Had ‘em all the way.
Thirty-five years later, that’s what members of the Vincennes Lincoln basketball team will tell you, and for the most part it’s the truth.
When it was all said and done on the night of March 21, 1981, the scoreboard hanging above Market Square Arena in Indianapolis read: Vincennes 54, Anderson 52.
In winning Lincoln’s second Indiana High School Athletic Association state championship — and first since 1923 — the Alices never trailed. They were ahead by a dozen at halftime, and although the fabled Indians cut the lead to a single digit midway through the final quarter, Lincoln was not to be overtaken on the way to finishing with a record of 26-2.
Those Alices of ‘81 are old enough to be grandfathers now, and the building in which they achieved their crowning glory was long ago demolished. But the memories from that night, and that season, will live on forever.
“The best feeling came when there were only two or three seconds left in the game and we were ahead,” said Roger Benson, an assistant coach on that team. “And I knew there was no way we could lose.”
Storylines abound when it comes to the 1981 champions, but most lead back to their coach, an all-time legend named Orlando Wyman, better known as “Gunner.”
A Marine Corps veteran who’d served during World War II before playing basketball at Florida State, Wyman had on three previous occasions taken teams to Indianapolis for the finals, only to fail to reach the championship game each time.
The 55-year-old Gunner went out on top, though. Although he’d continue to teach at the high school for nearly a decade, the 1981 championship game was his last on the sidelines. His career record was 526 wins and 216 losses.
It’s hard to believe now, but Wyman, who’d come to Vincennes in the fall of 1967, almost didn’t get the chance to guide the Alices of ‘81. Lincoln had failed to win sectional championships in 1976 and 1977, then finished 7-17 in 1978 and 14-9 in 1979.
Some said the coach had lost his edge. The situation became so serious that a petition was circulated, seeking his dismissal.
One day in late March 1979, Wyman addressed the issue with a group of players who’d just finished their sophomore season.
In an intense, emotional meeting in his office, Wyman cut right to the chase.
“He pretty much laid it on the line,” says Doug Crook, star of the ‘81 bunch who now owns a couple of Italian restaurants in Indianapolis. “He said he’d like to stay and see us through and do his best job to help us achieve the ultimate goal. But if we wanted him to, he’d step down and go his own way.”
It was a lot to process for young men who were 15 and 16 years old, but the players had a quick answer.
“To a man, we told him we wanted him to stay,” said Randy Combs, a senior with the ‘81 champs who would later spend 14 years as head coach at Milan.
Once Gunner had his answer, he shooed the players out the door, because he didn’t want them to see him cry. He fought for his job, and the rest is history.
“That was a big moment,” Combs said. “I think that was the moment that he became fully committed, as did we.”
The Alices finished 16-7 in 1980, and lost by a point to Evansville North in the afternoon game at the regional.
By then everyone knew that 1981 would be the year.
Lincoln started the season by winning its first 15 games, and ascended to No. 2 in the state rankings.
The eighth of those 15 straight victories came on Jan. 3, 1981, a Saturday night, in front of a packed house at Adams Coliseum. The opposition was No. 6 Indianapolis Washington, which scored on a dunk off the opening tip.
The Alices recovered, and went on to win, 66-59.
“I think that’s probably the game that sold us in our minds,” said Crook, who scored 30 points that night. “I think that’s when we realized that maybe we could do something special.”
There were two hiccups along the way. They came back-to-back in losses to Terre Haute South and Barr-Reeve.
With the regular season winding down, Wyman inserted junior Tim Vieke into the starting lineup, in place of Jeff Agee. Robin Talbott, a sophomore, also started to play more.
The Alices won their final three games of the regular season to finish 18-2, then embarked on the memorable post-season run. Starting with the sectional, and concluding with the 72-53 trouncing of Shenandoah in the afternoon game at the state finals, the team won seven straight tournament games by seven points or more.
There was only one more game to go, against Anderson, for the state championship.
With idle time between sessions, legend has it that Wyman — who died in 2008 — encountered some Anderson fans who were wondering just what an Alice was.
“It’s anything you want it to be,” said Wyman, born in Tennessee, raised in Kentucky and a Hoosier legend. “But I’ll tell you what it’s going to be tonight. An Alice is something that’s going to beat Anderson’s ass.”
Vieke remembers taking the floor that night, and noticed that Market Square Arena was jam-packed.
“I took a look at the crowd,” he said. “But after that I was only concentrating on the game. I’ll give credit to Coach Wyman for that. He kept us focused, taking care of business. After that I didn’t even notice the crowd. We were focused on playing a basketball game.”
Things went the Alices’ way early. Anderson made its run late in the third period, and early in the fourth. But it could never gain the lead.
“I remember getting tired, really, really tired,” said Crook, who led the team with 25 points that night. “We were playing our second game that day. Anderson had tremendous quickness and some great athletes. I was like ‘Let’s get this thing over with so we can enjoy it.’”
The Alices held on; they celebrated. And then there was a cherry on top.
Karl Donovan, a senior starter, was named as the Arthur L. Trester Award winner for mental attitude and was paraded around the floor on the shoulders of his jubilant teammates. He was just following in the footsteps of Reese Jones, an Alice who won the mental attitude award in 1922.
Now in maintenance at Good Samaritan Hospital, Donovan says he has a lot of special memories from the season, but winning the Trester Award isn’t one of them.
“I was lucky enough to play on a team with a bunch of nice guys, and a bunch of talented guys,” he said. “It’s always nice to win. Winning beats losing every time.”
The Trester wasn’t a big deal.
“Winning the state championship, that was No. 1,” he said.
Perhaps more than his teammates, Donovan has put the season in the past.
He has two daughters, Alli, a freshman at IUPUI and Jessi, a junior at Lincoln who swam on a relay team at the state swimming finals last month.
“You get beyond that and life goes on,” he said. “That was important then. Now, the kids are the big deal.”
One of the ‘81 Alices, center Courtney Witte, has made basketball his life’s work. After playing at Vincennes University and then Indiana University for Bob Knight, Witte broke into professional basketball management and worked his way up. He’s now director of scouting for the Phoenix Suns.
Nothing he’s seen or done compares with what happened 35 years ago.
“During that time frame of three months starting in March of 1981, coming back into Vincennes atop of fire trucks to the coliseum in front of thousands of cheering people lining Sixth Street as what seemed like the entire city and county was there, was a truly a special time. People ‘til this day remember.”
By Bill Richardson