Coaches feel NCAA made the right decision to go on

Coaches feel NCAA made the right decision to go on

By Bob Hammel, Bloomington Herald-Telephone

March 31, 1981

PHILADELPHIA – Conscience pangs tugged at NCAA basketball’s ruling gentry Monday night. No one has written a Robert’s Rules on the order to be followed when presidents are shot, though the growing frequency of such national disgraces may warrant one. The National Football League still blushes over the Sunday of play it let go on when this whole assassination plaque got its modern start and John F. Kennedy lay in state in 1963. The NCAA wasn’t eager to become another NFL Monday night, and when movieland postponed its Oscar night in shocked tribute to the actor-president whose shooting and surgery were uppermost in national concerns, the heat turned up a little higher on the fellows who have that easy, cushy job of running the greatest three-week production in sports: the NCAA tournament.

From the March 31, 1981 Bloomington Herald-Telephone

Less than an hour before the championship game-after Virginia and Louisiana State had played a consolation game that could have been scrapped without anybody noticing – the question was still being debated: To play or not to play?

Within the group huddled to mull the question – the nine-man NCAA Tournament Cimmittee, plus presidents of two universities involved and NCAA officers Jim Frank (president) and John Toner (seceratary-treasurer) – there even was a suggestion advanced that the final game be called off altogetherand Indiana and North Carolina declared co-champions. That, Tournament Committee chairman Wayne Duke said, “received no consideration.”

When President Reagan came out of surgery with all signs positive, the NCAA decision was made, Duke said. The choice will be criticized but the marvelous sense of humor that prompted the stricken president to come out of surgery with a paraphrase of the old W.C. fields line – “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” Reagan said in a note scratched to aides – was splendidly reflective of what surely would have been Reagan’s own vote if he had been in the NCAA’s meeting room. Bless ol’ Dutch. If only he had been in Philadelphia….

The show went on, and now the criticism can come. This North Carolina-Indiana final was considered so squeaky-clean in the smudgy world of college basketball that someone referred to it Sunday as a triumph of truth, justice and the American way. The two paragons of program propriety put on a basketball show whose ratings will be interesting. Did the nation want or need an escape after a day of recoil and horror? Tune in Mr. Nielsen next week and find out.

As conducted, the game may have achieved all that respectful silence anyway. There was poignance, and quie surely prayer, in the arena when two high-strung basketball teams and more than 18,000 other people paused in a moment of pregame silence to ponder the matter; when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played, not all perfunctorily, and a good many of the 18,000 sang. Take a note back, Mr. President. You may not have been in Philadelphia, but Philadelphia was with you.

The two coaches left the decision to others less passionately involved. Bob Knight of Indiana and Dean Smith of North Carolina pledged to abide by whatever decision came out. In victory and defeat, they endorsed the one that did. Both clearly wanted to play. “It was a trgic thing,” said Smith, after his Tar Heels had lost their championship try, 63-50, “but we heard the president was in stable condition. Had he been near death….”

Knight didn’t feel postponement was the proper answer. “I really, honestly don’t think so,” he said. “I think the Tournament Committee was absolutely right.”

Cynicism in not too far from the surface for any of us. When the holding began, that ol’ debbil television was presumed to be a factor. NBC was rumored to be pressing for a postponement, the network theoretically fearing embarrassment if caught going on with life as usual after another network voluntarily called of its Academy Awards. “I didn’t want NBC to make the decision,” Smith said. “I wanted the NCAA to make it.”

Isiah Thomas had just come out of the biggest basketball game – and triumph – of his life when he was asked if the game should have been played.

Thomas, a vibrant and witty conversationalist, gropped for words to say nicely that that really wasn’t the biggest thing to think about. “We were happy that the president wasn’t dead,” he said. “We were glad he could still think and use his brain. That’s the most important thing.”

Randy Wittman called the shooting “a tragic thing – I felt for him and for the other people who were shot. But we had a national championship on the lineand we had to go out and play.”

And, in a display of the sort of concentration that would improve the performance of anyone in any role, that’s what they did. On both sides.