Why Hinkle Fieldhouse Was Made for March

When the barely completed Butler Fieldhouse doors swung open on March 7, 1928, it was a bold declaration that the game of basketball mattered, and that it mattered in Indiana more than anywhere else. Six stories high and more than 2 acres under roof, the fieldhouse was designed to hold nearly 15,000 basketball crazed fans. It was the largest basketball arena in America—and it would stay that way for another 20 years. But why would Butler University need a mammoth venue when the student body totaled around 1,200? Two words: Hoosier Hysteria.

The proposed Butler Fieldhouse would be the home of the Butler Bulldogs when the University moved onto its fledging Fairview campus in 1928. But the massive brick and limestone trimmed structure only took shape when the Indiana High School Athletic Association made a bold commitment to the game of “Basket Ball”. A 10 year lease agreement totaling $150,000 with the Fieldhouse owners, gave them the rights to stage the Boy’s State Championship at the proposed arena. It’s popularity skyrocketing, the game had already laid claim to the hearts of Hoosiers and provided a welcome diversion from Midwest winters. The Exposition Building at the State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis could no longer hold the throngs demanding tickets to the title games. It was clearly time to grow the game and give both fans and players from Evansville to Elkhart and all stops between—a place, a palace—serving notice that basketball was our game. It was not only how we survived our dreary winters, it was the hope of who we could become—a champion in March. The season served as a parable illustrating that determination, teamwork, and communities woven tightly together like the laces on early basketballs could achieve greatness. Although the new Fieldhouse was Butler’s own, in March it would belong to all Hoosiers dreaming that their team, and by extension themselves, could raise a championship trophy under its soaring arched roofline.

In addition to showcasing Butler athletics, the Fieldhouse was also intended to be a gathering place for Indianapolis community events. To that end, 41 Indianapolis businessmen, many with no strong ties to Butler, formed a corporation. They pooled their funds and covered the construction costs—nearly $800,000–and ground was broken in October of 1927. Per the contract with the IHSAA, the 1928 state finals were set for March 16 & 17 when 16 teams would descend on the newly minted fieldhouse. But before then, the Butler Bulldogs would christen their impressive arena with an inaugural game against Notre Dame on March 7. The Bulldogs, who would claim their second national championship (Veteran Athletes of Philadelphia) the following season, defeated Notre Dame 21-13 in an overtime barnburner before 12,000 fans. Just 19 days later the State Finals were staged over two days, with eventual winner Muncie downing the reigning champions Martinsville and their senior star John Wooden, 13-12.

So began the fabled partnership between now-Hinkle Fieldhouse and the game that defines Indiana as no other sport can. The game that even its inventor, Dr. James Naismith stated, ”had its beginning in Indiana” when visiting Indianapolis in March of 1936. Soon, 94 Marches will have passed since those 12,000 Hoosiers streamed into the Fieldhouse to watch Tony Hinkle’s Bulldogs take on Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish. But those magical moments of captivating drama played out on 49th Street over time live on in our Hoosier hearts. As each season reaches its frenzied madness we are reminded that Hinkle Fieldhouse was, literally, made for March.

NOTE: More March lore was added when Hinkle Fieldhouse hosted 16 games in the first and second rounds of the 2021 NCAA Championship. Both the national champs Baylor and runnerup Gonzaga advanced to the Elite Eight from rounds at Hinkle Fieldhouse. It was the first time NCAA games had been played at the Fieldhouse since 1940 when East Regionals of the first NCAA sponsored national tournament took place here.

When Religion Defeated Indiana’s Worship of Basketball

During March in Indiana, basketball is King. Hoosier Hysteria and March Madness both take center court and few Hoosiers are immune from it’s influence—this year being an obvious exception. But in 1940, for the first time since the inaugural state tournament in 1911, high school basketball took a backseat to another March tradition that year—Easter.

In November of 1939, the state’s collection of ministers and religious bodies took a look at the 1940 March calendar and noticed Holy Week and Easter would fall smack dab during the state finals at Butler Fieldhouse scheduled for March 23. A letter writing campaign from all corners of the state began in earnest to dissuade the IHSAA from holding the games that weekend. The Church Federation of Indianapolis implored the IHSAA and it’s commissioner, Arthur Trester, with this plea:

“We recognize basketball as a fine, clean sport, and are proud of the distinction it has brought to the field of Indiana sports, and the games played at any other time should have statewide support. But if the date for the finals is to be the day preceding Easter, thousands of basketball fans will feel that they must forego the pleasure of seeing them.

Furthermore, it must be evident that the celebration attending the results of the game will inevitably conflict with preparation for Easter services of worship, “ the letter continued.

The IHSAA Board of Control was in a bit of a pickle. Extend the tournament schedule by a week (making it 5 weeks long) with a gap from March 16 until the 30th, or risk the wrath of the state’s clergy. A member of the Board revealed to the Indianapolis Star some internal strife over the decision.

“We thrashed that thing out for three hours last Saturday and still did not reach a decision. We will need to see what arrangements can be made with Butler University….we will get cussed by four sides—the church faction, the school faction, the players and the spectator faction. It is one of those from the frying-pan-into-the-fire things.”

In the end it probably wasn’t that divisive of a decision. As the ministers had strongly hinted at, an Easter weekend Final would no doubt cut into attendance and resulting hoopla of the state’s premiere basketball gathering—and the lucrative money that accompanied it. They announced on November 18 that sectional play would begin February 29 and conclude with the Finals on March 30–taking the Easter weekend of the 23rd off.

The state’s men of the cloth lauded the decision, including Bishop Titus Lowe of the Methodist Church, telling the Indianapolis Star:

”I am highly gratified that the board has changed the date. Many of our people are basketball fans and this change will make it better for all concerned.”

Adding to more Indiana basketball lore, pushing the state final back freed up Butler Fieldhouse (now Hinkle Fieldhouse) for another historic event—the 1940 NCAA East Regional games. In it’s first year under the NCAA’s guidance, the National Tournament kicked off in both Indianapolis and Kansas City, Mo. on March 22 with games also played on the 23rd. Tony Hinkle, Butler University’s coach, was appointed to the NCAA selection committee and asked to manage the Regional games at Butler. Indiana University, along with Duquesne, Springfield College and Western Teachers State of Kentucky competed—with IU advancing to the Final game in Kansas City. There, they won their first National Title, beating Kansas on March 30.

Interestingly, the same ministerial groups gave just lukewarm resistance to the NCAA games being played over Easter weekend. After a minor protest to the tournament chairman, Harold Olsen, coach of Ohio State, they retreated. Some of their reservations, quelled no doubt by Tony Hinkle, who told the Indianapolis Star he assured them that the college event “would be free of the usual high school hysteria“ which marks competition for the IHSAA title.

The evening of March 30, 1940, over 14,883 Hoosiers gathered at Butler Fieldhouse to watch Hammond Tech win their first Indiana High School Basketball Championship, defeating Mitchell High School, 33-21. Some likely sporting new Easter garb from the previous week’s services.

And while Hammond Tech was the only team to take home the state crown that year, it was a win for all Hoosiers. High School basketball went on—with a small delay, Easter had no competition for attention, and NCAA tournament games were played for the first time here.

Some say Basketball is a religion in this state, but in March of 1940, it was a runner up to, well, Religion. In the end, Hoosier Hysteria was preserved and March Madness crept into our hearts that year. How fitting the games were played at Hinkle Fieldhouse—Indiana’s Basketball Cathedral.

Tipping Off March Madness: Tony Hinkle, Butler Fieldhouse, and the 1940 NCAA Tournament

Note: Nearly a year ago when this story appeared, no one could have envisioned Hinkle Fieldhouse would once again play host to March Madness after 81 years.

By 1940, Hoosier Hysteria had a stronghold on the hearts of the state’s crazed basketball fans, but a new March madness was getting started and Butler University found itself right in the middle of it. On the fourth weekend of March that year, the first NCAA organized national basketball tournament kicked off with opening rounds in Indianapolis (East Region) and Kansas City, MO (West Region). The East regional games, held at then Butler Fieldhouse, featured Springfield College, Duquesne, Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now Western Kentucky) and—as many Hoosiers should know—Indiana University.

The previous year the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), with permission from the NCAA, held a national tournament and crowned Oregon their first champion. Unfortunately, the venture lost money and the NCAA stepped in, in part to better supervise and also to ensure future national championship tournaments “not be in the hands of any outside promoters”. It was a barb aimed squarely at the recently created (1938) National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The NIT had captured college basketball fans’ fancy and proved lucrative—but was organized by an association of NYC sportswriters and Ned Irish (later a founder of the NY Knicks), who at the time promoted basketball at Madison Square Garden where the games were held.

To begin organizing a national college tournament, the NCAA named Butler University’s Tony Hinkle, along with Marquette’s Bill Chandler and George Keogan of Notre Dame to the selection committee for the East Region. A similar committee in Kansas City selected four teams from west of the Mississippi River.

Two teams, Western State Teachers and Indiana University both accepted by March 8, but the home state’s school had done so with a bit of controversy. That year Purdue had earned the Big 10 conference crown, but IU had beaten Purdue twice that season and had gone undefeated in non conference games—including a win over Duquesne who IU would soon face again. The selection committee offered the spot to Indiana on March 6, and later that day the IU Athletics board made the decision to accept. The story gets a bit murky though, as an alternate version contends Purdue’s Coach Piggy Lambert turned down the opportunity first—feeling that IU was the better representative of the conference. It’s also suggested that Lambert wasn’t certain he could get the University to support the costs to send the team off to play more games combined with the resulting loss of class time. Wisely, the selection committee made no public comment on the matter. Shortly after, both Duquesne (who would finish as NIT runner up to Colorado on March 15) and Springfield College accepted invitations and the field was set.

The local organizing committee, headed by Hinkle, went to work producing tickets, drumming up publicity, arranging for team logistics and preparing Butler Fieldhouse to welcome throngs of basketball fans–no doubt with fingers crossed for a large contingent from the Hoosier state to swell attendance. That Butler Fieldhouse even had an opening the weekend of what normally would be the IHSAA’s Boys basketball Finals was a stroke of luck…and a story worthy of its own telling. (See other blog post.)

Pulling off a well run event was crucial for Tony Hinkle. Hinkle had the respect of his peers—he had just completed a term on the NABC rules committee—yet his humble demeanor belied a competitive nature. In his role as Butler’s coach and Athletic Director, he had a vision to promote his city, university and his gem of an arena—Butler Fieldhouse—still then the largest basketball venue in the country. Hinkle wanted to use the 1940 East Regional to showcase Indianapolis and the Fieldhouse in an effort to lure the ’41 NCAA finals along with the NABC convention which took place alongside it.

Reviews following the regional games indicate the NCAA was pleased with Hinkle and the local organizing committee’s efforts, especially in light of the previous year’s financial loss. While the 1939 tournament set back the NABC $2,500, the East regional at Butler alone netted $1,200–tickets being priced at 65 cents and $1.10. Harold Olsen, Ohio State’s coach—tagged to chair the tournament—acknowledged some disappointment in attendance (reportedly 11,000 over 3 games) but told the Indianapolis Star:

“Indianapolis deserves to be congratulated for the enthusiasm with which it welcomed the tourney,” he declared, “and I am sure that the Butler Fieldhouse will be given serious consideration when the NCAA selects the site of the national championship game next year—especially if Indiana or Purdue should be among the contenders.”

But it was not meant to be. Kansas City hosted the next two NCAA Finals—no doubt due in part to the influence of Naismith protégé, Dr. Forrest “Phog” Allen of Kansas, and his very successful promotion of the 1940 Championship game in his own backyard.

Thirty-nine years would pass before another Regional game would be played in Indianapolis and 40 years before Tony Hinkle’s dream of a NCAA Finals in the Hoosier capitol would come true. While not played at the Fieldhouse named in his honor, the host school for both the 1979 Midwest Regional and the 1980 Final Four was Tony Hinkle’s own beloved Butler University.