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Hoosier Basketball Tradition on Line in Vote

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A plan to tamper with Indiana high school basketball's fabled traditions has split the state and put athletic officials on the hot seat.

State athletic leaders will vote this month on a proposal to crown four basketball champions each year instead of one. Such a move would end the nearly century-old tournament format in which schools, big and small, square off for the bragging rights to the title of best in the state.

Delaware, Hawaii, and Kentucky are the only other states where schools are not split into "classes" by enrollment size for interscholastic basketball competition.

Those who support dividing the Indiana tournament into class play say the move would level the playing field in a tournament that now often features embarrassingly lopsided games.

But many politicians, newspaper columnists, fans, and former high school basketball greats loudly oppose the move and have proposed putting the issue on a statewide ballot. They argue that artificially creating multiple winners cuts into the yeoman spirit of individualism that makes Indiana basketball--and the state itself--special.

Garry Donna, the publisher of Hoosier Basketball magazine, said in an interview: "Some invisible seamstress, when she wove the fabric of life in Indiana, included the thread of high school basketball and the championship tournament. This will tear that apart for an idealistic, blue-sky philosophy that doesn't work.

Other Sports Affected

The proposal, which is scheduled for a vote April 29 by the state athletic association's board of directors, would also introduce class play for soccer, baseball, softball, and volleyball.

But "nobody seems to care much about the other sports," said Bruce Whitehead, the athletic director at Crawfordsville High School.

Basketball has been king in Indiana at least since the first state high school tournament in 1911. (See Education Week, March 1, 1995.)

The state is home to nine of the 10 largest high school gymnasiums in the country, thanks largely to a 1920s building boom touched off by communities vying to host state-championship tournament games. In 1990, more than 41,000 fans packed the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis for the state final, nearly doubling the previous national record for attendance at a high school basketball game.

The 1986 movie "Hoosiers" was based on the state's most legendary tournament, in which the 161-student Milan High School won the 1954 title over a much larger four-time state champion, Muncie Central High School, on a buzzer-beating shot.

In recent years, however, some coaches and athletic directors have argued that the so-called Milan Miracle will never be repeated. The talent gap between teams at big and small schools is such that one school was beaten by 80 points in this year's tournament.

"You can talk all you want about the thrill and excitement of David vs. Goliath," said Blake Ress, an assistant commissioner with the Indiana High School Athletic Association. "The fact is, Goliath wins 99 times out of 100."

"Society today emphasizes that kids compete on a level playing field, and everybody feel good about the competition," said Mr. Whitehead, who chaired the association committee that recommended class play.

Officials at some small-town schools that have tasted victory in football, which the state divides into five classes, also are pushing for the change.

The Rochester High School community swelled with pride at the school's 1987 football championship, said Mark Miller, the athletic director and football coach at the 540-student school. The school competed in 2A football under a setup that goes from single A for the smallest schools to 5A for the biggest. But when the basketball team goes up against much larger schools in tournament games in nearby Warsaw, only about 200 tickets are sold locally.

"People don't want to go over there and watch us lose 29 times in 30 years," Mr. Miller said.

Critics of the proposed change argue that it sends a message to athletes that winning is more important than the competition itself.

Bobby Plump, who sank the winning shot in the Milan Miracle, has formed a group called Friends of Hoosier Hysteria. He called for a referendum on the issue before the legislature adjourned recently.

The proposal reflects "the ambition of certain self-interested coaches and administrators whose careers may be enhanced by adding additional 'championships' to round out a resume," writes Indianapolis lawyer Stephen E. Williams in the Indiana Policy Review, a magazine published by a conservative Indiana think tank.

Athletic officials supporting the change argue, however, that it would be good for the athletes.

"Public opinion is probably against us," Mr. Miller said, "but public opinion at one time was also against the automobile."

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