Imagine John Wooden coaching at Minnesota instead of UCLA. Bob Knight coaching at Wisconsin instead of Indiana. Bill Green getting fired at Marion High School before winning even one of his five state championships there. Peyton Manning being drafted by a team other than the Colts.
All of those circumstances would have occurred if not for a twist of fate or two that in the moment seemed rather inconsequential but long term became momentous. One might say things turned out as they were meant to be all along, but surely fate has nudged some athletes and coaches toward detours and disasters, as well. Fickle fate can lead people almost anywhere.
Wooden, for one, must surely have been a fan of Virgil, because fate was his guiding light, taking him where he needed to be even when he had other plans. In fact, his very life depended on it.
Wooden loved baseball more than basketball while growing up, and he played both as a freshman at Purdue. He planned to do so throughout his college career and dreamed of a Major League Baseball career, as professional basketball was not yet established. But a fastball plunked his right shoulder during a summer league game following his freshman year, causing him to lose throwing strength. He gave up the sport and concentrated on basketball, becoming the college game’s first three-time All-American.
He later settled in as high school teacher and coach at South Bend Central High School and was perfectly content with his career choice. From 1936-1943, he taught English and coached the basketball, tennis and baseball teams. He was drafted into the Navy in April 1943, however, and served until the end of World War II. Afterward, he considered an offer from Marion High School but eventually signed a one-year contract to return to South Bend Central. He left abruptly that summer, however, when Indiana State came calling.
He won four sectional basketball championships, three regional titles and more than 80% of his regular-season games at Central.
Wooden was fortunate to have survived his Naval experience. He had been assigned to a tour of the South Pacific on the USS Franklin, but an emergency appendectomy prevented him from going. The ship was bombed on March 19, 1945, and 724 crew members were killed, including the man who replaced him—former Purdue football player Fred Stalcup, a fraternity brother of Wooden’s.
After two successful seasons at Indiana State, Wooden was eager to coach in a major conference against the best competition. He had offers from Minnesota and UCLA but preferred the one from Minnesota because of his desire to stay in the Midwest and coach in the Big Ten. An early April snowstorm knocked out the phone lines in Minneapolis on the day Minnesota officials had agreed to call, however, so Wooden assumed they had lost interest.
He accepted UCLA’s offer later in the day and went on to win 10 NCAA championships there from 1964 to 1975.
Many years later, fate intervened on his behalf once again. He was scheduled to attend a coaching clinic in Raleigh, North Carolia, but an unexpected obligation at UCLA delayed his departure by a day. The connecting flight he would have taken from Atlanta to Raleigh crashed, killing all passengers.
For those keeping score: If not for a wayward fastball, Wooden might have gone into baseball rather than basketball. If not for a draft notice, he might have remained a high school coach and teacher. If not for appendicitis, he might have been killed in World War II. If not for a snowstorm, he would have coached at Minnesota. And thanks to a last-minute scheduling change, his life was spared again.
Bob Knight grew up in Ohio and played basketball at Ohio State, so, like Wooden, he wanted to coach in the Big Ten. In 1968, Wisconsin gave him his first opportunity. One of seven interviewed candidates, his hire was announced in newspapers throughout the country on April 25. Knight, then 27, had coached Army into the National Invitation Tournament all three of his seasons there and was regarded as one of the nation’s most promising young coaches.
Two days later, however, it was announced Knight had changed his mind and signed a contract to remain at Army. He claimed that he had agreed to a salary at Wisconsin (reportedly $15,500), but that other details—such as recruiting procedures, hiring of assistants and scholarship allotment—had still needed to be worked out before signing a contract there.
“The premature announcement saying I had the [Wisconsin] position made impossible negotiations I felt were needed before I accepted,” he told one reporter. “I was anxious to go to the Big Ten, but after weighing everything, I felt it would be better to stay.”
Wisconsin Athletic Director Ivy Williamson, however, said he had talked with Knight the day after the hire had been publicly announced and that Knight expressed no concerns.
“I think it was just a reconsideration, as simple as that,” Williamson said.
John Powless, who had been Wisconsin’s head tennis coach and basketball assistant, was hired instead. He lasted eight years, compiling an 88-108 record. Knight, meanwhile, coached Army for three more seasons before getting into the Big Ten in 1971 via Indiana, where he won three national championships.
Would it have mattered if Wisconsin had delayed its announcement of hiring Knight until all details were agreed upon? We’ll never know for sure. But it would have changed the course of history for two Big Ten basketball programs if Knight had not backed out of his first coaching opportunity in the conference.
Close call, free throws
Bill Green coached five state championship teams at Marion High School: 1975, 1976, 1985, 1986 and 1987. He might have Rob Acord to thank for all of them.
Understand that, when Green took over at Marion for the 1969-1970 season, he was hated by many local fans. He had coached the Indianapolis Washington team that had just defeated Marion in a semifinal game of the 1969 state tournament, 61-60. Older Marion fans are still bitter over that controversial outcome.
Also understand that, in those days, Marion was expected to at bare minimum win the sectional every year. It hosted that round of the tournament and was by far the largest school in the group. You can imagine how the locals were feeling five years later, after Marion had won the sectional in 1970 but lost the sectional championship game to Oak Hill in 1971, had to go overtime to beat Madison-Grant to win it in 1972 and lost the sectional opener to Madison-Grant in 1973. Green’s team won the sectional in 1974 but lost the regional championship game by 18 points.
Green kept his job by a one-vote margin when the school board met after that season. Patience was running out, and something special needed to happen the following season.
“He was under a lot of pressure,” said Kevin Pearson, one of Marion’s star players.
Green’s 1974-1975 team breezed through the regular season with one loss but was nearly upset in the sectional semifinal by Oak Hill, which played a slowdown game. Marion trailed in the final minute, but Pearson scored on a rebound basket with 44 seconds left, to tie the score at 46. A controversial three-second call on Oak Hill with 24 seconds remaining returned the ball to Marion. Dave Colescott, who would be voted that year’s Mr. Basketball, missed a shot, but Acord rebounded it and drew a foul. He hit both free throws with five seconds left for the winning margin.
It was widely believed in Marion that Green would have been fired if his team had lost in the 1975 sectional, particularly after a one-loss regular season. Longtime radio voice Jim Brunner is among those who acknowledge the likelihood.
Which means, if not for a questionable three-second call and Acord’s foul shots, which avoided overtime, the Giants might not have won any of those five state championships under Green’s coaching.
Bill Polian has been highly praised for selecting Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf when the Colts had the first pick in the 1998 NFL draft. But without assists from Kelly Holcomb and Jake Plummer, he wouldn’t have had that easy-only-in-retrospect choice to make.
The Colts and Arizona both had 3-12 records heading into the final weekend of the 1997 season. The team that finished with the worst record would have the first pick in the next draft and presumably choose between Manning and Leaf. Or, in the case of Arizona, which was pleased with its rookie quarterback, Plummer, perhaps trade the pick to a team in need of a quarterback.
Both teams tried to win their final game. The Cardinals succeeded, much to their future regret.
The Colts, playing at Minnesota, led 7-0 and were tied at 10, but quarterback Jim Harbaugh was knocked out of the game—twice—after taking hard hits. His replacement, Holcomb, unintentionally assured the Colts of remaining in contention for the No. 1 pick by throwing three interceptions and losing two fumbles on sacks.
The Colts lost, 39-28, but that alone wasn’t enough. Arizona still would have drafted first (because of the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker) if it lost its home game to Atlanta. It was on its way to doing just that, trailing 26-14 in the fourth quarter, but Plummer threw two touchdown passes in the final 4:55, the second with just five seconds remaining.
The Colts had the No. 1 pick.
Arizona wound up swapping picks with San Diego, which had the third pick. The Chargers took Leaf at No. 2, much to their eventual dismay, while the Cardinals selected defensive end Andrew Wadsworth. He injured his knee in his second season and wound up retiring after an abbreviated third season. Manning, of course, went on to a Hall of Fame career, leading both the Colts and Denver to a Super Bowl championship and earning the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award five times.
Longtime Colts beat writer Mike Chappell jokingly considers Holcomb a candidate for the team’s Ring of Honor because of his role in bringing Manning to the franchise. Plummer wouldn’t be a bad choice, either.•
Montieth, an Indianapolis native, is a longtime newspaper reporter and freelance writer. He is the author of three books: “Passion Play: Coach Gene Keady and the Purdue Boilermakers,” “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis,” and “Extra Innings: My Life in Baseball,” with former Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher.