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Can Indy's big-league efforts outrun small-town image?

March 27, 2013
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I was going to write this post about Butler University basketball coach Brad Stevens' being a candidate for the UCLA job opening. Or about the exposure the NCAA basketball regional would bring to Indianapolis.

But as I researched those topics, I was stuck by a common chord voiced by many comments to the stories and blogs I was reading this week.

No matter how much Indianapolis performs as a major-league city, there are those who will never consider it anything more than a few high-rises amid a sea of cornfields tended to by a bunch of hayseeds.

First came a comment to an online story I wrote this week discussing the $15 million economic impact of the NCAA basketball regional held this week in Lucas Oil Stadium.

“It’s a crying shame that this is what passes for economic activity in Hooterville,” the comment said.

I laughed it off, but must admit the sentiment about the place where I was born stung a bit.

I pondered, was this simply a small-minded person or is Indianapolis not the big-league city I’ve been made to believe it is?

Or is there something else? Indianapolis' smaller-market neighbors such as Columbus, Ohio, and Louisville don't seem to take nearly as many arrows for their lack of size. Maybe, by striving to compete with the bigs, Indianapolis has made itself a target.

It was far from the first time I had seen or heard Indianapolis criticized on my story and others. Maybe the sheer repetition is getting to me after all these years.

These types of comments seem to come out of the blue. A case in point was an article this week on the Bruins Nation website.

The story, headlined, “Brad Stevens Not Necessarily A ‘Small Town’ Guy,” explained that Butler is in urban Indianapolis, and Stevens might be a nice fit for the UCLA job and be relatively comfortable in Los Angeles.

Immediately the comments—I presume mostly from Californians—started bashing the writer for comparing L.A. and Indianapolis. One even noted that people from here can’t handle driving on L.A.’s eight-lane highways.

Really? Well, maybe that’s true, but can anyone from anywhere keep their sanity in L.A.’s crazy interstate traffic?

Another noted how confused and disjointed Hoosiers get when venturing to a really big city.

When considering how Stevens might fare in L.A., it might be worth pointing out to UCLA followers that the Wizard of Westwood and the author of 10 national championships, John Wooden himself, was from Martinsville—in Indiana! But I digress.

The commenters trotted out all the tired things most Hoosiers have heard about Indianapolis a million times. “They don’t call it Nap town for nothing,” one wrote. “Nothing but cornfields and tumbleweeds a mile outside Indianapolis,” another pontificated.

Then another person produced a well-thought-out post about how big, wonderful and vibrant Indianapolis is. The person even noted a number of convincing statistics about the city’s considerable size. Yet another mentioned Indianapolis is the home of NBA and NFL franchises, the nation’s biggest single-day sporting event, and the NCAA headquarters--and even hosted a Super Bowl.

Someone responded: "Put any numbers on it that you want, but Indy is still a small town." 

Some criticism comes from right here in the Midwest. Chicagoans constantly scoff at Indianapolis. One Chicago journalist told a co-worker of mine, “What’s news in Indianapolis is news in Indianapolis. What’s news in Chicago is news.”

Thanks for the education.

I’ve heard people from Louisville say we’re just a bunch of small-town hicks trying to pretend we’re big-city slickers. Jealousy? Perhaps. At least that’s what I’ve been told by city boosters.

There was no shortage of people who told me over the last two years that hosting a Super Bowl would finally break down all those small-minded stereotypes.

Perhaps the idea of Indianapolis' being like the small town John Mellencamp so eloquently wrote and sung about is so entrenched that no amount of sports events, branding or positioning is ever going to change that.

But here’s something people outside this area might not know about the people of this tiny town.

They have the audacity to make bigger plans than anyone thought possible. And they have proven to have the muscle to turn those plans into a larger-than-life stage for events ranging from sports to the arts.

They were stupid enough to build an NFL stadium without an NFL team. They were crazy enough to think a downtown minor-league baseball park would be an attraction. They were dreamy enough to think a dusty test track could attract 300,000 people a year for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. They were insane enough to think this city could host Final Fours and Super Bowls—and do it better than anyone else.

What a bunch of fools.

Small town? Big city? Metropolis on the brink? Or a legend in our own minds? Label it—and us—what you will.

But know this: Everything this city has accomplished since it really was Naptown all those years ago is no small wonder.

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