When an IU fan reflects on the historical success of the Indiana University basketball program, many seasons come to mind, most notably the five national title seasons (1940, 1953, 1976, 1981, and 1987). If you were to review Big Ten title seasons, one in particular might easily be overlooked.
The 1966-67 Indiana Hoosiers basketball squad was in many ways unique: it would be the only Big Ten title team during the Lou Watson coaching era (1965-1971). Watson, a former player under IU coaching legend Branch McCracken, went on to succeed his college coach in the fall of 1965. McCracken had decided to retire following the 1964-65 season after 24 seasons in Bloomington.
Watson’s first season (’65-’66) was a disappointment, as the Hoosiers finished in the cellar of the Big Ten and had an overall record of 8-16. One could argue that this result was to be somewhat expected given the circumstances of Watson having to replace someone like McCracken. Nevertheless, Hoosier fans were hoping for a vast improvement for Watson’s second season.
Two players would stand out as returning juniors in 1966-67: Vernon Payne of Michigan City and Butch Joyner out of New Castle. Players in this era were still barred from freshmen eligibility, but both individuals had shown great ability on the court as sophomores. Payne averaged 14.2 ppg and Joyner averaged 12.4 ppg.
Pre-conference play resulted in a respectable 6-3 record. This included a trip to the Far West Classic, a throwback to the McCracken era. The Hoosiers showed signs of brilliant play during the pre-Big Ten season, but consistency remained an issue. The conference opener against Iowa demonstrated this. Down by as many as 12 points in the first half, the Hoosiers were not able to stop a barrage of Hawkeye scorers en route to an 84-73 loss.
The Big Ten home opener against Minnesota would right the ship as Indiana overwhelmed a weaker Golden Gophers squad 83-68. Butch Joyner led all scorers with 23 points, while Erv Inniger, a senior and native of Berne, Indiana, added 13 points. The victory over Minnesota was the first of six straight victories, five against conference foes (IU also defeated DePaul on January 30th, 72-70). During this winning stretch, the Hoosiers found themselves winning comfortably in the friendly confines of the IU Fieldhouse, but barely escaped with single-digit victories at Ohio State and at Minnesota.
Indiana entered the month of February atop the Big Ten conference standings at 5-1. But the six-game winning streak came to an end at Michigan State on February 13th as the Hoosiers were no match for the Spartans, losing 86-77. IU would bounce back though, winning its next two games at Northwestern and at home against Illinois. Five Hoosiers scored in double-figures in the victory over Illinois, led by Vern Payne with 22 points, senior Bill Russell (from Columbus, Indiana) with 19, and Butch Joyner with 16.
Indiana once again saw themselves atop the Big Ten conference standings at 7-2, one game ahead of Michigan State. With five games remaining, it was anyone’s race for the conference crown. As Big Ten play rolled along, Coach Lou Watson recognized the improvement over the season prior: “I suffered through last year, but we are making progress. We don’t have a super star, but we have a fine bunch of hustling kids and they work well together.”
The rematch against Iowa at home on February 25th proved to be the heartbreaker game of the season, as the Hoosiers would be nipped in OT 75-74. Iowa’s Gerry Jones grabbed a rebound and scored the go-ahead basket with 12 seconds remaining. Indiana would bounce back, narrowly, defeating a depleted Michigan squad (UM super star Cazzie Russell had graduated in 1966) in Ann Arbor, 98-96. Indiana’s lead in the Big Ten standings remained at one game with three games remaining in the season.
A pivotal matchup against Illinois in Champaign on March 4th was next for the Hoosiers, and a Big Ten title was to be had.
Illinois, which had been dealing with numerous off-the-court issues involving a slush fund scandal for paying basketball players that was finally revealed in December of 1966, emerged victorious over the Hoosiers 80-70. The crushing loss put Indiana and Michigan State into a tie atop the conference standings with three other Big Ten foes only one game behind. The Hoosiers would have to take care of business with the final two games of the season at home against Michigan and Purdue.
The March 6th matchup against Michigan truly tested the will of Indiana, and its ability to grind out a victory. Trailing at one point by ten to the last place Wolverines, the Hoosiers clawed their way back to a 96-90 win in a game that saw eight lead changes and ten ties. Free-throw shooting proved to be crucial down the stretch for Indiana as Vernon Payne, Bill Russell, and Butch Joyner hit eight total down to secure the win.
Arch-rival Purdue closed out the regular season for Indiana, who remained tied for first place with Michigan State in the Big Ten conference standings. If the Hoosiers could beat the Boilermakers, they would be crowned Big Ten champs for the first time since 1958 and be headed to the NCAA Tournament. (A Big Ten rule at the time declared that should a tie happen in the conference standings at season’s end, the team with the most recent NCAA appearance would not receive the bid for that year. Needless to say, so much was riding on this Purdue game.)
Purdue, who came to Bloomington winners of five of their last seven games, gave the Hoosiers a true test, including a late rally that almost spoiled the hopes of Hoosier Nation. Led by Butch Joyner’s 22 points, Indiana prevailed 95-82. The victory brought Indiana’s overall record to 17-7 on the year, 10-4 in conference play, for a share of the Big Ten title with Michigan State; and it sent the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in 23 years.
IU would face Virginia Tech in the opener of the NCAA Tournament Mideast Regional in Evanston, Illinois. Despite being the favorite going into the game, the Hoosiers struggled mightily on the offensive end going 14 of 29 from the foul line. Leading scorer Butch Joyner was held to only 14 points. In the end, the Hokies advanced with a 79-70 victory. Indiana would win the regional third place game (this would ultimately be phased out by the NCAA in 1981) over Tennessee 51-44, but the Hurryin’ Hoosiers season had come to a close.
The Lou Watson era is not defined by many high points. While his career winning percentage hovered just around 52% (65-60 overall), four of his six seasons in Bloomington found the Hoosiers in last place in conference play. While the 1966-67 squad may not stand out in terms of dominance like that of the 1975-76 team, Watson’s bunch became known for its “team-oriented” approach, and brought a time for celebration on the hardwood, even for just a brief moment.
**Historical note** With the Indiana football team claiming a share of the Big Ten title, 1967 is the only year in IU sports history where the football and basketball programs were both champions of the Big Ten.