It’s been more than a decade since all of the boys high school basketball teams in Indiana fought for the honor of being crowned the state’s only champion, but there’s talk now of returning to a single-class high school basketball tournament.
The Indiana High School Athletics Association has agreed to reopen the debate under pressure from the legislature and they’re turning directly to fans for input.
Next to the Indianapolis 500, high school basketball is one of the best-known Hoosier traditions outside of Indiana. When the IHSAA holds public meetings meets in April to discuss the issue, they’ll be talking about more than a procedural change. They’ll be debating the future of an Indiana institution.
But nostalgia may run higher than support when it comes to “Hoosier Hysteria.”
On a recent Friday night the smell of fresh popcorn and sweat pours out of the Brown County High School gymnasium. On the floor, the home team gradually gives away points. In the end, they lose 41-47 to Edgewood. This is the junior varsity game. The main event starts in about an hour.
Ron Allen’s grandson will soon be out there. 60 years ago, it was Allen himself hurrying up and down the court four games a week for one of the biggest basketball programs in the state — New Castle. When Allen played,10,000 people crowded games at the New Castle Fieldhouse four nights a week.
The state championship still draws that kind of attendance, but in those days, schools even regular season games to sell out. Sellouts today are much less common — the New Castle Fieldhouse hasn’t sold out for any basketball game since 1996.
It would be natural to assume Allen is waiting expectantly for the return of “Hoosier Hysteria”. A return to the old single-class system that many says made Indiana basketball great.
“At first I didn’t think I’d like the class, but I think it’s okay,” Allen says.
That hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement of single-class basketball. Everyone with whom StateImpact spoke at the game shared that sentiment.
At the root of this discussion are deceptively complex questions: Should small schools have the opportunity to compete with Indiana’s powerhouse teams or is it unfair to the little guys who just don’t have the resources to compete?
Hoosiers fondly remember the legendary Milan game in 1954, when the tiny rural school toppled the state’s giants of basketball. But after that, no school with fewer than 500 students would be the crowned the single-class state basketball champion. Most of the single-class tournament’s champions were schools with well over 1000 students.
In 1997, the IHSAA did away with the century-old tournament citing complaints from coaches and athletic directors that the format wasn’t fair.
Back in Brown County, the varsity game has started and Coach Roger Fleetwood, is pacing up and down the court. He doesn’t yell or harass the referee. Instead he guides the players with a quiet word on the sideline or in the huddle during time outs.
“They were wonderful days,” Fleetwood says. “Wonderful days in Indiana, but it will never be the same.”
The push to return to a single-class system seems to be motivated more by feelings of nostalgia than anything else. IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox says the group is willing to return to the old system, but ultimately it’s up to the fans to decide.
“We did it for a hundred years,” Cox says. “We can continue to do it.”
Single-class basketball may bring to mind Milan’s days. But big winners in this discussion might be the state’s most powerful basketball schools. Instead of being crowned Class 4A Champion, they would get the chance to win it all — another chance to become the number one team in the state.