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Monday, December 19, 2011
Everybody loves the Crossroads Classic

By Eamonn Brennan

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Indiana fans didn't wait to take their seats at the 2011 Close the Gap Crossroads Classic Saturday. Instead, many showed up hours in advance of their beloved Hoosiers' later game versus Notre Dame, happily and not impartially enjoying Butler's late comeback win over rival Purdue at Conseco Fieldhouse Saturday.

Now and again, the Conseco scoreboard camera operator would hone in on one of these Crimson-clad Indiana fans. The fan would be dancing, or playing the imaginary Jumbotron bongos, or whatever, and inevitably -- if that fan or fans were wearing Indiana gear -- Butler, Purdue and the small smattering of Notre Dame fans would join in lusty communal boos.

Perhaps it's a sign of Indiana's sudden growth in hoops relevance after last Saturday's win over Kentucky, a win that notched the program its first Top-25 ranking after three desperate rebuilding years. Or maybe the rest of the state's fans were just sick of hearing the IU talk from their annoying co-workers all week at work.

Either way, it seemed like old times at the Crossroads Classic, an event that began in the 1940s and needed another five decades -- and the unique cooperation of Indiana's four marquee athletic departments -- to revive. Iconic Butler coach Tony Hinkle organized the event at Butler (now Hinkle) Fieldhouse from 1948-51 and 1957-60. In 1959, Indiana pulled out of the event. The Hoosiers were replaced the next season by Illinois. That didn't work out (shocker, I know) so the event was discontinued, and the four programs went more than 50 years before replacing it.

After Saturday, it's safe to wonder what took so long. Conseco Fieldhouse sold out its 18,000-plus seats with days to spare last week. Fans from all corners of the state packed into the highest balcony seats in advance of Butler's win over Purdue, creating a neutral-court atmosphere reminiscent of March Madness, and one that benefitted the rivalry interplay between four familiar groups of fans.

Meanwhile, one important constituency -- the coaches who obsess over their nonconference schedules every season -- gave it a hearty thumbs-up.

"This is a no-brainer for me," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "When they decide they don't want me around coaching at Butler, or I'm done coaching -- this is a no-brainer for me as a fan. I'll be the first in line buying a ticket. My family bought tickets like it was going out of style. It's a great event."

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey delivered his thoughts on the matter almost as soon as he sat down at the postgame podium following his team's 69-58 loss to Indiana. Perhaps he was eager to talk about anything other than the ugly offensive performance. But the enthusiasm seemed genuine.

"That was a great day of basketball," Brey said. "It was neat to be a part of it. I think it's something we need to think about continuing past next year."

After Saturday, that appears to be the consensus. The Crossroads Classic was organized in somewhat unique fashion -- by the four schools themselves, with Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke taking the lead. The execution of the idea featured some (if this Iowa native may say so himself) downright Midwestern common sense: Rather than agreeing to the tournament and then outsourcing it to a promoter (like the Gazelle Group, which operates the 2K Sports Classic among others), the four programs came together to organize and run the event themselves. That made the venue -- much smaller and more intimate than Lucas Oil Stadium, another proposed locale -- the logical choice. The schools split the costs and revenues (which were not disclosed by various program officials Saturday) and avoided any middleman altogether.

That effort was eased by Burke's familiarity with Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, who both attended Brebeuf Jesuit prep school and grew up in the same neighborhood on the north side of Indiana. It was also aided by Glass' familiarity with Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, who worked with Glass at Indianapolis law firm Baker & Daniels. Together, along with Butler AD Barry Collier, the four schools signed a two-year contract that takes the event through 2012.

If it was a trial balloon, it tested incredibly well. Fans packed Conseco Fieldhouse early. (On Saturday, officials from a few of the programs told me they were worried Indiana and Notre Dame fans wouldn't show up for the first game, creating a potentially sterile atmosphere for either game. Their worries quickly proved unfounded.) The basketball was great. Fans convened from all over the state, packing Indianapolis' spate of downtown bars and restaurants before and after the games. The atmosphere more than lived up to its potential.

In other words, it was a picture-perfect Indiana basketball event, one worthy of Hinkle's original vision. After a successful first year, and with such seemingly amicable relationships between all four of these programs, and such overwhelming agreement among fans, coaches, and media members at the arena Saturday, the Crossroads Classic appears very likely to continue past 2012.

Fifty years later, Indiana again has a marquee college hoops event in the capital city -- a perfect blend of young and old, worn and new, modernity and nostalgia. This time, it seems, that event's existence won't be quite so fleeting.