The fame is official for the John Wooden of small-college basketball
Upon his elementary school graduation, retired University of Evansville basketball coach Arad McCutchan was selected the class member most likely to succeed. "I also happened to be the only eighth-grader," he chuckles today, as well he should.
For later in life, the affable native of Daylight, Ind., went out and succeeded in the face of considerable competition, winning five college-division national championships and 514 games coaching at Evansville.
That achievement paved the way to his recent induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. (Other inductees were Tom Barlow, a pro star during the 1920s and '30s; Walter Kennedy, former commissioner of the National Basketball Association for 12 years; and Dr. Ferenc Hepp, a European basketball pioneer from Hungary.)
It's been said of McCutchan that he was to the small-college game what UCLA's John Wooden was to university-level basketball. The record bears that out, with McCutchan's five champion teams second only to the 10 that Wooden produced.
Wooden, of course, left Martinsville, Ind., to gain fame and fortune in Los Angeles. McCutchan, on the other hand, wound up becoming a lesser-known legend only a tractor ride from his rural birthplace. In keeping with Midwestern simplicity, McCutchan became just "Mac" to the locals, who thought of him more as a relative-made-good than a "Wizard."
After their careers ended, a meeting of the two at the collegiate finals in Atlanta provided McCutchan with a cherished anecdote.
"I was sitting in the same row with Coach Wooden, and he had kids coming from everywhere to get his autograph," McCutchan recalls. "Nobody was paying a bit of attention to me, since no one knew who I was. But finally, one youngster approached us and held out his program for me to sign, not John. That was one of my greatest moments."
His most satisfying victories may have come in 1971, when the Purple Aces' small lineup toppled towering Southwestern Louisiana in the national semifinals, then beat highly regarded Old Dominion in the title game. That squad, the last of McCutchan's championship contingents, was captained by Don Buse, a native of Holland, Ind., who now plays for the professional Indiana Pacers.
The other Evansville player to make the pros was Jerry Sloan, a guard whose popularity in southern Indiana led the expansion Chicago Bulls to play several "home" games in Evansville during their early years. Sloan, the Bulls' coach today, was the driving force behind McCutchan's only undefeated team, the 29-0 1965 national champions.
McCutchan never had a dominating big man, but he found ways to live without this luxury. "The center on that '65 team was 6 ft. 3 in. Herb Williams," he remembers. "I worked with him on his jump-ball technique and stationed Sloan so he could grab the tap. That entire season we failed to get the ball only twice on jumps that started the game and second half."
Despite his keen basketball instincts, McCutchan says he "never got an actual offer" to coach elsewhere."By the time I got good enough to receive offers," he relates modestly, "I had kids in college. The nearest thing I had came after our 29-0 season, when Michigan State athletic director Biggie Munn called to see if I'd be interested in a job. At that point I didn't think it was practical."
McCutchan's roots were just too deep for him to be picking up stakes. For besides spending his early years on a farm north of Daylight, he played basketball at Evansville's Bosse High School, then enrolled at Evansville College (the "University" label came years later).
Because times were hard when Arad (pronounced A-RAD) graduated in 1934, he wound up migrating to Sulligent, Ala., where he coached high school basketball for $60 a month take-home pay. Eventually he worked his way back to Evansville, where his alma mater hired him in 1946.
The Aces were nothing special then, nor were their surroundings. They played in a cramped National Guard armory before small crowds. Friday games and practices were out, because bingo groups had the facility reserved.
By the late 1950s the Purple Aces had become consistent winners and a source of civic pride. By securing their first national championship in 1959, they made it possible to pack the newly built Roberts Municipal Stadium, site of the NCAA's small-college tournament for many years.
Because large "gates" were almost guaranteed in Evansville, McCutchan was occasionally able to lure a Big Ten Conference school to the stadium. Indiana University steadfastly refused to play the Aces, though, apparently figuring it had nothing to gain and everything to lose. When not trying to play David to the visiting Goliaths, Evansville feasted on a steady diet of Indiana Conference foes between confrontations with archrivals Kentucky Wesleyan and Southern Illinois University.
Certainly the most intriguing game McCutchan was ever involved in occurred during the 1959-60 season, when al McGuire brought Belmont Abbey to Evansville. McGuire, remembering how an Aces fan had tried to cool him off with an ice cream bar the year before, promised to buy every spectator a frosty confection if his team lost the rematch. The Abbey lost and McGuire, through an arrangement with a local dairy, paid up.
Basketball at the stadium was, if nothing else, always colorful. McCutchan literally made it that by outfitting his team in floor-length robes in a rainbow of colors. More than a gimmick, the robes allowed substitutes to race quickly to the scorer's table rather that fiddle with the snaps and zippers found on traditional warm-ups.
His attention to detail manifested itself in other ways. For example, his players always wore T-shirt-style jerseys, because that's what they practiced in and because they provided more warmth in cool gyms. And on the road, the Purple Aces donned bright orange jerseys. "It's easier to spot orange against a backdrop of dark winter clothes," McCutchan explains.
With a recruiting budget of $1,500 most of his career, he seldomed wandered out of his own backyard on talent hunts, preferring to find boys within a 30-to 40-mile radius. "I only spent one night in a hotel recruiting, as far as I can remember," he says.
Of course, he never went begging for players with his no-cut policy. Anybody could be a member of the team, although only a certain number could dress for games. He once finished the season with 20 players.
McCutchan, who retired in 1977, a year before the entire Aces squad was killed in a plane crash, now lives in Santa Claus, Ind.