College Basketball Nation: Crossroads Classic

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.
Last season's inaugural Crossroads Classic was a whopping success, with a packed house full of fans and some great basketball (particularly that Butler-Purdue game) on offer. The idea is a great one, and the way it was executed — with lower-bowl fans split into sections of four, all cheering at various times during both games — made it feel like a state title game, only with much better basketball.

On Saturday, that four-way lower-bowl split will still be there. Those are the expensive seats, and if you pony up for one of those tickets, you're less likely to sell it later. But the rest of Bankers Life Fieldhouse is going to be dominated by Indiana fans, according to ticket brokers in this story by the Indianapolis Star's Michael Pointer:
Mike Peduto expects to see red and white dominate the crowd Saturday at the Crossroads Classic, even though Indiana is one of four state teams competing, and each was allotted 4,000 tickets.
"IU pretty much drives the demand for college basketball tickets in this market," said Peduto, owner of Circle City Tickets in Indianapolis.
Renny Harrison, owner of FanFare Tickets in Carmel, agreed with Peduto's prediction for the crowd.
"Although there is some representation from the other schools, most of the tickets we have sold I would definitely say the majority have been to IU fans," Harrison said.

That is no doubt a point of pride for Indiana fans. It is also surely a point of annoyed resentment for Butler, Notre Dame and especially Purdue fans, and understandably so. Last season, most of the arena booed Indiana fans and its team and rooted for Notre Dame the entire game. This was after Indiana's upset over Kentucky, and it was a small indication the Hoosiers were again ascendant, and maybe even reclaiming some ownership. Now No. 1 in the country, expect all that and more Saturday.
Needless to say, by the time the news was announced Tuesday afternoon, this was not exactly the shock of the century.

Early Tuesday morning, Mike Brey told our own Andy Katz that Notre Dame had agreed to extend its commitment to the Crossroads Classic -- a four-team event featuring Hoosier heavies Indiana, Purdue, Butler and ND -- for another two years, into 2013 and 2014. Even before that, despite the expiration of the current agreement this season, no one really expected the event to go away. It was assumed the four schools would agree to keep the thing going, one way or the other.

The reason for that is the same reason the official news, as announced by the four schools, is so very welcome: The Crossroads Classic is an event too good not to continue.

Last season's inaugural edition went about as well as anyone could have hoped. The games weren't classics (though Butler's comeback victory over Purdue was certainly exciting), but the event itself was a welcome throwback to the original, organized and hosted by Tony Hinkle at Butler from 1948-51 and from 1957-60. It took the schools 50 years to put a similar event together again, but when they did, they got it right. All four athletics programs teamed together to host the Classic themselves, as opposed to outsourcing it to the Gazelle Group or one of the other patrons, and because they did so they were able to put the games in Conseco Fieldhouse, an actual basketball arena, while splitting the profits evenly among the four.

The end result showcased the collective culture of Indiana basketball. The impulse to gather in Indianapolis and square off on the hardwood -- the same impulse that has made the sport an obsession in the state, even at the high school level, for almost as long as it's been played -- was on full display. Everyone booed IU fans, because that's what other basketball fans from Indiana do. It was just fun, you know?

So, no, it was no shock Tuesday to see the four schools extend their sensible agreement through the 2014 season. But it was excellent to see. In a sport where scheduling too happily tosses aside monumental rivalries for the sake of individual gain (or, if you prefer, "protection" of a "nontraditional program"), the no-nonsense extension of the Crossroads Classic was a small but refreshing change of pace. May it ever be so.

Everybody loves the Crossroads Classic

December, 19, 2011
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.