Hoosier Hysteria

by Jeff Tryon

It’s sectional time again, but the “Hoosier Hysteria” of high school basketball that I remember from my youth seems to have dissipated with the demise of single-class tournament high school basketball in Indiana.

Just a few decades ago, basketball was big in Brown County—everywhere in Indiana, for that matter. I mean unbelievably huge.

On weekend nights, the old Brown County High school gym would be packed. Normally placid people, grown adults, would become rabid fans, yelling and screaming and even cursing until it sometimes seemed the building would explode from sheer tension and exhilaration.

People watched every move and nuance on the court with intense attention and close contests felt like life-or-death situations. When the hometown crowd would erupt angrily after a bad call in a tight game situation, you got a real clear look at what a lynch mob might be like.

I guess that was a part of the magic. It gave people a chance to vent their pent up anger and tensions and feelings of unfairness in the world. People got very emotionally involved and experienced what the Greeks called “catharsis.”

When Helmsburg High School won the Franklin Sectional in 1949, they nearly burned the town down.

“There wasn’t a spare automobile tire left, very little lumber, and darn few boxes when the celebration finally died down,” said one news account which put the number of post-game revelers at 500. “And if anyone had wanted to traverse through Helmsburg on State road 45 they would have been out of luck. Square dancing was a part of the celebration.”

When the Nashville Broncos arrived back in town after their 1959 Sectional win, they “…were treated to a ride on the fire truck, ringing of the courthouse bell ‘for the first time in ten years,’ a downtown parade climaxed by a bonfire, and a free meal at the school’s cafeteria. All night, Nashville revelers chanted the praises of their history-making Broncos—and they had plenty to rehash.”

When the consolidated Brown County High School won the Columbus sectional in 1972, “The jubilant celebration began with the sound of the final gun Saturday night and, in the case of one adult group of Eagle boosters, was reported still to be going on Monday afternoon,” according to news accounts.

“On being let out of school Monday morning, high school students picked up where they had left off Saturday, parading in car caravans and generally whooping it up.”
And when the 1976 team set the bar by winning not only the sectional, but the county’s first regional crown, it is safe to say the whole county went wild. There were all the usual championship hijinks, along with one more that has been immortalized in print: the celebratory burning of outhouses “… in the intersection of state roads 135 and 46 in Nashville. No one asked was certain where the outhouses came from, but the coach remembered it taking place after more than one game.”

I’m not quite sure just why abandoning single class basketball let the air out of the balloon, but I feel like it did. I can’t really picture these spontaneous county-wide celebrations recurring today.

I guess that David-and-Goliath idea, the underdog dream, is so deeply rooted in us as Americans, Hoosiers, Brown Countians.

For example, notice the tone of this editorial following Brown County’s 1972 Sectional win over Columbus North:
“I would imagine that for those boys, as well as for the rest of us, beating Columbus was as important as winning the sectional…

“Somehow it has seemed in the past years that no matter how good our team has been and how hard they have tried, they have been destined to lose to Columbus.”
Year after year, you are routinely beaten down by the powers that be, by bigger schools with more players and more resources. But you never give up on the home team.
But deep in his heart, the true fan always hopes, always dreams about that glorious day, that miracle upset, that magical shot, when the tables will be turned and the lowly raised up over the mighty, and for once, if only for one gleaming moment, the underdog will be lifted to sublime, transcendent victory.

This is why the ultimate moment in Indiana basketball history is the “Mighty Milan” upset of Muncie Central in the 1953–54 state championship game. That game became the model for the movie Hoosiers, because it touches on the very heart of the Hoosier Hysteria—that on any given day, in any given game, unforeseen by anyone, the lesser just might prevail over the greater.

It seems like those times are gone. Single class basketball is just a fading memory, abandoned by the Indiana High School Athletic Association in 1996 in favor of the multi-class tournament.

I’m sure people have found other outlets in which to express their raw passions and most delicate and desirable hopes and dreams. I’m sure they must find some other way to get their feelings out, something else to shout and scream and get all worked up about.

But we no longer do it together, as a community.