When William Hudnut left office in 1992 after an unprecedented four terms as mayor of Indianapolis, the 6-foot-5-inch Presbyterian minister could claim an impressive list of accomplishments. He hosted the city’s first NCAA Final Four, presided over the construction of the Hoosier Dome, and lured the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis.
He did all this thanks to his talent for coalition-building, coupled with an unparalleled skill at promoting both himself and the city. “I wish Bill Hudnut were here today,” said David Frick, one of his former deputy mayors. “He was so good at building consensus. In today’s world, where everything is so fractionalized, we really need a leader who can bring the various constituencies in the metro area together.”
Hudnut became an icon during the Blizzard of 1978, when, for three days, he roamed the snow-clogged streets while sporting an Indiana Racers cap and turtleneck sweater.
“He wore the same clothes for two or three days,” Frick recalled. “Of course, we washed them, but people kept looking at the stocking cap and the sweater and thinking, ‘Boy, he’s hard-working. He hasn’t had time to change his clothes.’”
Hudnut was instrumental in turning the city into the “Amateur Sports Capital of the World,” or perhaps more accurately, in getting people to start thinking of it that way. But to accomplish one of his greatest achievements, construction of the Hoosier Dome, the former minister needed both nerves of steel and the luck of the devil.
Indianapolis wanted an NFL team and needed to prove that it was capable of hosting one. So, the city started work on a 60,000-seat, state-of-the-art downtown arena—even though there was no pro team to play there and no near-term prospect of getting one. But just as the $80 million project was completed in 1984, the Baltimore Colts decided to move.
“Bill Hudnut risked his political life on that,” Frick said. “I think historians would point to that as a key thing that caused the arrival of the Colts to happen.”
Famous for his quote, “You can’t be a suburb of nothing,” Hudnut championed the revitalization of downtown. He was the driving force behind the development of Circle Centre mall, which opened in 1995, 15 years after he proposed it in a State of the City address.