Bruce Parkhill should have been smiling. He had just been honored at his first coaching stop, William & Mary College. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest basketball upsets almost no one knows happened.
The Tribe, led by its 34-year-old head coach, topped Dean Smith's North Carolina Tar Heels, 78-75, on Dec. 7, 1977.
The winningest coach in Division I basketball history had a team that included All-America point guard Phil Ford, and three other future NBA pros -- Dudley Bradley, Al Wood and Mike O'Koren. Yet Parkhill, with a bunch of smart but physically outclassed mutts from a tiny private school, had beaten them. The anniversary celebration two months ago in Williamsburg, Va., was warm. A bond was firmed between brothers who had pulled off a "Hoosiers"-caliber upset for the ages. It could never be taken away.
Still, as Parkhill drove home to State College, he thought not fondly of that William & Mary team, but another one he coached 15 seasons later: "On the way back, all I could think about was, 'That's something our guys at Penn State could have had and cherished the rest of their lives.'" Parkhill, who retired from coaching last year after a two-season stint as associate head coach at Ohio State, spoke by phone from a Florida vacation getaway.
Tonight, he, his wife, Arlene, and some friends from State College will sit down in front of the television at 7 and click on ESPN Classic. And for the first time since he saw it in person, Parkhill will watch perhaps the most memorable game in the history of Penn State basketball. A loss.
It happened exactly a decade ago tonight in front of the most deafening crowd I have experienced in 15 years of covering college basketball. The score: Indiana 88, Penn State 84, in double overtime. And that doesn't begin to describe it.
For those who were there or saw it on ESPN, you need no memory jog. The details and names flash back involuntarily.
Penn State had it won. Up four with 31 seconds to go. But one over-cautious defensive possession and one notorious official's call by -- all together now ... Sam Lickliter -- got the Hoosiers a reprieve. Three times, Penn State led inside a minute. Three times it couldn't hold on. The controversial ending, in which IU guard Chris Reynolds grabbed and pulled PSU guard Greg Bartram's jersey with :17 left in regulation without any official noticing, spawned outrage throughout the nation for two days. [Editors note: Bartram was called for a foul on the play].
Dick Vitale, in his hyperbolic prime, bayed for all but a public caning of Lickliter, a former high school gym teacher from Dayton, Ohio. Even though it was official Gene Monje who had the best angle to see Reynolds' grab. ESPN ran the clip of the gaffe over and over on SportsCenter.
The game was a national sonic boom, something Penn State had never experienced from basketball.
ESPN Classic, with some encouragement from yours truly, decided only Wednesday to insert the contest into its Heartbreakers Week promotion. Slightly edited, it will air 7-9 p.m. on Classic.
Just some of the accoutrements of possibly the most memorable game I've ever seen live:
First and foremost, the contest was played at that lovable Depression Era relic Rec Hall during Penn State's first season of Big Ten competition. Every game back then was a new adventure for PSU hoop fans starved for decades by opponents the likes of Juniata and Maryland-Eastern Shore. And this was the ultimate marquee opponent.
Penn State, featuring a sophomore center named John Amaechi, senior forward DeRon Hayes and little else was in the process of stumbling to a 7-20 record, 2-16 in the Big Ten. Depleted by graduation and an injury to future Big Ten first-teamer Matt Gaudio, PSU had lost its first league road game just a month before at IU's Assembly Hall by the score of 105-57.
Most humiliated of all in Bloomington was PSU's not-quite-converted point guard Michael Jennings, a 6-5 off-guard forced into the role. He would play the game of his life this night, with 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
It was Knight's first trip into State College in more than two decades since his days as head coach at West Point. Three years earlier, he had greeted Penn State's initial invitation into the Big Ten -- one that took six more months to confirm and almost never was finalized because Big Ten coaches and ADs were never consulted -- with this memorable phrase in response to a reporter: "Yeah, I've been to Penn State. It's a bleep camping trip. There's nothing around for 100 miles."
The Nittany Lion mascot drew big smiles from the shoehorned crowd, one that included 600 fans standing, by donning camping gear, complete with canteen. Knight never acknowledged the Lion as he theatrically strode onto the Rec's yellowed floor a mere 90 seconds before the horn signifying the beginning of introductions.
The game actually ended up recruiting one of the best players Penn State ever had. Pete Lisicky of Whitehall committed soon after coming home from a high school game in time to watch the end of regulation and the overtimes with his dad.
The commentators were Tim Brando, now at CBS, aided wonderfully by a Bill Raftery smack in his prime.
The first half is plodding. Almost like a prizefight struggling to find its rhythm. Then, when Jennings hits a three just before halftime to bring Penn State within two, the tension begins to build.
According to ESPN publicist Josh Krulewitz, the game drew a massive 3.2 rating, the third-highest of the 1992-93 season only to Michigan-Indiana and Duke-North Carolina. The average back then was about a 1.2 (it's an 0.9 today). But what was striking about the numbers was how they built as viewers called their friends during the game. The last quarter-hour registered above 5.0, still among the highest viewerships ESPN has ever had for hoops.
One of several climaxes near the end occurs with 31 seconds left in regulation and Penn State up 65-64. IU's Matt Nover stumbles coming over halfcourt, Jennings scoops up the loose ball, then careens in for a layup while fouled by Bailey. The place comes completely unglued. Raftery, barely able to speak from the vibration and noise, blurts: "It's just the joy!"
Alas, there would be no joy for Parkhill by the end. People so bled for him that he received a sack full of attaboys from fans all over the country.
"I couldn't believe how many letters I got," he said by phone Friday night. "Somewhere close to 100. They all said something, 'I was watching the game and I've never done this but I felt compelled to write.'"
One was from a mayor of a little town in Indiana who said he'd root for Penn State every game -- except when it played IU. Another was from an old lady in Oregon.
"She wrote, 'I never watch sports but for some reason I watched your game. I felt so bad for your team.'"
The letters helped, Parkhill said.
Just a little.