His connection to 1996 lingers.
“Yeah, I still, occasionally, get asked about it,” Bob Gardner said in a telephone interview last week.
Today, Gardner serves as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which is based in Indianapolis. In ’96, he sat in the hottest seat in the Hoosier state outside of the governor’s chair, as commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. Gardner led the IHSAA through its most controversial decision — the shift from Indiana’s unique, single-class basketball tournament to a four-class system.
On April 29, 1996, the IHSAA board of directors voted 12-5 to begin multi-class state tournaments for basketball and other team sports in the 1997-98 school year. An 86-year-old tradition ended. The following morning, the Chicago Tribune headline read, “Hoosier Hysteria Gets Ax.”
Gardner presided over the change, and absorbed much blame for it. Yet, he didn’t cause it.
As he explained to the Tribune-Star a week before the historic vote, principals from member schools began pushing for class tournaments in 1993. That year, a “class sports study committee” started weighing the pros and cons. By autumn 1995, following an IHSAA principals meeting, a recommendation for four-class state tourneys was on the table. The board of directors put the issue on their April meeting agenda. The controversy grew in the intervening months. Gardner heard lots of opinions, and received lots of mail.
“Basically, when most people refer to the issue, they think the IHSAA is promoting this,” Gardner said in an April 21, 1996, Tribune-Star story. “They don’t stop to think that we’re a group of member schools. This issue came up back in 1993 because member schools’ principals brought it forward. The [IHSAA] staff didn’t say, ‘This is what [we] need to do.’”
Gardner’s characterization of the situation was proven that September. After the April vote, traditionalists fighting to keep the single-class tourney gathered enough signatures on a petition to force a never-before-used statewide referendum of principals at every IHSAA member school. Despite their efforts, that vote only reaffirmed the earlier decision, by a solid 220 to 157 margin.
Looking back 16 years later, Gardner said, “I’m comfortable with my role” in that landmark process.
“I did what I thought was best,” added Gardner, who moved from the IHSAA to the NFSHA in 2000.
Indiana conducted its first four-class basketball tournament in 1998. It’s been that way ever since.
Opposition to that system flared up this year. A few state legislators tried to force the IHSAA to return to a single-class tournament, but a compromise — something rare in Indiana politics these days — resulted in a series of 11 town hall meetings on the topic around the state. At one of those sessions last month at Connersville, state Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, told the audience, according to the Indianapolis Star, “The time is right for public feedback. We didn’t have that [in 1996].”
Gardner recalls plenty of public debate throughout that year.
“I just don’t agree with [the senator’s assertion] at all,” he said. “Through various and sundry levels of communications — and, certainly the media was a huge part of that — everybody had an opportunity to be heard.”
Though Gardner still believes the shift to multi-class tournaments was proper, he acknowledges the shortcomings.
Attendance at last season’s four-class tournament — from sectionals through the state final — hit an all-time low of 385,024. Tourney turnout has dropped 50 percent since 1997, according to the Star.
“That certainly has been greater than anybody anticipated it would be,” Gardner conceded.
The casual fan has been lost. People with no children in school and no relatives playing on the teams buy fewer tickets than in the single-class days.
Nonetheless, the decline in state tournament attendance began in 1964, the Star story points out.
Other factors, beyond the multi-class format, have also contributed to the sparser crowds, Gardner said. The March high school tournament now competes for attention with the massively popular NCAA “Big Dance,” which routinely includes Indiana colleges, and Final Fours and regionals played in Indianapolis venues. More families leave the state for spring break in March, Gardner said. Other prep sports have grown, too, he added.
One misstep, Gardner said, involved keeping the Hoosier Dome (later the RCA Dome) as the IHSAA state finals site from 1990 to 1999.
“I’ve often said, in hindsight, probably the worst thing that we did was to stay in the Dome too long,” he said.
The fascination surrounding Indiana University recruit Damon Bailey and his Bedford North Lawrence teammates led the IHSAA to move its state finals from Market Square Arena (17,490 capacity) to the vast Hoosier Dome in 1990. Bailey and the Stars delivered, winning the championship game over Concord 63-60, with a national record attendance of 41,046 fans. For the first time ever, 15,000 tickets were available to the general public. They sold out.
“Up to that point in time, the demand exceeded the supply,” Gardner said. So why not move to the Dome?
In following years, though, demand was not so intense. The tradition of fans of the state finals teams lining up at midweek to secure tickets through their school faded, because plenty would be on sale on the day of the game in the Hoosier Dome. “There was an immediate drop in attendance,” Gardner recalled, “and that continued to decline.”
Despite that slide, other states still envy the drawing power of Indiana’s four-class tournament.
“Attendance remains strong for high school sports around the country,” Gardner said, “and when we [at the National Federation of State High School Associations] mention Indiana, other states say, ‘What are they talking about [referring to low attendance]? We’d trade places with them anytime.” Outsiders also marvel at the fact that every Indiana school plays in the tournament, he added, because in some states, teams must qualify to make the field. Hoosier Hysteria still exists, Gardner contended, pointing to Edinburgh’s first semistate appearance since 1951 in this year’s Class A tourney.
Much of America knows Indiana high school basketball through the movie “Hoosiers.” The film parallels the real-life story of the Milan Indians, the small-town team that won it all in 1954. That amazing saga was never repeated before Indiana dropped its single-class tourney in 1997. The little guys won sectionals (once a cherished accomplishment in Hoosier hoops), regionals and a few semistates, but never the grand prize.
Since 1998, small schools have crowned their own state champs every year, along with classes 2A, 3A and 4A. Gardner, who once coached and taught at Milan, sees positives in that format. While mystique and the casual fan have been lost with the end of the single-class system, Gardner believes the chance for more kids to experience long runs in multi-class tournaments outweighs those sacrifices.
“Having that opportunity, and having that [extended] competition, better serves the student athlete,” he said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.