Oh, to be the last of anything. History remembers you, even when you had to push your own broken-down school bus on the biggest night of the season.
We should explain.
The state high school football tournament begins this weekend. It’s the 50th tournament, so happy golden anniversary. To mark the occasion, we go back to the time there wasn’t such a thing. You played the season, you got the most votes in the final poll, you were called the mythical state champion. Football sectional? What’s a football sectional?
That ended 50 years ago this autumn, when someone had to be the last mythical state champion. Ever. Which brings us to the 1972 Bloomington Panthers.
“That’s pretty cool,” Marc Lunsford was saying over the phone from Arizona. “It never crossed my mind until today.”
Once upon a time, Lunsford played quarterback for the University of Arizona and is still in the record book for most career yards per attempt and completion. After that came a long coaching career that included high school, college, the CFL and the XFL. But in 1972, he was the quarterback for a Bloomington South program that was king of Indiana. The Panthers began that season with a 41-game winning streak. They would end it with the streak at 51 and the undisputed mythical state champions.
No playoffs. No big day in Lucas Oil Stadium, which wasn’t even around. No presentation of shiny awards.
“I have a little trophy that they handed out to us at the team banquet,” Reed May said from the coach’s office at Brownstown Central, where he has led the football program for 30 years. Long before that, he was a receiver for Bloomington South. “I’ve got it right up here on my shelf to be honest with you. The nameplate is gone, but I’m pretty sure it used to say ‘1972 mythical state champions.’”
There are three things we should know about Bloomington South, circa 1972.
No. 1. The school was on an absolute roll athletically. The same year, the Panther boys won state titles in baseball, swimming, wrestling and—mythically—football. “It was just a fine time to be a high school athlete in Bloomington,” May said.
But the golden days were fading. A new high school opened—Bloomington North—and the talent pool was divided. May lived closer to South, but his neighborhood was drawn into the North district.
“We moved and lived in a trailer so I could go to Bloomington South,” he said. “My parents, bless their hearts, I think they knew I had a chance to get a scholarship, so we lived in a trailer in the South district for a year. Then as a senior you could choose wherever you wanted to go.”
No. 2. The football streak was on its second coach, with a shift in style. A no-nonsense disciplinarian named Fred Huff had won the first 21 games. Then Tom Sells was assigned to keep it going. “He taught sociology, he was more the long hair, and one of the best things he probably did was change a little bit with the times,” May said. “It was the ’70s, there was protesting against the Vietnam War, you just had a lot of things going on at that time in our country. We had a lot of guys with long hair and things like that, and by him changing, it helped us continue the streak.”
No. 3. The legend of the 1972 Bloomington Panthers can largely be told in two games—both still vivid memories for the players—and one of them wasn’t played until 1973.
Didn’t think about losing
The ’72 season opened on Sept. 1, and Bloomington South headed to Richmond for a clash of state-title contenders. That’s when the bus broke down.
“One of our guys, he was a state wrestling champ and his dad was a mechanic, so he knew how to fix it,” May said.
“I remember the whole team out back pushing it through a parking lot. Fortunately, it was downhill,” Lunsford said. “I think the driver kept it running the whole game.”
The night was epic, with six lead changes. Lunsford was the backup quarterback. But when the offense struggled, Sells sent him into the game, and he would never lose the job. In a third-quarter flurry, Richmond’s Vincent Allen—who today remains Indiana State’s all-time leading rusher—gave the Red Devils the lead with a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown.
May answered seven seconds later with an 83-yard kickoff return for a score. A Lunsford touchdown run with 5:50 left put the Panthers ahead 22-20, but Richmond got a late chance when May fumbled a punt, barreled over by Marlon Burns, who the next spring would win the 100-yard and 220-yard dash titles in track.
“That was my first varsity game. I was the punt returner, and when I was a JV player the year before, they told me never fair-catch,” May said. “So I didn’t fair-catch, and I got drilled and I fumbled the ball. The good thing was, Coach Sells came up to me after the fumble and actually said, ‘That’s our fault.’”
A late Richmond turnover preserved the Panthers’ 22-20 win and saved May a long ride home. They steamrolled the rest of their schedule by a combined score of 455-93 and were the landslide winners in the final poll.
“We didn’t even think about losing; we had that much talent,” May said. Richmond never lost again and finished No. 2, so, in effect, the state championship game had been played on the first Friday in September.
This was before the age of Indianapolis-area superpowers. No Center Grove or Carmel or Fishers. Fort Wayne Luers, South Bend St. Joseph, Indianapolis Washington and East Gary were the next four in the final poll.
‘Always the little sister’
And the other game they remember? Many of the key players returned in 1973 and were eager to prove themselves in this newfangled creation of the IHSAA, the playoffs. Three classes, and four teams in the field from each class. Maybe now the Panthers could silence the northern skeptics who didn’t quite buy that made-in-the-south winning streak.
“We were always the little sister,” Lunsford said. “Anything south of Indianapolis, they didn’t think we played football down here.”
They stormed through the regular season again and the winning streak reached a staggering 60 games. The playoff opponent was Indianapolis Cathedral, on a frigid evening in Bloomington. It was Lunsford’s 18th birthday. Bloomington South’s moment of truth had come.
Then Cathedral returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and soon led 26-7. The Panthers rallied but lost 32-27, doomed by turnovers, which is why May has always steadfastly warned his own teams of the danger of mistakes come tournament time. He knows. Cathedral was beaten by South Bend Washington the next week for the first Class AAA state football title. A half-century later, the Bloomington pain lingers.
“That upsets me still to this day,” May said. “You cannot find that film. I actually called Cathedral and talked to the head coach there, and he talked to some ex-players. Nobody has a copy of that, and it was on Channel 4. I really think Tom Sells probably took it and burned the darn thing.
“It was devastating to everybody on the team. This is my 30th year as head coach at Brownstown, and I tell those guys the memories you have in high school will last forever.”
Lunsford: “My girlfriend at the time went to the Catholic girls school, which was literally right across the street from Cathedral, and somehow all the guys on Cathedral knew it was my birthday, thanks to Linda. Late in the game, they’d go [tauntingly], ‘Happyyyy Birthday.’”
End of an era
The magical era was over, with the champions headed off for college. May to Michigan State and later Arizona to rejoin Lunsford. Running back Kevin McDevitt would have a good career at Butler. Kicker Dave Reeve would end up making field goals for Notre Dame’s 1977 national champions. Sells too. “I think that loss really hurt him, because he left to become an assistant at Ball State,” May said. “But also, our talent was gone.”
The playoffs are now 50 years old, and the big-school division has turned into the Indianapolis Area Invitational. South won the state championship in 1993 and 1998, but in the 23 years since, the title in the top class has gone to a school from the Indy neighborhood 22 times. The tournament and its central balance of power are taken for granted. Sells died decades ago, and Lunsford mentioned how sad it was at the last reunion to find that so many teammates were gone.
But those Bloomington South Panthers were the last mythical state champions in Indiana and forever shall be. That means something yet. “It would mean more,” May said, “if we would have won the next year.”•
Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.