The 1981 championship season — in their words

When the light came on for Landon Turner, everybody saw it.

It was the light that illuminated Indiana’s path to a fourth national championship.

Turner’s emergence as a reliable and consistent presence late in the 1980-81 season allowed Bob Knight’s Hoosiers to tap their potential as a deep and versatile team capable of greatness. 35 years later, IU will honor that team during tonight’s game against North Carolina, the same program Indiana defeated in that year’s national title game.

This is its story.

Unfinished business

Imagine the matchup.

Knight’s undefeated 1976 team against his group from 1981. Both teams reached the pinnacle of the sport a year after better versions of themselves fell short. The 1975 team is often regarded as a better collection of talent than the ’76 champs. Similarly, the 1980 team, which was ranked preseason No. 1 by Sports Illustrated, held marvelous promise.

But back injuries to Mike Woodson and Randy Wittman early in that 1980 season hurt that team’s ultimate potential.

Ted Kitchel (sophomore forward): “The 1980 team was the best team I ever played on. Early in the year, we played the Russians, who had just won the Olympics that year. We beat them by 20. As we came into the next year, ’81, we had not gotten accomplished what we wanted to in ’80.

“I can remember when coach Knight recruited me, he said, ‘We’re going to be playing for the national championship in Market Square Arena in 1980.’ But we weren’t there, obviously, because we had gotten beat by Purdue. So coming into ’81, we had a lot of talent.”

Jim Crews (assistant coach): “We had a ton of guys back (for the 1981 season), but something was always kind of missing. We knew we had the pieces, but we couldn’t put the pieces together. We couldn’t click for a long time.”

After two early wins over Ball State and Murray State, IU dropped a 68-66 decision to Kentucky at home on Dec. 6 before falling short, 68-64, at Notre Dame three days later.

Kitchel: “It was a real rollercoaster. We had played some good teams. We should’ve beaten Kentucky. Somehow, we let that one get away.”

Don Fischer (IU radio announcer): “They were beating the teams they were supposed to, and the teams they were capable of beating were beating them by just a couple points. They lost to Notre Dame and Kentucky by a total of (six) points, then they got beat by Carolina, which was a little more decisive.”

Crews: “Very quickly, it was Dec. 23, I felt we had something that was really, really good. We beat a Kansas State, Jack Hartman, Rolando Blackman team, and it was a grind. It was smash-mouth basketball. It was physical, but that was really a mental toughness game. Being able to do that, we really felt we were really capable of doing good things. Then, we went from there to Hawaii.”

And, suddenly, the season took a turn for the worse.

No fun in paradise

The 1980 Rainbow Classic in Honolulu started well enough with a five-point win over Rutgers.

From there, back-to-back losses to Clemson and lowly Pan American were enough to ignite Knight’s rage. On the verge of Big Ten play, the Hoosiers closed the pre-conference season at 7-5.

Kitchel: “We pretty much hit rock bottom. I think we were supposed to stay a couple extra days in Hawaii. Instead, we went back and loaded up, and we were on a plane at two in the morning out there.”

Fischer: “Those players had anticipated being able to stay an extra day or two to see their parents, and to be with their families and that kind of thing. Indiana got beat by Pan American in the third game, and Knight was just livid after the ballgame. He went bonkers in the sense of how he was dealing with the players.

“I don’t even think the players went back to their rooms. He sent the managers back to get all of their stuff, their clothing and all the stuff that they had. They packed all their stuff up. The players had already gone to the airport. The managers brought their stuff to the airport and those guys flew home and the parents weren’t able to see their kids. At that time, it was not a happy place.”

Randy Wittman (sophomore guard): “When we got back into Bloomington, it was two or three in the morning getting back from Hawaii. We had a team meeting, just as players. We said, “We gotta (crap) or get off the pot here with Big Ten season coming.’ We did a little — I wouldn’t call it finger pointing, but role-setting and discussing who needs to do what. It was really beneficial for us, I think.”

Kitchel: “We came home and were practicing twice a day. I mean, it was twice-a-day of taking charges, one-on-one, no fouls. It was all about toughening up and learning how to win and becoming a mentally stronger team. That was a really, really, really tough week. That was very demanding.”

Bob Hammel (former Herald-Times sports editor): “The team just did not jell at all in December and January. With about five games to go in the season, Landon really became a player. From that point on, that was a great basketball team.”

The light comes on

By Feb. 12, Knight had reached his limit.

He was frustrated with Turner, tired of the inconsistencies and on-court disappearances that prevented IU from reaching full speed. That day, before Indiana hosted Northwestern at Assembly Hall, Knight formed a plan.

He and assistant athletic director Steve Downing were going to tell Turner’s parents after the game that they no longer felt Indiana’s program was a good fit for Turner.

Knight (in a 2012 letter to Turner): “Then, with nine minutes to go in that Northwestern game with us about 30 points ahead, I finally put you in the game — and you immediately missed a block-out and gave up a basket. Of course I took you out of the game, but for some reason I don’t understand I put you right back in. For the next 8 and a half minutes you did it — you played to the full extent of your abilities, and it was a joy to watch.

“After the game, Steve and I met with your Dad and Mother. Our original plan had been to draft a letter that would make you eligible for the NBA Draft. After the way you had played, before we brought up the letter I asked you a question: “Landon, what keeps you from playing that way all the time?” You said, “I don’t know, Coach, but I would like the chance to try.”

A week later, in a 13-point loss at Iowa, Turner came off the bench and scored 18 points. Most importantly, he took an important step forward as a defensive weapon.

Crews: “The game is almost over and we’re losing. Landon is in the game, and Landon was just up and down. He’s playing, but he wasn’t starting. Then, all of a sudden, they’re playing four corners and Landon gets caught on a 6-foot-4 guard named Kevin Boyle. Landon is like 15 feet off him and coach keeps telling him, ‘Get into him! Get into him!’ Finally, Landon did. He just started defending this guy. It was like, ‘Whoa!'”

Kitchel: “Landon Turner busted his ass for the last six minutes of the game, rather than thinking about Landon Turner, which he had always done before. He was thinking about Indiana. He was thinking about Indiana and how to win basketball games. Coach Knight started playing him from that point on. Landon Turner was the difference in why we became a great team as opposed to just a good team.”

Wittman: “It was huge. Our versatility went through the (roof) then. We could play a lot of different lineups. We could go big. You could play Kitchel (at center). Steve Risley was another big body that you could play at that spot. Our versatility and depth just really improved with his emergence.”

A dominant tournament

Indiana finished 14-4 in the conference and claimed the Big Ten title after earning back-to-back road victories at Illinois and Michigan State to close the regular season.

The opening game of the NCAA Tournament took the Hoosiers to Dayton, Ohio, where they matched with a well-built Maryland team that featured Buck Williams, Albert King and Ernest Graham.

Kitchel: “They had just beaten Virginia in the ACC Tournament by 20 points. I mean, they dominated a Ralph Sampson Virginia team that would end up in the Final Four with us. We get behind 8-0 and it looks like Maryland is going to kick our ass, like we’re going to get blown out of here. We had just watched DePaul and Mark Aguirre go down to St. Joe. That’s the game before we walk on the floor. We’re down 8-0 and you’re thinking, ‘What the hell?'”

Wittman: “DePaul was going to be a team that could play for the national championship. They get beat the game before we go on the floor to play Maryland and I think that was a little bit of an eye-opener for us. Like, ‘Hey, sheesh, anything could happen.’ When we got down 8-0, I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap. This is not happening to us.’

“We got hit straight in the mouth the first three or four minutes of that game. Knight didn’t call a timeout. I think he trusted us, as the group that we were, and the experience that we had. That really got our attention. Nine out of 10 college coaches in the first game of the tournament, if they go down 8-0, they quickly call a timeout. He didn’t and it changed in the blink of an eye.”

Hammel: “It was a stunning show of strength. Turner and Tolbert were running, Thomas was orchestrating. It was just a marvel to watch. Isiah had 19 points, 14 assists and zero turnovers. Jim Lynam was the St. Joe coach, and (IU) played them in the regional. He commented on that and said, ‘That was a time capsule game.’

Fischer: “Lefty Driesell, the flamboyant coach at Maryland at the time, literally, was left with his head in his hands on more than one occasion during that ballgame. Whatever he did, it didn’t work.”

Driesell (when asked after the game if IU could reach the Final Four in Philadelphia): “We just got our fannies beat. They played great. They dominated us on the boards. They dominated us on defense. If they’d been playing the 76ers today, they’d have beaten the 76ers.”

After the 99-64 win over Maryland, IU returned home to host UAB and St. Joseph’s in the Regional at Assembly Hall. A series of upsets in the opening round was the cause that brought the Blazers and Hawks to Bloomington.

Kitchel: “The teams that were supposed to have been in Bloomington were Indiana, Kentucky, Wake Forest and DePaul. Instead, it’s Indiana, UAB, St. Joe and Boston College. We were the only top seed to make it. For the next three days, we get thrown out of practice every day because Knight knows these guys have never heard of UAB. (Knight said), ‘You guys are never going to be able to handle this. You don’t know how good this team is.’ It was all a mental thing of trying to prepare us. Then we beat them by (15).”

A 78-46 win over St. Joseph’s allowed IU to book its ticket to the Final Four in Philadelphia, where it opened the semifinals with a 67-49 victory against LSU.

From there, only North Carolina stood in Indiana’s path toward the national championship.

But first, the Hoosiers had to wait.

President Reagan and Knight’s 2nd title

It was 2:27 p.m. on March 30 when John Hinckley Jr. aimed his six-shot revolver at the President of the United States and squeezed the trigger.

Hinckley fired six shots — the last of which struck President Ronald Reagan in his left armpit during a frantic scene outside the Washington Hilton.

137 miles to the north, the Hoosiers had finished a team meeting only to return to their hotel rooms to the news.

Wittman: “I’m laying in the hotel room, and back then there wasn’t a whole lot of TV channels. But I had the TV on, and all of a sudden, it breaks in with the shooting of the president.”

Kitchel: “You’re thinking: Oh, geez.”

Crews: “It was unbelievable. Then, everything was just up in the air. No one had any answers.”

Wittman: “The hard thing was we did everything according to what we normally did. We got to the arena, and then that’s when everything was kind of brought to us where we didn’t know if we’re going to play the game or not.”

Crews: “None of us knew what was going on. We didn’t know if there was going to be a game, if there wasn’t going to be a game. We had no idea. Your attention is taken away from the game because of the situations with the country. It was a very, very odd situation.”

Wittman: “I remember coach coming in and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to sit tight. We’re not going to change anything we’re doing. They’ll let us know if we’re going to play or not. Shortly thereafter, it was brought to our attention that we were going to play the game.”

Roy Williams (then-North Carolina assistant): “We went to the game, we knew that the president had been shot, but I just remember standing in a hallway and seeing Bob Knight and Dean Smith go into a room and we knew they were discussing whether we would play the game or not. They came back out and said that we were going to play, but I know there was a lot of uncertainty.”

Wittman: “I can always remember as a kid, watching the national championship game on TV, then going out in the backyard and playing that game over and acting like I was playing in it. It was kind of surreal. I was standing at the jump circle and I said to myself, ‘This is nothing. I’ve played in this game 100 times in my backyard.’ It took off from there.”

North Carolina took an early 8-2 lead, then extended its advantage to 16-8 until Indiana surged back to take a 27-26 halftime lead with Wittman’s help.

Hammel: “Indiana was playing for the last shot. He got open on the right baseline and Thomas got the ball to him. He hit a jump shot from about 15 feet that put Indiana up by 1 at the half.

“Then, the second half opened with Isiah making two straight steals and layups that boosted Indiana up to a five-point lead. Really, Carolina never caught up. Bob played most of the second half with Isiah in the high post. Jim Thomas was on the point and running the offense, while Isiah was up against their big guys.

“He hadn’t shown that at any time during the season, so they were out there without a chance to make the adjustments you’d make at halftime. It was a critical part of the game and Isiah was brilliant. North Carolina never really answered that situation.”

Knight (to Hammel after the season): “I don’t think these kids ever lost sight of the fact they had a chance to win the whole thing. I remember even in December, Isiah was quoted several times that we knew we could be a good basketball team but we had to keep working at it. I’ve never seen a group of kids who worked harder to get a goal than these kids have.”

One comment

  1. I was in flight school at Whiting Field, outside Pansacola, for that game. My neighbor (who was also one of my instructors) was a Villanova grad with cable TV and I watched it at his house.

    It was a great drunken fest. If you’ve never celebrated with Naval aviators it is your loss.

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