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Hoosier pleasure – basketball glory days remembered

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For more on Indiana athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Motter last surviving player of first IU title team

Friday, January 25, 2013 - 7:12 am

BLOOMINGTON –- On this night, Tom Motter drives the 180 or so miles from Fort Wayne for the pleasure of watching the Indiana Hoosiers, and if pleasure brings a rare home defeat, he's fine with that.

Well, sort of.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

Motter believes in these Hoosiers because he knows, as well as anyone, what a Cream 'n Crimson national champion looks like.

He played on one, you see.

“Oh, yes,” he says with a smile when asked if Indiana can win a national title. “They have great players. They have a good coach. They have a fabulous record of scoring and winning.”

Motter relaxes in the Assembly Hall media room about 90 minutes before then No. 2 Indiana faces Wisconsin in an early Big Ten showdown. Two of his sons, Barry and Mike, have driven him here and the anticipation is palpable. He is the last surviving member of IU's 1940 national title team and memories flow like water.

Take for instance Marv Huffman, the 1940 team captain and All-America who was a physical force of nature few wanted to challenge –- starting with his teammates.

“He was a nice man,” Motter says, “but he was a big, powerful guy -– about 6-3 and 240. One night we scrimmaged and I took a rebound in the air. Huffman threw me to the floor. He was so big and strong. Coach stopped the scrimmage right there.”

That coach was Everett Dean, who recruited Motter from Fort Wayne Central High School in 1937. Dean left after Motter's freshman year to take over the Stanford program. Branch McCracken, a former IU All-American player who had been coaching Ball State, replaced him.

“Everett Dean was a wonderful man,” Motter says. “When he left to go to California, he invited me to play for him there. I turned it down. I said, if I'm going to live in Indiana (after college), I ought to play and make my record in Indiana.

“Branch McCracken was demanding. He ran us all the time.”

McCracken has been gone for nearly 50 years. Stars such as Huffman, Herman Schaefer, Bill and Bob Menke, Jay McCreary, Paul (Curly) Armstrong and Bob Dro have all passed.

Motter is 95 and looks 70. Gray hair is shielded by an IU cap. He wears an IU shirt, khaki pants and an easy smile.

When it comes to basketball, he has much to smile about. It has been the foundation of his long, successful life.

“For my last six to seven years,” he says, “I never played on a team that lost more than three games a year.”

That, too, is getting ahead of ourselves.

'Firewagon style' prevails

For a moment, time flashes back to late March of 1940. Upstart Indiana and its Hurryin' Hoosier style (the reason for all the McCracken-mandated running) is set to play powerhouse Kansas in Kansas City, Mo. Coach Phog Allen of the favored Jayhawks is on the radio talking about the game.

“He said, 'Let's see if these boys from Indiana can play basketball,” Motter says with a smile.

This was just the second year of the NCAA tourney in an era when the NIT was the more prestigious event. Kansas had upset No. 1 USC in the national semifinals. The Jayhawks were described as a “horse and buggy team” to IU's “firewagon style.”

Motter was a junior reserve in 1940. He was good enough to make the 12-man travel team (IU had 33 players on the roster), although for reasons that are lost in the mists of time, he did not make the title game trip, is not in the media guide team picture (taken in Kansas City) or mentioned in its cutline, although he is listed among the all-time letter-winners with a scoring average of 1.1 points in 29 career games from 1939-41.

“When (McCracken) felt ready to use me,” he says, “he'd put me in the game.”

Motter was not there when the Hoosiers steam rolled Kansas 60-42 to follow up decisive victories over Springfield (48-24) and Duquesne (39-30) in the Eastern Regional at Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse that got them to the championship game.

But he remembers the celebration.

“We had a big parade in Bloomington,” he says.

It was a year for parades given the Hoosiers finished 20-3, the losses coming 46-44 at Minnesota, 40-36 at Northwestern and 44-26 at Ohio State.

This was an era when boundary nets surrounded courts to protect players from falling into the crowd that pressed close (often while smoking) to the action, and when solid backboards had lights on top that glowed for every made basket to let fans seated behind the baskets know that someone had scored.

McCracken was an innovator who, much like current coach Tom Crean, preferred his basketball fast. He couldn't stand two-hand set shots, and had his players work on nothing but jumpers, which then were called, “one-handed shots.” He demanded his players run at every opportunity and trained them accordingly.

“We were in condition all the time,” Motter says. “We scrimmaged and ran. We'd run outside. We're run around the track in the gym.”

Motter also had a part-time job as a secretary for McCracken and, occasionally, for other IU coaches. He became the president of the SAE Fraternity.

Of course he has stories. One stands out -- a snapshot example of life as a college athlete during the Wizard of Oz era before the world exploded into war.

Motter and Armstrong were roommates who had a chance to make some late November money before the basketball season began. Motter called it “a popcorn scholarship.” Their job -– make popcorn for the IU-Purdue football game.

“We popped corn for three straight nights so we'd have a lot to sell,” Motter says. “We probably made 2,000 bags. But the day of the game, it got to be like 10 below zero and nobody bought any popcorn.

“That was the end of our business.”

Winning tradition

Motter was one of seven children and the only one who went to college. His parents divorced when he was a boy and his mother worked hard to provide enough for the family.

The Motter family was full of athletes. One sister, Betty, was considered the greatest female athlete in school history. An older brother, Parker, was a four-time Fort Wayne city golf champ.

Tom was the starting center (averaging about 10 points a game) for Central teams that reached the state finals in 1936 and '37 under coach Murray Mendenhall. Schaefer and Armstrong also were on those teams, also were recruited by Dean to Indiana, and became crucial contributors to that 1940 championship. In the title game Schaefer had nine points and Armstrong had 10.

IU, by the way, made the NCAA tourney that season even though it finished second to Purdue in the Big Ten race. But the Hoosiers had a better overall record (17-3 to 16-4) and had beaten the Boilers twice. A selection committee picked them to go.

Now teams make millions by participating in the NCAA tourney. Back then Indiana lost $133 because of the expense of traveling to Kansas City.

After graduating from IU in the spring of 1941, Motter, Schaefer and Armstrong went on a barnstorming tour around the state, winning games and earning money. Motter was hired by General Motors, then joined the army as an officer during World War II (early on he played ball as a player/coach in a military tournament in Fort Sill, Oklahoma). He served in the Philippines and in the Pacific Ocean area. He rose to the rank of major.

Motter left the army after the war, and eventually became a salesman for Wyandotte Chemical. He did well with his northeast Indiana territory, peaking during the early 1960s.

“Much to my surprise, I became the top salesman in the world for them,” he says with a smile. He retired in 1981.

Also after the war he met a cute blonde in Fort Wayne, Ruth McCoy, the sister of Don McCoy, who grew up idolizing Motter for his success at Central and IU. Tom and Ruth eventually married. Their union lasted 60 years before she passed four years ago and produced six children -– twins Barry and Brian, Tom Jr., Jim, Mike and Paula.

Indiana, meanwhile, would go on to win four more national championships –- 1953 under McCracken, and 1976, '81 and '87 under Bob Knight. But that first title team wasn't forgotten and during Indianapolis Final Fours in 1980 and 1991, Motter and surviving teammates were honored and, in 1981, received Sagamore of the Wabash awards for their accomplishment.

Motter still attends as many IU games as he can, and on this night, he sits in the bleachers behind the basket in front of the Hoosier bench. It is a simple pleasure and when you're 95 years old, those are precious. No matter that Wisconsin rides a strong second half to pull off the upset. He recognizes Cream 'n Crimson potential.

“They are,” he says, “a good team.”

Tom Motter knows one when he sees one.