Unlike most states, Indiana held a single-class tournament in which all schools competed for the same championship in one of America's largest and most popular high school tournaments, until the separation into enrollment classes in 1997. Indiana still possessed a large rural population well into the 1950s and rural school consolidation was still in its infancy. As a result, most Indiana high schools of the era had what today are considered extremely small enrollments. Many of these small schools had realistic expectations of advancing several rounds into the tournament in that era, but they would almost inevitably fall in the regionals to urban schools from places such as South Bend, Evansville, Gary, Terre Haute, Muncie, and Indianapolis.
Coach Marvin Wood was hired two years previously, at the age of 24, after a collegiate playing career at Butler University and a coaching stint in French Lick. His hiring was controversial, coming on the heels of Superintendent Willard Green's firing of coach Herman "Snort" Grinstead, who ordered new uniforms without authorization. Wood's coaching style was the opposite of Grinstead's in many ways. He closed practice to outsiders, an act that removed one of the major forms of leisure time entertainment for the town's basketball-crazed population and angered many. He was impressed by the unusual scope of size and talent available in such a small school among the many boys trying out for the team, talent forged by a strong junior-high program. He taught them more patience than the run-and-gun Grinstead, culminating in a four-corner ball control offense he called the "cat-and-mouse".
Expectations were higher in the 1952–1953 season. These were realized as the Indians won their first regional game in school history, but they went on to shock the state by winning the regional title and sweeping the semi-state to advance to the final four, finally bowing out in a 56–37 semifinal blowout to the Bears of South Bend Central High School. The nucleus of that team returned for the 1953–54 season with expectations of tournament success unprecedented for such a small school.
With four starters returning from the semifinalists, Milan was considered a lock to win both the Ripley County tournament and the sectional. To prepare for the rigors of tournament play, Milan scheduled several games against larger, more prestigious schools, including a tournament at Frankfort, where they would suffer their first loss of the season, a 49–47 nail-biter against the hosts. Milan cruised through the rest of the schedule before suffering a late-season upset to Aurora, who were also coming into a successful period in their basketball history.Milan 52; Rising Sun 36 — W
Milan 64; Vevay 41 — W
Milan 48; Osgood 44 — W
Milan 61; Seymour 43 — W
Milan 24; Brookville 20 — W
Milan 67; Hanover 36 — W
Milan 50; Lawrenceburg 41 — W
Milan 39; Versailles 35 — W
Milan 47; Frankfort 49 — L
Milan 52; Columbus 49 — W
Milan 74; Rising Sun 60 — W
Milan 52; Versailles 46 — W
Milan 41; Napoleon 34 — W
Milan 44; Holton 30 — W
Milan 38; Hanover 33 — W
Milan 61; Napoleon 29 — W
Milan 42; Sunman 36 — W
Milan 48; Versailles 42 — W
Milan 38; North Vernon 37 — W
Milan 45; Aurora 54 — L
Milan 38; Osgood 30 — W
Anticipating a run deep into the later rounds, Milan expected to easily take the sectional before facing a tough test in the regional and a possible rematch against Aurora.Heavily favored to take the Sectional, Milan did not disappoint as the Indians crushed tiny Cross Plains before dispatching traditional rivals Versailles and Osgood to take their fifth sectional title.
Milan 83, Cross Plains 36
Milan 57, Versailles 43
Milan 44, Osgood 32In the regional, Milan easily dispatched their hosts before avenging a late-season loss to Aurora, advancing to the round of 16 for the second time in school history.
Milan 58, Rushville 34
Milan 46, Aurora 38
Milan 44, Montezuma 34Milan found itself in the unexpected position of playing Goliath to Montezuma's David, as the Aztecs, with an enrollment less than half of Milan's (79), shocked the state by advancing past the regional for the first time. Milan capitalized on the experience gained from their 1953 visit to Butler Fieldhouse and outlasted the Aztecs with a fourth quarter cat-and-mouse tactic to preserve the victory.
Milan 65, Indianapolis Crispus Attucks 52Attucks, led by sophomore guard and future Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, had a 17–16 lead after one quarter before Milan jumped out to a seven-point halftime lead and preserved it by playing the cat-and-mouse throughout the second half. Attucks would go on to win the 1955 and 1956 titles.
Milan 60, Terre Haute Gerstmeyer Tech 48Coach Wood prepared the Indians intensely for Gerstmeyer, who, like Milan, were in the state's Final Four the previous year and, like Milan, came into the tournament with only two losses. Milan's defense held Arley Andrews to nine points as they coasted to victory.
Milan 32, Muncie Central 30Tied 26–26 in a defensive battle with heavily favored perennial power Muncie Central after three quarters, Plump, who had uncharacteristically shot only 2-for-10 from the field at that point, froze the ball unchallenged for over four minutes during the fourth quarter. Tied at 30, Plump hit a 14-footer from the right side as time expired to seal the win in a low-scoring defensive battle, denying the Bearcats a fifth state title.
The Indiana High School Athletic Association broke a longstanding tradition and awarded the Trester Award for mental attitude, sportsmanship, and character to a member of the winning team, Bobby Plump.
40,000 people descended on Milan (population: 1,150) the next day as the team returned home from Indianapolis, lining Highway 101 for 13 miles to congratulate the Indians.
As schools consolidated throughout Indiana, the days of small-town success gradually ended. Fewer than half of the 751 schools entered in the 1954 tournament exist today. With increased urbanization and suburbanization throughout the state, Indiana schools became much larger and the urban schools which had the most success in the tournament increased their domination of the tournament. No school with an enrollment less than five times that of Milan's ever won the tournament again under the one-class system. The smallest school to win the state tournament after Milan was Plymouth in 1982, led by future NBA star and coach Scott Skiles. Milan's enrollment is now over twice as large as it was in 1954.
Thirty-two years later, the film Hoosiers, a fictionalized account based on Milan's 1952–54 seasons, opened to positive reviews, renewing interest in the team and its legacy. The film combined game play from both the 1952–53 and 1953–54 seasons, merging the 1953 quarter-final opponent, the South Bend Bears, with the scoring pattern from the 1954 championship win against Muncie Central.
Finally, a deeply divided IHSAA ended the one-class system in 1997, splitting the remaining 300-plus high schools into four classes based on enrollment size. Many, including Plump, expressed outrage as the days of a David having a chance to slay Goliath in March ended in Indiana.
Today only two states remain single-class for high school basketball championships. While Delaware has only 56 high schools, Kentucky, with 279 high schools, also remains committed to the single class format. Unlike in Indiana, which now has many large high schools, Kentucky has only five coeducational high schools with 2,000 or more pupils, plus two all-boys Catholic high schools that each enroll over 1,300 and four all-girls Catholic high schools with enrollments between 500 and 1,000. (Indiana has no single-sex high schools of any size.) Several smaller high schools, including a few as small as Milan, have either won Kentucky's state basketball title or made deep state tournament runs in recent years.
The 2010 run of Butler—a university team that to this day plays its home games in the same building that hosted Milan's historic victory—to the Final Four led to countless comparisons with both the 1954 Milan team and its cinematic alter ego of Hickory High. The Bulldogs stunned perennial power Michigan State 52–50 in the national semifinal to make it to the National Title Game, where they lost to Duke 61–59. (Butler forward Gordon Hayward narrowly missed a last-second half court shot that would have won the game, and the national championship, for Butler.) Appropriately, the Milan team, all but one of whom were alive at the time of the tournament, attended the Final Four (held just up the road at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis) as guests of Indiana governor Mitch Daniels.Ray Craft
* Ryan Chart (MVP)William "Bill" Jordan
Fred Busching (manager)