Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories revisiting the biggest what-ifs in IU history.
The 16th-leading scorer of all-time in NCAA men’s basketball history scored 2,850 points in just three seasons — an incredible 30.3 career scoring average — after enrolling at Indiana University in the fall of 1974.
He scored zero points while wearing cream and crimson, however.
Larry Bird left IU in mid-September of his freshman year, citing too heavy of a course load and his desire to be closer to home. One newspaper in Indiana vaguely described the reason as “personal dissatisfaction.” He then enrolled at Northwood Institute, a two-year school with roughly 200 students in West Baden, Indiana, near his hometown of French Lick.
Bird was immediately eligible.
(If you’re looking for a new throwback jersey to wear at darties whenever all this is over, get your hands on a Larry Bird Northwood jersey.)
“We did a great deal of checking before he made his decision and the college allowed him to enroll,” Northwood’s academic dean Jim McElhiney told The Indianapolis News in September 1974. “There is no question about his eligibility.”
Larry Bledsoe, the school’s basketball coach, remarked how he was extremely pleased to get a player of Bird’s caliber, according to the Mitchell Tribune. No shit! There are lecture halls in Ballentine Hall that are bigger than Northwood’s entire student body at the time, and the school briefly landed one of the 20 greatest scorers in college basketball history.
Neither Bird’s hometown of French Lick nor West Baden had a daily newspaper at the time, nor was either home to a radio or TV station.
That may have been to his detriment when he was a senior in high school. He wasn’t named to the Associated Press’ six-player All-State first team or nine-player second team, despite averaging 30 points and 20 rebounds, once putting up 55 points in a game for Springs Valley High School and 34 rebounds in another.
It may have also hurt him in his transition to a big state school, where he lasted a matter of weeks after the start of the school year.
Coming out of Springs Valley, Bird chose IU over Indiana State and Purdue after being pursued by more than 50 schools, according to The Herald (Jasper, Ind.). At one point, “Kentucky was the first school to do the ‘heavy recruiting,’” according to The Herald’s Jerry Birge. The only thing that would’ve been more painful for some IU fans than briefly landing Bird, only to see him become a folk hero up the road, would have been losing him to Kentucky.
Recently crowned national champion N.C. State also joined the pursuit of Bird in mid-April 1974, right before he was slated to sign his National Letter of Intent with the Hoosiers. The high school senior was drawing interest from top programs across the country, especially after he added six inches and 50 pounds in roughly two years, but he was focused on the in-state schools recruiting him.
Bird chose IU because “he likes coach Bobby Knight, the players, the fans and ‘the way they have things set up there,’” according to The Noblesville Ledger.
But none of those things kept him in Bloomington, as he was gone before homecoming his freshman year.
What if ... Larry Bird hadn’t transferred from IU?
Does the most recognized team in Hoosier history double or even, gasp, triple, its national championship haul with Bird in Bloomington in the mid-to-late ‘70s?
Or does he simply become the most famous figure from the 1976 squad, adding another Indiana-to-NBA success story and making, I don’t know, hand-me-down Larry Bird Sacramento Kings jerseys the most popular commodity at Goodwills in Monroe County in the 1990s and early 2000s?
When Bird enrolled in Bloomington, he joined the reigning Big Ten champions, an IU team that had gone 23-5 and missed the NCAA tournament after a loss to Michigan but won the Collegiate Commissioners Association Tournament to close out its 1973-74 campaign.
The next season, 1974-75, is where two of the greatest What if’s in IU basketball collide: What if Bird had stayed and what if Scott May, the team’s second-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, hadn’t broken his arm against Purdue in late February?
The ‘75 Hoosiers were loaded. Their top eight scorers eventually played in the NBA and they were a 31-1 juggernaut that ran through the Big Ten gauntlet unscathed and suffered their only loss of the season against Kentucky, 92-90, in the regional final.
Even if we don’t rewrite May’s season-ending injury in this post, could Larry Bird have gone from being snubbed by the 15-player AP All-State Team one spring to a March Madness hero the next? While he would’ve competed for playing time with 6-7 forwards Steve Green (16.6 ppg), May (16.3 ppg) and Tom Abernethy to start the year, Bird grew taller than May at 6-9, 220 pounds, making him a viable replacement once May went down with his injury.
Maybe there’s a chance that Bird filling May’s minutes would’ve led to one of the first “Is the backup better than the starter?” conversations, now famous on message boards regarding college quarterbacks.
Bird was 20, 21 and 22 years old when he eventually played college ball for Indiana State. Would an 18-year-old Bird have been ready to take a complementary, if not starring, role as a freshman in the second or third weekend of the NCAA tournament?
If the answer was “yes,” then there’s a chance there would be national championship banners from 1975 and 1976 hanging inside Assembly Hall right now. Maybe Bird would’ve spent the summer of 1975 celebrating the first of back-to-back national titles at IU, rather than playing for Hancock Construction, a state-champion AAU team sponsored by the mayor of Mitchell, Indiana, which was the only team capable of knocking off the mighty Indiana All-Stars in an exhibition.
In 1975, John Wooden’s last season, UCLA won its 10th national championship to cap off an NCAA tournament run in which it needed overtime to beat Michigan in the opening round and Louisville in the Final Four. UCLA beat Montana by just three points in its second tournament game, proving the Bruins were a resilient, but mortal, champion.
An undefeated IU team with a healthy Scott May or Larry Bird, let alone both, would’ve made for a compelling matchup with Wooden’s final UCLA team.
Despite losing leading scorer Steve Green and John Laskowski after the ‘75 season, IU got the band back together in 1976 and finished what the Hoosiers came three wins away from achieving the previous year: an undefeated, national championship season as they became the NCAA’s #1 All-Time March Madness team.
This blog is forever grateful for the meme template that sweet, sweet banner gave us.
Adding Bird to that IU team is almost an embarrassment of riches, giving the sport’s last undefeated champion a player who was named one of the top 15 players ever in the NCAA tournament during the 75 Years of March Madness Celebration in 2013.
Now here’s where things get interesting.
Like many great national championship teams, IU faced a rebuild or a reload or whatever you want to call it the next year. Kent Benson returned for his senior year, as did forward Wayne Radford for his junior season, but gone were May, Abernethy, Quinn Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson and Jim Crews. The Hoosiers went 14-13 in 1977, later having their record adjusted to 16-11 after Minnesota was forced to forfeit two wins. Their 9-9 Big Ten record was bumped to 11-7, making a tough transition year appear a little less harsh in the history books.
The 1977 Hoosiers were led by senior center Benson (19.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and freshman guard Mike Woodson (18.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg), while just up the road, Bird was averaging 32.8 points on 54 percent shooting, along with 13.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.8 steals per night in his first season with Indiana State.
Bird nearly doubled the Sycamores’ win total year-over-year from 13 to 25 after sitting out just one year in 1975-76, rather than two, after IU signed papers for Bird’s release.
IU had three one-possession losses in the 1976-77 season and three defeats by two possessions. With Larry Bird, the ‘77 Hoosiers are probably a 20-win team and closer to their preseason No. 5 ranking than their final record that was just one game above .500, having not cracked the AP poll after December 20.
There’s no guarantee Bird would’ve stuck around for his senior season if he had stayed at IU, but doing so could’ve allowed him to be the featured scorer on the Hoosiers if he wanted a larger share of shots after playing alongside Benson, the No. 1 pick in the 1977 NBA Draft, and Woodson. Twelve of the top 14 picks in that year’s draft were seniors, with the other two non-seniors being juniors Kenny Carr and Bernard King, so staying all four years of college was still very much the norm then.
With Bird in the mix, IU’s 1978 team would’ve been built around him, Woodson and Radford. IU went 21-8 that season, finishing second in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers beat Furman by one in the first round of the NCAA tournament, before losing by one to Villanova.
IU peaked at No. 11 in the AP poll that season and finished the year ranked No. 13, but spent most of the season outside of the AP poll. Wins over No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 7 Michigan State, No. 18 Alabama and No. 19 Minnesota showed the team’s potential.
Add the best version of Larry Bird in college, one capable of averaging roughly 30 and 15 at Indiana State, and the Hoosiers might have had another title contender in 1978 if the “Hick from French Lick” was still in Bloomington.
When Bird maximized his potential at Indiana State in the 1978-79 season, he took a Sycamores team that had a first-year head coach and was picked to finish third or fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference in 1979 and carried it all the way to the national championship game with an undefeated record and the country’s No. 1 ranking.
Could you imagine Bob Knight’s reaction if, just three years after IU became the most recent undefeated national champion, the Hoosiers lost that distinction to an in-state school (and not even Purdue or Notre Dame, but Indiana State) that was led by an outbound IU transfer?
There may not be a folding chair in the state that would be left un-flung.
Indiana State coach Bill Hodges, by the way, wasn’t just in his first year as Indiana State’s head coach. It was his first season ever as a college head coach. His coaching career was shot out of a Larry Bird-sized cannon with the Sycamores going 33-1 and posting a .971 winning percentage in his rookie campaign. In his other eight seasons as a DI head coach, he won just 96 games and compiled a .384 winning percentage.
According to The New York Times, Hodges once said his primary contribution during Indiana State’s national runner-up season was “not messing up Larry Bird.”
Larry Legend dragged a coach to the national championship game who later had a five-win season and a three-win season in something called the Trans America Athletic Conference while coaching Mercer. Imagine what he would’ve done with a Hall-of-Fame head coach and future NBA players as teammates!
Bob Knight’s worst team at IU, by record, was the 1977, post-title team. It was the only time the Hoosiers had a record that was less than five games over .500 under Knight’s watch.
If Larry Bird hasn’t transferred from IU because of whatever propelled him from Bloomington – the school being too big, homesickness, his courseload, Jim Wisman’s wardrobe, whatever – he potentially provides IU an insurance policy to May’s crippling arm injury in 1975, leading to another Final Four berth if not another title; another headliner to IU’s best team ever in 1976; enough singular talent to avoid a post-championship drop-off and Bob Knight’s worst season at IU in 1977; and, likely, turns IU into another national title favorite in 1978.
Maybe the UCLA dynasty, which featured 10 national titles in 12 years under John Wooden, the last coming in 1975, would have passed the torch to a burgeoning era of IU basketball under Bob Knight. The Hoosiers were still very good, winning national titles in 1976 and 1981, and maybe Bird gives the Hoosiers another in 1975 or 1978, making that three ‘chips in a six- or seven-year span.
On a grander scale, however, college basketball may have needed Bird’s run with Indiana State to really make March Madness the spectacle it is today. Let me be clear, college basketball would look and feel the same if Bird never transferred from IU to ISU, but the 1979 national championship game – Bird vs. Magic – is still the highest-rated college basketball game of all-time, with a 24.1 rating for a game in which 38 percent of all TVs in the country that were turned on at the time were tuned into Indiana State vs. Michigan State on NBC.
For reference, the 2019 national championship game drew a 22 percent share.
Maybe in ways that we can’t totally appreciate, measure or describe, the NCAA tournament might just be five percent less today if Bird never winds up in Terre Haute.
It’s also fair to speculate that the south wall of Assembly Hall might be a little more crowded if Larry Bird had never transferred from IU.
Previously in the series: