From the top of Reitz Hill, where the kids go to park, you can see almost all of Evansville, Ind. The Mead Johnson plant, which is where they make Metrecal, is right at the base of the hill, and about as far northeast as you can see is McCutchanville, where the Johnson executives live. It is the Ohio River, however, that dominates the vista, as it curves mischievously into a fishhook, forcing the streets to run all which ways—mostly, it seems, into railroad tracks. Still, there is a saving grace to that monstrous bend in the Ohio, for it inspires Evansville to call itself (like New Orleans) "The Crescent City"—and that sure beats "The Bar-B-Q Capital of the World," which is the alternative.
Downtown they have built up a big flood wall with federal funds so that now The Crescent City is protected from the kind of terror that the river brought in 1937, when it overflowed all over Evansville. But many people still talk about that flood as if it were yesterday, for Evansville, with 141,543 people, is that kind of normal smallish city that is vain about anything special in its past.
Of late, though, memories of the past are not needed in Evansville, because the present is sufficiently special—the city has the best small-college basketball team in the country, the Evansville College Purple Aces. Everyone talks about the Purple Aces. They are fun, but more than that, they bring the city distinction. The people are thrilled. The Purple Aces are like a benign flood that has come to Evansville, Ind.
The Purple Aces wear uniforms of orange, bench capes of blue, red, green, yellow and silver and their fans dress all in red, but there is no confusion about the basketball. Evansville is ranked No. 1 among the small colleges, just as it was last year when it went on to win an unprecedented third NCAA college-division title. The Aces have two All-Americas, Jerry Sloan and Larry Humes, and have won all 18 of their games this year, not only against schools their own size in the Indiana Collegiate Conference but against such major-college (technically known as university-division) opposition as Northwestern, Notre Dame and Iowa (which beat the national champion, UCLA).
Even more impressive is the reaction to the team, for the Purple Aces have become the cynosure not just of the city, but of the whole surrounding three-state countryside. Evansville drew 134,622 last year at home—sixth highest in the country—and another 31,895 showed up for the NCAA college-division tournament finals, annually played in Evansville. This year, with half a million copies of the team's schedule covering the area—on everything from place mats to change purses—attendance is up even more to an average of 10,700 per game.
This is especially noteworthy because Evansville College—the Methodists first called it Moores Hill Male and Female Collegiate Institute—was in operation for 102 years without attracting attention at all—except, maybe, for the one time in 1915 when the school building burned down and they moved everything that was left from Moores Hill to Evansville. Basketball began there in 1921, featuring such early high scorers as Slim Stuteville and Bounce Harper. Games at first were played in the local high school gyms, and later in the seclusion of the National Guard Armory. "And we couldn't even practice in the Armory on Friday," says Coach Arad McCutchan, "for religious reasons. The Catholics used the place for bingo."
Indeed, the phenomenon that is the Purple Aces can be dated from 1956, when Roberts Municipal Stadium was built. Roberts is a handsome place, seating 13,000 or so, and it was the immediate pride and joy of Evansville, a fact that did Mayor Roberts no good—since by opening day he had already been voted out of office. Still, he does have the stadium for Evansville to remember him by. Next to Roberts is Hartke Swimming Pool. Mayor Hartke went on to the U.S. Senate, but in Evansville they do not talk about Hartke's pool; the topic is Roberts' Stadium because that is where the action is.
The city is devoted to the team now, though the Aces are not worshiped just because they are winners or even because of the spectacle they offer. They have become an obsession, or at least an overwhelming fad. "I'm so glad to meet you," a lady told Mrs. Arad McCutchan at the beauty parlor one day. "My husband and I are dying to get tickets to these games. We're new in town, and we've never been so lonely on Saturday nights."
The Evansville following is characterized by its age—much more advanced than that of the typical college-game crowd. Students make up only a small fraction of the regular audience, and are more reserved than the townspeople. For the traditional game against Kentucky Wesleyan last month, 3,300 Purple Ace fans made the trip across the river, but less than 50 of these were students. At Roberts the Evansville undergraduates are often hard to find. The school has an enrollment of 2,542 but hardly more than 1,000 seats are reserved for the students, and they are poor seats anyway. Perhaps because of this, the students hardly bother to participate in organized cheering, except when the frenzy of the adult mob sweeps them into obliging their cheerleaders with the single chant: "A-sez, A-sez!"
Although the bulk of the crowd is mature and deep of throat, it is not nearly so violent as some losing coaches have suggested after they have left Evansville. One referee who concedes that point nevertheless insists: "It's the noisiest big place I ever heard. When you've got adults screaming, it's different. It's penetrating. But it's just enthusiasm, and it's very good for the team." Coaches who have complained of the Evansville fanaticism have usually ended up saying they wished their own home fans were as zealous.