In May of 2012, fresh off his first national title and facing no small amount of anger over the dissolution of the Indiana-Kentucky series, John Calipari took to his personal website to announce not only his scheduling plans but the realpolitik underpinning them.
The IU-UK series, a hated border rivalry waged for much of the past century on both campuses and neutral courts, was dying. Indiana wanted to play on campus; Kentucky wanted to play on neutral floors. In his blog post, Calipari indirectly explained why: "When we schedule, I want to create experiences," he wrote. "Not just games."
Coach Cal went on to describe the various steps his Wildcats would take to do just that: This season's men's/women's Cowboys Stadium doubleheader vs. Baylor; negotiations for a traveling annual series against Duke; a preference for the higher-profile North Carolina series over the obvious border rivalry. Convincing and well-argued though it was, plenty of folks bristled at the strategy. For fans, at least, when the choice is between awesome, organic home environments and sterilized NFL-owned football stadiums, well, is there really a choice at all? Can we at least nod at the former before subsuming it into the latter? Like it or not, Calipari, per the usual, seemed to be on the vanguard of a new, ever more brand-obsessed reality. "Events" were paramount, and if another program -- even a program like Indiana -- didn't want to get on board, well, too bad. Kentucky, like Duke, could schedule who it wanted, when it wanted.
All of which is a preamble to this: On Monday, Purdue's athletics website announced that the Crossroads Classic -- an annual nonconference meeting of Indiana, Butler, Purdue and Notre Dame in Indianapolis -- would continue (at least) through 2016:
The highly successful Crossroads Classic will continue through 2016, the athletics directors at the four participating schools announced today. One of college basketball's premier non-conference events will continue to be played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The additional dates and matchups are Dec. 19, 2015 (Purdue vs. Butler and Notre Dame vs. Indiana) and Dec. 17, 2016 (Purdue vs. Notre Dame and Butler vs. Indiana). Purdue will serve as the host school in 2015, with Indiana doing so in 2016.
Usually, a reporter's first reaction to a press release that leads with "The highly successful ..." is an unmitigated eye roll. In this case, that would be incorrect.
By any measure, the Crossroads Classic -- announced in 2010 by the athletic directors of the four participating schools, and first renewed in May 2012 -- has indeed been highly successful. Almost 19,000 fans comprising all four schools have packed Bankers Life Fieldhouse in each of the first two events. Administrators and program staffers have publicly and privately raved about the ease of behind-the-scenes negotiations and logistics. Unlike most nonconference events, no third party organization is in charge of hosting the event; the four schools teamed up to handle the logistics -- and rake their respectively tidy paydays -- themselves. (Coincidentally, tournament coordination by these four natural rivals was eased by casual circumstance: Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke and Indiana AD Fred Glass both grew up in the same Northwest Indianapolis neighborhood, and both attended Brebeuf Jesuit prep school, and Glass and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick once worked together as attorneys at Indy law firm Baker & Daniels.) Oh, and the basketball was good, too -- particularly in the 2012 edition, when Butler walk-on Alex Barlow sank then-No. 1 Indiana in overtime.
More than anything, though, the Crossroads Classic is a promising way forward. Make no mistake about it: It is a capital-E Event. But unlike many such events, it has genuine roots beyond your cable box (the old Hoosier Classic ran from 1948 to 1951 and 1957 to 1960) and is waged in a genuine basketball arena, not a cavernous football edifice. It draws on what defines the state's relationship with basketball -- communal obsession, the sporting event as a public gathering, hoops memories as cultural shorthand -- and updates it with a modern sheen. When Indiana fans show up on the Jumbotron, everyone else boos. It is the perfect blend of the modern form with the generational investment that makes college basketball so great in the first place.
There's nothing wrong with events in and of themselves, obviously. (I bet that Kentucky-Baylor game is going to be really fun.) But if events are where the sport's elite are indeed going, let's hope the Crossroads Classic truly is a replicable model for the future -- something that provides brand equity, sure, but also something with stakes beyond "gee, that stadium sure is big!"
Losing rivalries and classic home gyms in November and December isn't preferable, but if the brave new "Classic" future is inevitable, perhaps our best hope is that it winds up more Crossroads than Carrier.