Evansville memories live on 33 years later

Two weeks ago, Evansville went to Hinkle Fieldhouse and defeated the Butler Bulldogs 71-68 on a fadeaway 3-pointer from Denver Holmes with 17.7 seconds left in overtime. It was the biggest win in quite some time for coach Marty Simmons’ program.

I can’t help but root for the Purple Aces and as that score flashed across my screen, it took me back to a time when Evansville came on my radar.

From 1946 to 1977, Evansville was led by the legendary coach Arad McCutchan, who had players like current Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. McCutchan had led the Purple Aces to five NCAA College Division championships. Evansville was a Division II powerhouse and the fan base was loyal and rabid. But by 1977 the program had made the leap to Division I and the growing pains were obvious. Support started to dwindle and McCutchan retired at the age of 65.

Coach Bobby Watson was chosen to replace McCutchan. Watson was made for Evansville. He was approachable and charismatic. Watson was a former assistant coach at Oral Roberts and he was hungry and up for the challenge. Basketball is an important part of the culture and fabric of the southern Indiana community.

Watson was upping the ante while recruiting some promising freshmen. He brought back the old Purple Ace riverboat gambler as the team mascot in a marketing effort to win back old fans and attract new ones. Evansville fans started coming back to the fold because they believed in their confident new coach.

The Purple Aces were off to a pedestrian 1-3 start, but there was a feeling of promise from the young team as they headed to play Middle Tennessee State. They were excited to board their chartered flight, a DC-3 airplane bound for Nashville. Watson and his team spent three hours waiting at the airport for the plane owned by a charter company out of Indianapolis. The delay was due to inclement weather.

After that long wait, the plane finally arrived and Watson and the Purple Aces took off, never to return.

The plane crashed 90 seconds after takeoff from Dress Regional Airport. According to the AP, the twin-engine DC-3 crashed at 7:22 p.m. on Dec. 13, 1977, killing all 29 people aboard, including the entire basketball team. Today is the 33rd anniversary.

Rescuers arrived on the scene quickly as several people saw the plane go down. It was a damp evening with an eerie haze hanging just above the trees.

"As we got closer, my first impression was it looked like there were a lot of tombstones scattered around. Then I realized they were seats with many of the passengers still strapped in them," Gene Hollencamp, one of the first to arrive on the scene, told the AP.

He saw Evansville duffel bags scattered across the debris field and then he knew.

"'Oh, my God, this is the Aces,"' he recalled thinking.

I remember where I was when I heard news of the crash. An invincible 21-year-old college student, I was working toward my degree at the University of Cincinnati. All I ever wanted to be was a college basketball coach and the story of this team was a slap across my face. How could this be?

It was reported that students prayed in the chapel and the community rallied around the team, their families and friends. Local newspapers reported that 4,000 people attended a community memorial service the following Sunday at Roberts Stadium.

"Out of the agony of this hour we will rise." The words carved into the limestone monument on the Evansville Campus captures the school’s and community’s will to rise above that tragedy. It is one of the first stops on the school's tour for new students.

Later this season, I will visit the Evansville campus for the very first time. I plan to visit that memorial and like thousands upon thousands of others, I will pray for those we lost on that misty mid-December night. May they rest in peace and may the Evansville Purple Aces of 1977 be forever blessed.

Among the dead were coach Robert “Bobby” Watson; UE Athletic Business Manager Bob Hudson; UE Comptroller Charles Shike; Sports Information Director Gregory Knipping; popular radio announcer Marvin “Marv” Bates; and UE fans Maurice “Maury” King, the 33-year-old owner of Moutoux Furniture, and Charles Goad, 61, who owned Goad Equipment Co. The crash also claimed the lives of young men filled with promise and talent: seniors Kevin Kingston, John Ed Washington and Marion Anthony “Tony” Winburn; juniors Stephen Miller and Bryan Taylor; sophomore Keith Moon; freshmen Warren Alston, Ray Comandella, Mike Duff, Kraig Heckendorn, Michael Joyner, Barney Lewis, Greg Smith, Mark Siegel; and the team’s three student managers, Jeff Bohnert, Mark “Tank” Kirkpatrick and Mark Kniese.