Where is America’s most livable city? Forget cost-of-living, quality of education, transportation and economic opportunity. The most livable city is the one with the best sports. For each year of the modern era, starting in 1976, The Sports Notebook has selected one city or part of the country where it was particularly good to be a fan. Below is the recap of how that year unfolded…
The place to be as a sports fan in 1987 is the same place it was in 1976, but for different reasons. In ’76 it was Indiana, with college basketball and going to the nearest baseball team. The college basketball reason holds true in 1987—this is after all, the state of Indiana and Bob Knight was at his peak at Indiana University. But now the state had an NFL team, as the Colts had snuck out of Baltimore in the dead of night four years earlier and ’87 was the year they made the playoffs for the first time in their new city. Finally, Indiana football provided some excitement, producing its best team since the Rose Bowl year of 1967
In the fall of 1986, Indiana’s basketball players gathered together looking to redeem themselves for a March disappointment—they’d been upset by Cleveland State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament—but they were also looking to avoid a dubious historical distinction. The senior class, led by sharpshooter Steve Alford, had never won a Big Ten championship and no team in the Knight era had ever graduated without winning at least one conference title. Alford was the leading scorer and team leader, and power forward Daryl Thomas joined him in the senior class. Rick Calloway was a smooth and athletic small forward. There were holes at point guard and center and Knight had gone the unusual route of recruiting junior college players to fill them, adding Keith Smart in the backcourt and Dean Garrett in the post.
IU came through some tough times in the early part of the season, less about on-court performance and more about a brief suspension of Thomas for not going to class. The senior got back on track and the team was enjoying a big year. The problem was that it was a strong year in the Big Ten. Purdue would be in the hunt all year, as would Illinois. And no offense in the conference—perhaps in the nation—could score quicker than Iowa, under a fast-paced style by Tom Davis and they hung 101 points on the Hoosiers in a January win in Iowa City. Indiana went through a trying stretch on the court in conference play, barely getting by three cellar-dwellers in Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The game against the Badgers was a 9 PM ET start for ESPN and went to triple overtime before Garrett scored the game-winner in the 86-85 final. The game is best known for Knight lambasting the late starts for television, noting how late the kids were going to be back on campus on a school night and asking “Where’s the priorities?”
The mediocre performance and late nights didn’t stop Indiana from getting revenge on Iowa’s return trip to Bloomington, but against Illinois they faltered and it allowed Purdue to hold a one-game lead in the conference coming into the final week. The goals of Alford, Thomas and reserve forward Todd Meier, the third part of the senior class, were in serious jeopardy. Indiana took care of its business, winning both of their games. On the final day of the regular season, as Alford signed autographs after a 90-81 win over Ohio State, the word came through to him—Michigan was killing Purdue and the Hoosiers would share the Big Ten crown with the Boilermakers.
Indiana was the #1 seed in the Midwest Regional, and the first two games would be in Indianapolis. The blowout win over Fairfield to start the tournament could’ve happened anywhere, but a home crowd advantage was surely a help when they fell behind Auburn 24-10. After a chewing out from the head coach, the Hoosiers quickly turned the game around and they won 107-90. The win sent them on to Cincinnati for the regionals, where Duke would be the opponent, while LSU and DePaul faced off in the other semi-final.
Today the names of Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski are inextricably linked, with the mentor-protégé relationship being well-known and Krzyzewski’s breaking of Knight’s all-time career wins record being a high point of the 2011-12 early season. Back then, even though Coach K had made his first Final Four appearance the previous year, he was still the up-and-comer without a ring, while Knight was the legend who’d already won it all twice. This year, Knight had the better team. Even though Duke got out to a 29-21 lead, the Hoosiers had a ten-point lead by halftime. Calloway, playing in his hometown, scored 21 points and Smart added 21 more. Indiana shot 56 percent and won the rebounding battle and eventually won 88-82. On the other side of the draw, LSU, the #11 seed in the regional upset #2 seed DePaul and was looking to make the Final Four for the second straight year as a double-digit seed.
Indiana was the solid favorite, but they only led by one at the half and LSU controlled the early part of the second half, moving out to a 12-point lead. During the Tiger run, Knight became angry with the officials and went to the scorers bench where NCAA officials were and pleaded his case. The lasting image of this is Knight pounding a courtside phone and the receiver springing up. The phone incident eventually cost IU a $10,000 fine and for a few years Knight and LSU coach Dale Brown were enemies over what the Tiger coach perceived as intimidating the officials. The two men traded insults in public, before they sat down, talked it out and became friends. To think, if they’d just used cell phones in 1987, the imagery wouldn’t have happened, and maybe none of the fallout. LSU was still leading 75-68 with five minutes to play. A fast-break basket by sixth man Joe Hillman and a foul, cut the lead to four. The Hoosiers were down by a point at 76-75 when Tiger guard Fess Irvin went to the line to shoot a one-and-one. He missed the front end. Indiana brought it down. Thomas took what looked like the final shot from the lane and it came up an air ball. Calloway swopped in for the rebound and put it back. Indiana had survived 77-76 and their hometown kid was the hero.
The Final Four was in New Orleans and Indiana was paired with fellow #1 seed UNLV in a high-profile semi-final. The Rebels were generally seen as the best team in the country, with a potent backcourt led by Mark Wade distributing and Freddie Banks scoring. Armon Gilliam was as good a power forward as there was in the nation and any team coached by Jerry Tarkanian would play hard on defense. This year was the first time in the NCAA Tournament that the three-point line was in effect It had been used in regular season play in different conferences at different distances since 1983, but the ’87 rules codified the distance at 19’9” and introduced it into postseason play. Today that worked to the advantage of the Rebels, as Banks drained ten by himself on the way to 38 points. Gilliam scored 32 and pulled down 10 rebounds. But Indiana made a surprise decision to run with UNLV and Alford poured in 33 points and while the Hoosiers weren’t as prolific from behind the stripe they outshot Vegas from the floor 62-43%. Indiana led 88-76 and held off a furious UNLV rally that cut the lead to as little as four, which is where it ended, 97-93.
Syracuse would be the opponent in the Monday night final in the Superdome. The Orange had three future NBA players in their starting lineup, with power forward Derrick Coleman, center Rony Seikaly and point guard Sherman Douglas. All would have productive pro careers. Alford was the only player on Indiana’s roster would last more than a year at the next level and it was far from productive. It’s the singular testament to Knight’s coaching that not only did this group win a national title, but they were so efficient all year that they actually entered this title clash as a solid favorite to beat the Orange.
The game would be a back-and-forth classic and this time it was Indiana who benefitted from the three-point shot. Alford hit 7-for-7 from behind the trey, including one right before the half that put IU up by a point at intermission. But Coleman was rebounding ferociously and would have 19 boards by night’s end. Syracuse finally opened up some breathing room at 52-44 in the second half. It was time for Knight to turn to another hometown hero.
Smart hailed from up the road in Baton Rouge and he’d been briefly sat down by his coach with the firm admonition to “settle down.” With the championship in the balance, Smart took the game over. He had 23 points for the game and 12 came in the final five minutes. Trailing 72-68 he drove the baseline for a reverse layup. But when he went to tie it one trip late, his short jumper missed and was rebounded by Syracuse forward Howard Triche who was immediately fouled. Triche hit the first free throw, but missed the second. Smart grabbed the long rebound off the and rapidly sprinted the other way for a basket that cut it to one as the clock neared the half-minute mark. It was a play that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim would look back on with regret, feeling he should’ve pulled his rebounders off the lane and kept the defense back. It wasn’t that Smart had scored it was that Indiana only had to use a few seconds of time to cut the lead to two. Still, the Orange had the lead and just need to hit their free throws. It was the freshman Coleman who was fouled and had the chance.
Coleman was in position to be Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. But he missed the front end of the one-and-one. Now that extra time that Boeheim lamented came into play as Indiana was able to work the ball around, first seeing if Alford could take the final shot, and then looking for other options as their captain was closed off. Thomas had the chance to take a decent shot from the free throw line, but he saw Smart whirling around the side to his left and slipped him the ball. Smart’s dribble took him close to the baseline and he pulled up for the shot, that with four seconds left, won the championship. The final was 74-73. It was the fifth national championship in Indiana basketball history and their coach’s third. And in basketball-crazy Indiana, that was all it took to make 1987 a sports feast.
BLOOMINGTON KNOWS FOOTBALL TOO
Football might have been second fiddle in Indiana, especially in the days before Peyton Manning came to the state. But the college program in Bloomington was improving and in ’86 had made their first bowl game since the 1967 Rose Bowl. 17 starters were returning, so hopes for a second bowl trip were high.
An early loss to Kentucky didn’t give any sign of a special year, but on October 10 that all changed. Head coach Bill Mallory took his team to Columbus, with Dave Schnell at quarterback and sophomore running back Anthony Thompson—the man who two years later would break the NCAA record for career touchdowns—leading the ground attack. It took a 51-yard field goal for the Buckeyes to tie it 10-10 after one half and the Hoosiers dominated after intermission. They held Ohio State to ten rushing yards in the second half, Schnell threw a pair of TDs and Indiana had a stunning 31-10 win. Buckeye coach Earle Bruce, who would be fired in November, called it “the darkest day” since he’d been with the program, going back to 1979. Two weeks later things got even better for Indiana. The Homecoming opponent was Michigan. While apparently no one told IU about picking an easy opponent for homecoming, the Hoosiers made sure the alums and current students had plenty to celebrate. In a driving rain, and trailing 10-7 in the third quarter, Schnell led a 14-play, 65-yard drive for a 14-10 lead that would stand up. The defense was again dominant in the second half and even though the team took its first conference loss at Iowa the following week, they still reached a November 14 game at Michigan State in control of their destiny for the Rose Bowl.
At the time Indiana’s focus was on college football, the Colts hadn’t given anyone reason to pay too much attention on Sundays. The NFL in general was in the middle of a chaotic year. Just as in 1982, a strike had interrupted the year after two games. Unlike 1982 the owners were prepared and determined to break the players union. They brought in replacement players, who played three weeks of games, all of which would count in the standings after the regulars returned. Indianapolis wasn’t bad, but after a 24-0 loss to New England on November 22, they were 5-5 and that’s with the replacements having gone 2-1. They were still in contention though and the roster was headlined by future Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, a defensive line anchored by ends Donnie Thompson and Jon Hand and Pro Bowl linebacker Duane Bickett. The Colts had the talent to turn their season around in the final five games.
The stakes for Indiana’s November battle with Michigan State were simple. If the Spartans won, they were in the Rose Bowl. If the Hoosiers won, they needed only beat Purdue the following week. If I can paraphrase Morgan Freeman from Shawshank Redemption—“I’d like to tell you Indiana came out, played its game of the year and went to Pasadena. I’d like to tell you that. But playing a great defense and a powerful running game on the road is no fairy tale.” Michigan State pounded IU from start to finish and won 27-3. The Hoosiers still won the Old Oaken Bucket over Purdue and at 8-3 concluded its best season in nearly twenty years by getting a Peach Bowl bid to play Tennessee.
THE COLTS COME UNDER THE RADAR
Indianapolis began its own stretch drive against the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans). Dickerson ran for 136 yards, the Oilers lost three fumbles and the Colts won a 51-27 blowout. One week later they went to Cleveland to face a Browns team that was AFC runner-up a year ago and a strong contender again this year with quarterback Bernie Kosar, Marty Schottenheimer just starting a fabulous coaching career, a stout defense and top running game. Indy took away the running game and won a field goal war, 9-6. Dickerson’s 98 yards might as well have been 200 in this context.
The Colts were coached by Ron Meyer, who’d rebuild the SMU program in the late 1970s, although the creative recruiting methods used would eventually lead the NCAA to shut down Mustang football several years later. Meyer also had brief success with the New England Patriots, taking them to the playoffs in the strike year of 1982. Now he was trying to repeat the fate in Indy. After a setback against Buffalo, they Colts went to San Diego and won 20-7, intercepting Dan Fouts three times and getting 115 yards from Dickerson. The running game worked again at home against Tampa Bay in the finale, as Dickerson rolled for 196 and Vinny Testaverde was held to 8-of-31 passing in a 24-6 home win. Indianapolis ended the season at 9-6 (Week 3 as the transition from regulars to replacements was made and there were no bye weeks at this time). They won the AFC East and were playoff bound.
Indy was the #3 seed in the AFC playoffs, behind Denver and Cleveland and at this time that meant no home game. The conference alignments were three divisions each, with two wild-cards. That gave the third division winner automatic entry to the divisional playoffs, something it does not enjoy today, but at the cost of a home game. So the Colts were back in the Dawg Pound, battling Cleveland for the right to advance to the AFC Championship Game.
In the two weeks between the end of the regular season and the first playoff game, the folks in Indiana were able to tune into the Peach Bowl. Today it’s known as the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the highlight of New Year’s Eve for those of us who don’t go out anywhere. It was still in Atlanta at this time, although played outdoors in Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, where the Falcons and Braves used to play before the Georgia Dome and Turner Field came into existence. Indiana got off to a slow start, only able to get a field goal from future NFL kicker Pete Stoyanavich and falling behind the Vols 21-3. A touchdown pass by Schnell cut the lead to 21-10 and the Hoosiers kept coming back. After a third-quarter touchdown, Mallory went for two to try and cut the lead to a field goal. It missed. Indiana scored another touchdown and Mallory tried to get the failed two-pointer back. That one missed. Instead of being up 24-21, the lead was only 22-21 and Tennessee could win with a field goal, with this game being another example of why you wait until into the fourth quarter before playing around with going for two. Conventional wisdom has come around to that way of thinking, but in 1987 going by the book had Indiana’s defense under a little extra pressure. It proved not to matter, as Tennessee drove it for a touchdown and won 27-22. The loss was disappointing, but no one could deny the progress Mallory’s program was making. They never did make the Rose Bowl, but enjoyed several more postseason trips and the best team beat Baylor in the Copper Bowl (today’s Insight Bowl) in 1991.
The Colts playoff trip suffered a similar fate. They and Cleveland traded touchdowns in the first and second quarters and the Browns still only led 21-14 after three quarters. Cleveland finally pulled way in the fourth, with a short field goal and Kosar touchdown pass extending the lead to 31-14 and it ended 38-21. The running game didn’t work today with Dickerson being held to 50 yards, while Cleveland’s Earnest Byner rushed for 122.
Indiana University’s football team and the Indianapolis Colts may have had disappointing postseason endings, but in 1987 the success they enjoyed were a nice cap-off to a year that had begun in championship style on the basketball court.