Hinkle and His Career Were One of a Kind
Tony Hinkle officiated high school football games on Friday nights.
That's as good a place as any to begin when examining what's nothing less than the most unusual career in the history of American college athletics, a livelihood that spanned three sports and 49 years, and landed him in at least seven halls of fame.
Hinkle, whose legacy at Butler University will be honored by the Pacers at the next Hickory game on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, left behind records, memories and stories that will forever go unmatched. Seriously. Who else is going to coach 1,902 games for a university – 303 in football, 952 in basketball and 647 in baseball, and have a winning record in all of them? Who else is going to coach all three sports in the same academic year for 31 of those years? Who else is going to also work as athletic director for his final 39 years?
And, yes, who else would also officiate high school football games on Friday nights, just to help fill the hours?
"Isn't that crazy?" Billy Shepherd said. "He did it for years."
So many aspects of Hinkle's life and coaching career qualify as crazy by today's standards, but he wasn't. While those unfamiliar with his personality might picture him as some manic workaholic who couldn't sleep, sit down or settle into anything, he actually was a calm, collected sort who rarely raised his voice. He accomplished so much for so long by keeping things simple and not taking things too seriously.
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Hinkle's took the same approach to his role as athletic director. He was said to be a "three-drawer man," who kept the budget in one drawer, schedules in another drawer and contracts in another.
Granted, Hinkle was fortunate to coach at a university that maintained an emphasis on academics and in an era – eras, really – when the public was less neurotic about outcomes. Hinkle had his down seasons, as coaches tend to do over 49 years. He had three consecutive losing seasons twice in his basketball coaching career and lost plenty of games to teams with lesser talent. But his successes overshadowed everything.
Hinkle inherited a strong program from Harlan "Pat" Page, who had coached him at the University of Chicago, and kept it rolling. His teams were a combined 112-29 over his first seven seasons and was awarded a declared national championship in 1929 after it finished 17-2 and knocked off the likes of Pittsburgh, Purdue, North Carolina, Missouri and Notre Dame. It was an honor bestowed by the Veteran Athletes of Philadelphia, but the Bulldogs were as legitimate a choice as any. The Helms Foundation voted the same recognition to Montana State.
As other conferences evolved and larger universities built facilities to compete with Butler's spacious fieldhouse, which was an attraction in itself after construction was completed in 1928, it became more difficult for Hinkle's teams to compete on a national scale. Although playing in small-school conferences, or at times no conference at all, Hinkle always scheduled home and road series with Big Ten Conference schools and other major programs. In his final decade of coaching, his teams defeated Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State and Purdue, as well as third-ranked Michigan in the 1965-66 season.
Butler played in the NIT in 1958, a big enough deal that the team received a send-off from a band and hundreds of well-wishers. It lost in the first round to St. John's at Madison Square Garden. The Bulldogs qualified for the NCAA tournament in 1962 when it consisted of a 25-team field. They defeated an eighth-ranked Bowling Green team led by future Naismith Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond in the opening round to reach the Sweet Sixteen. They lost to Kentucky, then followed by defeating Western Kentucky in a regional consolation game.
Hinkle's accomplishments came despite a sane, somewhat passive recruiting approach. He recruited just two Indiana Mr. Basketballs, Bobby Plump and Shepherd, and got them without fuss.
One of his pitches to Shepherd came after officiating a high school game at Carmel. Shepherd, a 5-foot-10 guard with exceptional shooting and passing skills, had offers from the likes of Indiana, Purdue, UCLA, North Carolina and Florida heading into his senior season, but also was considering Butler. His father, Bill, had played for Hinkle 20 years earlier, and staying close to home appealed to him.
Shepherd's father took him to meet Hinkle in the officials' locker room after the game.
"By the way, kid, what size shoe do you wear?" Hinkle asked at one point.
Shepherd, thinking he might be getting a free pair of shoes, answered: "Nine-and-a-half, Mr. Hinkle."
"Well, we've got that size at Butler," Hinkle said.
Shepherd chose Butler the following Spring, over Indiana.
Plump got his pitch via mail after leading Milan to its historic state championship in 1954. The letter Hinkle wrote can be viewed in a display case at The Fieldhouse today. Plump had offers from more than 30 colleges, including Purdue, Indiana, Michigan State, Cincinnati and Tennessee. Rather than putting on a fullcourt press, Hinkle asked him to call to set up an appointment to meet. Plump did and arrived at Hinkle's office one May afternoon at the scheduled time.
Hinkle was nowhere to be found, however. Underwhelmed and a bit confused, Plump was rescued in the hallway by Butler's sports publicist, Jack Shackelford, who led him to the baseball diamond. There, Hinkle was picking dandelions out of the infield and stuffing them into his pocket.
"Hey, kid, I'll be with you in a little bit," Hinkle said.
Although they could have gone to major programs and competed for national championships, or to schools that would have rewarded them generously under the table, neither Plump nor Shepherd regret their decisions. The experience of playing for Hinkle was reward enough, although Shepherd only got to play in Hinkle's final season.
They recall intense but enjoyable practices that focused on their own fundamentals rather than the opponent's tendencies, competitive games against major conference opponents and an experience that didn't make college basketball feel like a life or death proposition.
Hinkle wasn't a screamer or profane, but had ways of getting points across without berating or embarrassing a player. The strongest term he ever used was a certain synonym for a male donkey, but had to be really angry to dig that deep into his vocabulary.
Plump's coach at Milan, Marvin Wood, had played for Hinkle – as did so many of Indiana's high school coaches - and utilized Hinkle's famed five-way system that emphasized passing and cutting. Wood often told the story of how one day in practice Wood had missed an open cutter and shot the ball.
"Woods! I know a blind man who would like to have those eyes!" Hinkle shouted.
"Marvin said he never missed a cutter after that," Plump recalled.
Plump, who finished his career as Butler's all-time leading scorer, got a gentler admonishment after a game at Indiana State. He had roomed with Arley Andrews during the annual two-game all-star series with Kentucky after their high school careers, and become friends. When Andrews fouled out of the game, Plump offered a handshake. When he reached the locker room after the game, Hinkle had written – or had someone else write – "It is not necessary to shake an opponent's hand during the game."
"I got the point," Plump says.
Shepherd, who still holds Butler's record for single-season (27.8) and career (26.3) scoring averages, got Hinkle's points in red ink. The morning after every game, Hinkle taped the box score with various stats circled in red ink – the ones Hinkle thought needed improvement – to a board.
Shepherd, the team's best shooter, never got a red circle for his field goal attempts no matter how many he took, while another player - a poor shooter - might get one for taking five shots. Shepherd did get circles for his turnovers, though. As one of the primary ballhandlers and a skilled passer who occasionally attempted behind-the-back or needle-threading darts, he amassed his share of them.
Shepherd also earned possession of a less-than-coveted trophy that Hinkle distributed after every game to the player with the most turnovers, early in his sophomore season. That point got across, too, and he played more carefully.
Hinkle utilized practical jokes, too. Shepherd recalls a freshman game at Wabash – first-year players couldn't play for the varsity at the time – when he unintentionally threw a pass off the dribble that hit an unsuspecting defender in the face. The official called a technical foul on Shepherd, who reacted emotionally.
The next day, Shepherd was in the training room at The Fieldhouse getting his ankles taped when trainer Jim Morris gave him a slip of paper with a telephone number on it.
"Call it," Morris said.
It turned out to be a direct line to Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner Phil Eskew, a towering figure on the state's athletic scene.
"I understand you were trying to officiate basketball games without a license," Eskew told Shepherd.
Hinkle and his assistant coach, Bob Dietz, then walked into the office to complete the point.
Hinkle also was notoriously cheap. Even in his final season as coach, his team bused to most road games, and did so on the day of the game whenever possible. Their "meal" for the ride home was a pre-wrapped ham or turkey sandwich and a warm can of 7-Up. Hinkle got the drinks for free because of his relationship with a woman connected to a local 7-Up distributor. For some games, if it was convenient, they might have splurge and stop at a McDonald's on the way home for a sandwich – but still had to settle for the warm can of 7-Up.
Hinkle was more generous when Butler played in the NIT in New York City during Plump's senior season. After its seven-point loss to St. John's, Hinkle gathered the players back at the hotel
"Fellas, I want you to have a great time in New York," Hinkle said. "It might be the first time you've been here, so you ought to see the sights. Mr. Dietz will give you some money as you leave the room."
"He didn't want us to have too good of a time, though," Plump said. "Each player got $5."
And that was adjusted for inflation. Dietz, who had been an All-American player for Hinkle in the early Forties, told Plump the per diem had been $2 per player on their trips to New York.
A college education and good memories are priceless, however. Plump, Shepherd and virtually all the hundreds of athletes who played for Hinkle would tell you they were compensated fairly by the mere experience of playing for him.
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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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