1940 Introduction

1940 Introduction

By Bob Hammel

January 3, 2006

From the April 1, 1940 Bloomington Daily Telephone

Chances are you’re an Indiana University basketball fan, probably a devout one. Even so, betcha this is a piece of trivia you didn’t know, or at least didn’t put into this perspective:

IU’s first IU basketball championship of any kind – first that was clear-cut: no ties, no co-‘s – was the 1940 NCAA tournament title.

Indiana did not win the Big Ten championship that year. Purdue did. If you’re devout, you knew that. And that – why Indiana went and Purdue didn’t – is the subject of its own legendry and myth.

Purdue without question was the dominant team in Big Ten basketball in the 1930s. Its 1940 team finished 10-2 to win the conference championship, with Indiana second at 9-3.

However, Indiana had won its two season meetings with the Boilermakers, 46-39 at the Seventh Street Fieldhouse and 51-46 at Purdue. The sweep in itself was historic, IU’s first in the 40-year-old series that Purdue led up to then, 51-11 – the reason the Boilermakers, despite IU’s greater success in much of the period since, still has a commanding series lead.

Tony Hinkle a key

Perhaps you’ve heard the generally accepted story that Purdue’s great coach, Ward “Piggy” Lambert, had no use for the new idea of post-season play and rejected the invitation that automatically went to the Big Ten champion. The story has credence: 1940 was just the second NCAA tournament, the first actually conducted under NCAA auspices. In the first national collegiate championship tournament, in 1939, Oregon beat Ohio State in the finals at Evanston. It was sponsored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and – inconceivably in this era of billion-dollar contracts – actually lost money, the reason the NABC was more than happy to cede rights to the NCAA to keep it going a year later. It was not a tournament of enormous stature, the one-year-older National Invitation Tournament in New York more touted because it was played in the heart of the major media.

No “automatic” berths in that eight-team 1940 NCAA tournament went to any team, league champion or not. IU, rather than Purdue, was the choice of the committee charged with selecting the “most representative team” from the Big Ten-Midwest region, according to Tony Hinkle, the long-time Butler coach who was on the committee. I sat beside Tony on a flight to Denver for the 1989 Final Four and asked why that happened. He said that, of course, the committee recognized Purdue had won the Big Ten championship but selected Indiana because of its home-and-road sweep over the Boilermakers.

IU vs. Purdue, Feb. 10, 1940. Photo Courtesy: Indiana University Archives

And still the Hoosiers weren’t in. A faculty athletics committee had to approve, and it was a hard sale, this new tournament taking up class time and all that. William Breneman, a distinguished professor who was IU’s faculty representative to the Big Ten at the time, told me years later about the contentious meeting when it was up to the committee to accept or reject the invitation. Young coach Branch McCracken was there, arguing his case, but Breneman said the intra-committee debate went hours into the night before grudging approval came for McCracken’s team to go to this “national” thing.

It meant a trip to Hinkle’s school’s ahead-of-its-time arena at Indianapolis for a first-round game against Springfield College, from the Massachusetts town where basketball itself was “invented” by James Naismith at a YMCA in 1891.

An ‘amazing’ team

On March 22, Indiana jumped ahead of Springfield 30-11 by halftime and won, 48-24, with junior Herm Schaefer of Fort Wayne scoring 14 points. Next night, the Hoosiers beat the other East first-round winner, Duquesne, 39-30, led by 10 points from center Bill Menke of Huntingburg. Menke had won the state’s Trester Award two years earlier with the Happy Hunters team that lost in the state finals to Fort Wayne Central, which had both Schaefer and another 1940 Hoosier starter, Paul “Curly” Armstrong. Menke’s brother, Bob, also was on that 1940 IU team, scoring one point in the Duquesne game. Bob later was an IU trustee. Bill died a war hero, victim of a World War II plane crash.

The two Indianapolis victories made Indiana the NCAA tournament’s East champion, and the Hoosiers qualified for the national championship game at Kansas City against the West champion. That was Kansas, which upset the pre-tournament favorite (if such a thing existed), Southern California, and its All-America guard Ralph Vaughn (who had played with another IU 1940 star, Jay McCreary, on Frankfort’s 1936 state champions), in the West semifinals at Kansas City, 43-42.

1940 NCAA champion Indiana Hoosiers. Photo Courtesy: Indiana University Archives

Kansas had the overwhelming backing of the Municipal Auditorium crowd on championship night, and the Jayhawks’ coach, Dr. Forrest “Phog” Allen, already had built his own legends. Everything favored Kansas, but Indiana won easily, 60-42. It was a shocking, blow-out score, the first time all year that the Hoosiers scored 60 points and just the second time IU had reached 60 in a 77-game stretch that spanned four seasons.

This was the time when “Hurryin’ Hoosiers” was born. Young coach McCracken – in just his 10th year after his own All-America career at IU – picked up on the fast-break pioneer style that his coach and predecessor, Everett Dean, had taught at IU, and stepped up even Dean’s pace. That championship night – March 30, 1940 – the Hoosiers, according to a breathless Associated Press account shot “an amazing .333,” in an era when about half that was more normal.

Hall of Famers, all

Marvin Huffman, the Hoosiers’ only senior starter, had followed brother Vernon, IU’s only (ever) All-America football and basketball player, from New Castle High to IU. He and junior McCreary led IU with 12 points each. Armstrong had 10, Schaefer 9, junior Bob Dro of Berne 7, Bill Menke 5, and sophomore Andy Zimmer of Goodland had the other 5. All seven of those, plus reserves Bob Menke, Jim Gridley of Vevay and Chet Francis of Avon. All played and didn’t score in the championship game, and coach McCracken each was separately selected for and inducted in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame – 11 men in all, an unmatched sweep for a college team

After that championship game, Huffman became the first player to receive the prestigious award still given as a highlight at the Final Four, the Outstanding Player Award.

The championship was a testimonial to both Dean and McCracken, who are in the National Basketball Hall of Fame.

After starring at Salem High School, Dean went to Indiana at a time when IU had never had a .500 season in Big Ten basketball. His junior year, he was the star of IU’s first winning team (6-4 Big Ten, 13-8 overall). His senior year, 1920-21, was the second winning season for IU basketball (6-5 Big Ten, 14-6 overall). That year, he was IU’s first basketball All-American.

An outstanding baseball player as well, he was thought to be about to sign with the Philadelphia Athletics, but no contract came, and he became the head coach at Carleton College. After an unbeaten season there and 45-4 three-year record, he – at 26 – became IU’s head coach. In his second season, the Hoosiers won their first Big Ten co-championship (8-4, in a four-way tie with Purdue, Michigan and Iowa). His 1928 and 1936 teams also shared league titles, the 1935-36 team finishing 11-1 in the league and 18-2 overall.

He left IU after the 1938 season to become head baseball and basketball coach at Stanford, where his 1942 team won the fourth NCAA championship – and his baseball team also won an NCAA title. He is in the National College Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as the International Basketball Hall of Fame.

An era of resounding success

When Dean left to go to Stanford, the popular selection to succeed him at IU was another young ex-Hoosier player, McCracken, who that year had coached Ball State to the school’s first (and still only) basketball victory over IU. While there, he had married the school president’s daughter, and Mary Jo McCracken became her own Hoosier legend, the virtual team mother through McCracken’s 24 years. Part of the Kansas City story is that Mary Jo, fully aware her husband didn’t think his players should watch such things as movies on game days because of what it did to their sight, sneaked the boys off with her to a movie house to see the rage of the day, “Gone With the Wind,” to “relax” them, she said at the time. At the worst, the game’s outcome is evidence tha the movie-watching didn’t hurt.

IU coach Branch McCracken in 1938. Photo Courtesy: Indiana University Archives

McCracken’s first IU team was led by All-American Ernie Andres, later a McCracken basketball assistant and long-time IU baseball coach after a playing career as the only Hoosier to make the major leagues in both baseball and basketball. The 1938-39 Hoosiers finished 17-3, splitting games with both Purdue and eventual NCAA runnerup Ohio State. Those Hoosiers ran, too. That year at Illinois, Andres became the first player in Big Ten history to score 30 points in a league game.

The next year, the championship year, the Hoosiers were 17-3 going into the tournament, 20-3 coming out, a school record for victories that stood until another McCracken team – and NCAA champion – topped it 13 years later. Both of McCracken’s first two teams were unbeaten at the Fieldhouse where as a junior he had played in the building’s first game and scored its first point. Late in his third coaching season, his home winning streak as coach was at 25, the IU record until another national-championship team passed it 36 years later, when Wisconsin beat the 1940-41 Hoosiers in their next-last game, 38-30. The Badgers went on to win the Big Ten championship and the 1941 NCAA tournament, the prizes that had been sought by an IU team that included all but Huffman from the 1940 final-game scorers.

(Bob Hammel was sports editor of the Bloomington Herald-Telephone and the Bloomington Herald-Times from 1966 through his retirement in 1996.)