahead only 57-54, he leaped from
the bench to protest the officiating after a fifth foul was
called on guard Earl Tatum and got a second T. Abernethy made
both freebies and Wilkerson converted two more to make the 65-56
win appear much more one-sided than it was. Afterward McGuire,
who also had been assessed two technicals in the 1974 NCAA
championship game against North Carolina State, pledged not to
return to the tournament because "I personally feel I'm affecting
my club." The next year, though, he did come back--and won his
only NCAA title before promptly retiring.

THE FINAL FOUR

UCLA, Indiana's semifinal opponent at the Spectrum in
Philadelphia, had splendid personnel and, even with Gene Bartow
calling the shots instead of John Wooden, an impressive resume.
Still, the Hoosiers didn't worry much about the Bruins, whose
All-America frontcourtman, Richard Washington, the MVP of the
previous year's tournament, had suggested that UCLA's
season-opening loss to Indiana had been a fluke. "Richard liked
to run his mouth," says Buckner, "and we heard him."

Indiana considered the Bruins soft, a team that would eventually
buckle because the UCLA players, as Radford put it, "just
couldn't handle running into a pick every time down the floor."
That proved to be the case. The essence of these Hoosiers can be
found in Wilkerson's stat line against the Bruins: five shots,
five points, seven assists, 19 rebounds. How can you beat a team
with two All-Americas (May and Benson) in the frontcourt and a
guard who snags 19 rebounds? As for Washington, who was held
scoreless for a 26-minute stretch by Abernethy, he was 6 of 15
from the floor. Final: Indiana 65, UCLA 51.

However, if the Hoosiers were looking for omens, they got two bad
ones the day before the final against Michigan, which had beaten
previously undefeated Rutgers in the other semi. First,
Abernethy, who had gotten banged up during the UCLA game, spent
most of the day with an ice pack on his knee; there was some
doubt whether he could start the following evening. Second, early
in the morning, Donewald discovered to his horror that a manager
had packed the previous year's Michigan game films but not the
ones from the two games in '75-76. He called back to Indiana and
got someone from the School of Aviation to fly the film from
Bloomington to Philadelphia on a university plane. "We were only
about an hour late with the meeting," recalls Donewald. "Bob was
so dumbfounded I had acted on my own authority--I don't even want
to think about how much it cost--that he didn't say anything to
me."

The pregame angle was obvious: As good as Indiana was, it faced a
difficult assignment in beating Michigan for the third time.
Three minutes into the game, Wilkerson, attempting to thwart a
fast break after May had been stripped, got clubbed in the temple
by an elbow from Wolverines forward Wayman Britt. Wilkerson was
out cold, and the game was held up for about eight minutes before
he was taken off on a stretcher. He was transported to a nearby
hospital, where he wouldn't allow a nurse to take off his
uniform. "Maybe I thought I'd be getting back in," he says.

The next thing Wilkerson remembers was staring up at bedside
visitors Knight and John Havlicek, Knight's former Ohio State
teammate. To this day Wilkerson, whom Knight later called the
best athlete he ever coached, has never seen a videotape or heard
a replay of the final. "It would hurt too much," he says. Out on
the court, meanwhile, the Hoosiers had to regroup. "I'm sure our
fans were freaking out and thinking, Oh, no, they're going to
fall short again," says Abernethy. "But, honestly, as a team, I
don't think we thought that at all." Nonetheless, Michigan had a
35-29 halftime lead.

As May recalls it, this was the entirety of Knight's halftime
speech: "If you guys want to be champions and make history, you
got 20 minutes to prove it." Then he walked out. "Somebody told
me later that Coach Knight had been waiting two years to deliver
that speech," says May.

Planned or spontaneous, Knight's message got through. Over the
final 10 minutes, Buckner (16 points, eight rebounds, four
assists for the game) played his best basketball of the season,
and May (26 points) and Benson (25 points) were all but
unstoppable. As the final seconds ticked away in the victory,
both Buckner and May went into impromptu victory dances. How
Marquette-like.

Buckner said he screamed so loud that he almost passed out. The
crusade had lasted two years, the release was exquisite. However,
in the full bloom of youth none of the players realized how
special the moment was. Not until years later, when most of their
pro careers had proven to be less satisfying than their four
years at Knight U, and not until they had seen team after team
fall short of perfection, did it hit them. "To have been part of
such a great team with such great guys, and to have had Coach
Knight as my mentor, well, that's a tremendous honor and a
humbling experience," says Benson.

The Hoosiers of 1975-76 profess not to care if another unbeaten
champion emerges, though May adds this: "I'd like it to be a
certain kind of team, one that had grown together, learned
together, suffered together, had a procession of experiences to
get to the top." He smiles. "You don't find that too often today,
do you?"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES DRAKE Auspicious start A season-opening win over UCLA, sparked by 33 points from May (42), made Indiana believe that the Bruins were soft, an advantage that would be important when they met again in the Final Four. COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON Role players The Hoosiers were greater than the sum of their parts as Buckner (21) averaged only 8.9 points and Abernethy 10.0, but all played stifling man-to-man defense. COLOR PHOTO: DAVE REPP [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: JERRY CLARK/INDIANAPOLIS STAR Candid camera When Wisman turned the ball over twice against Michigan, Knight's anger was indelibly captured on film for the first time. COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Tide turned The Hoosiers feel 'Bama was their toughest foe, but 14 points, 12 rebounds and ace D from Wilkerson helped carry the day. COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON Kicked out The Hoosiers outlasted funkier Marquette in the Mideast Regional thanks to 18 points and nine rebounds from Benson. COLOR PHOTO: JAMES DRAKE Lights out Things looked bleak for the Hoosiers in the final when Wilkerson was knocked out, but they coasted to an 18-point win. COLOR PHOTO: JEFFREY LOWE Winners Another measure of Indiana's success is that (from left) Benson, Abernethy, Buckner, Wilkerson and May do well today.

"That photo caught Coach Knight in a fit of rage," says Wisman,
"and I looked like a scared little boy."

"Part of the reason we were so good," says Wilkerson, "is under
Coach Knight, the games were a vacation."

To this day, Wilkerson has never seen or heard a tape of the
final. "It would hurt too much," he says.

"To have been part of such a great team with such great guys is
a tremendous honor," says Benson.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)