Indiana Snapshot: Butler’s pitch to Hinkle changed sport


INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Hinkle faced a life-changing choice in early 1921.

New York Giants manager John McGraw had offered him an opportunity to play professional baseball. Pat Page, Hinkle’s former college coach, wanted Hinkle to join his coaching staff at Butler.

So when baseball banned the spitball, Hinkle got off the train in Broad Ripple, Indiana, and spent the next 49 years coaching three sports, serving as athletic director,and teaching classes at Butler. Along the way, he picked up gigs as color commentator on Indiana high school basketball tournament telecasts and prep football referee.

It’s a story that sounds so mythical even Bobby Plump, the prep player whose game-winning shot inspired “Hoosiers,” questioned its validity.

“I asked Jim Morris one time if it was true,” Plump said, referring to the Bulldogs longtime trainer. “He walked over to a drawer, pulled out (the contract) and John McGraw had already signed it. All he had to do was show up. You have to respect a man that can do that.”

What Hinkle left behind was a chance to play for the 1921 and 1922 World Series champions and a team that won four consecutive pennants.

All he did at Butler was change the sport of basketball — forever.

Hinkle played a key role in promoting the 3-second rule and eliminating jump balls after each basket. He worked with Spalding to turn hard-to-see brown basketballs into the more visible orange version that was introduced at the 1958 Final Four. He won more than 1,000 of the 1,902 total games he coached — including 560 basketball games — posted winning records in all three sports. He celebrated declared national titles in 1924 as an assistant and in 1929 as the head coach.

He came up with the “Hinkle System,” a simplistic style that became the gold standard for offenses everywhere, and he created the five foundational pillars — humility, passion, unity, servitude and thankfulness — that later became know as The Butler Way.

Hinkle coached for so long that he won his head coaching debut 27-24 and lost his final game, in 1970, by a score of 121-114 on a day Notre Dame star Austin Carr scored 50 points. He recruited John Wooden and Plump, the star of the 1954 Milan state championship team, and his teams were dubbed giant killers.

Hinkle rarely raised his voice, never drew a technical foul and always found a way to make his point.

“He was talking to our very first team and Thad Matta was sitting there as a senior and we had another senior named Jody Littrell,” former Butler coach and current athletic director Barry Collier said. “So he comes in and says ‘I’ve been watching you guys all these years and he said you, Columbus…’ He called guys not by their name but by where they were from, so he said ‘Columbus (Littrell), you’ve been here four years and you haven’t played defense yet.’ The other guys were on the floor laughing and he (Hinkle) wasn’t inaccurate.”

He also had a unique way of doing business.

Billy Shepherd’s moment came in 1967 inside the referee’s locker room after a high school football game. His father and coach wanted Hinkle to meet his son, who went on to win the Mr. Basketball Award. The dialogue was short, simple and sounded like it could have been in the “Hoosiers” script.

“He said, ‘Yeah kid, we’d really like to have you out there at Butler. What size shoe do you wear?’” Shepherd recalled. “I thought I was getting a free pair of leather shoes, so I shot back right away, ‘Coach, I wear a 9 1/2.’ He looked right at me and said, ‘We have that size at Butler.’”

Hinkle’s greatest victory may have come during a two-year wartime stint when he coached football at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago. On Nov. 27, 1943, his team beat Notre Dame 19-14, beating a foe that had outscored its first nine opponents 326-50 and was crowned the national champion two days later.

Hinkle’s love for baseball never really dissipated, either. When Plump arrived for his recruiting trip, Hinkle was digging dandelions out of Butler’s baseball diamond.

Hinkle continued playing the sport after he started coaching, and eventually developed a relationship with another future Hall of Fame basketball coach who loved baseball, Wooden. And as Plump he watched Wooden win 10 national championships at UCLA, he couldn’t help think more than once that just maybe Hinkle’s coaching style also might have influenced one of college basketball’s all-time greats.

“I met John Wooden when I was at a convention with a life insurance company I represented in the 1970s,” Plump said. “After it was over, I introduced myself and as I stuck my hand out to shake his hand, his first words were, ‘You played for the great one.’”

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