30 Years After 90 Seconds
Though 30 years have passed, many Evansvillians remember what they were doing on the night of Dec. 13, 1977, when they heard about the plane crash that killed the hometown basketball team. Wallace Graves was enjoying a performance at Wheeler Concert Hall; Patrick Wathen was sitting down to supper; John Althoff was watching television. The quotidian quiet of that Tuesday night was shattered throughout the city as the details of the terrible accident trickled into living rooms, delivered by frantic phone calls and somber newscasts. It was clear by midnight that the Evansville community was in the midst of a great tragedy.
Just as many Americans vividly remember the crisp, late summer day and the sky’s precise hue – a perfect cerulean blue – as two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers on the occasion of our nation’s greatest tragedy, many Evansvillians also remember the weather when the charter plane carrying 29 people, including 14 members of the University of Evansville basketball team, crashed shortly after take-off. It was cold, rainy and foggy – an altogether dreadful night.
Among the dead were Coach Robert “Bobby” Watson; UE Athletic Business Manager Bob Hudson; UE Comptroller Charles Shike; Sports Information Director Gregory Knipping; popular radio announcer Marvin “Marv” Bates; and UE fans Maurice “Maury” King, the 33-year-old owner of Moutoux Furniture, and Charles Goad, 61, who owned Goad Equipment Co. The crash also claimed the lives of young men filled with promise and talent: seniors Kevin Kingston, John Ed Washington, and Marion Anthony “Tony” Winburn; juniors Stephen Miller and Bryan Taylor; sophomore Keith Moon; freshmen Warren Alston, Ray Comandella, Mike Duff, Kraig Heckendorn, Michael Joyner, Barney Lewis, Greg Smith, Mark Siegel; and the team’s three student managers, Jeff Bohnert, Mark “Tank” Kirkpatrick and Mark Kniese.
This band of young men was part of a pivotal moment in UE’s basketball program. Many of them had arrived in the shadow of the legendary Arad McCutchan, a beloved coach who’d guided the Purple Aces to 515 victories in his 31 years at UE, winning 40 of 50 postseason games, 14 Indiana Collegiate Conference titles, and five NCAA College Division championships. Nationally known and respected, McCutchan had coached two Olympic Trials teams and was twice named NCAA College Division Coach of the Year.
Beyond his coaching success was McCutchan’s engaging personality. Known as “Coach Mac,” the Columbia University- educated math professor brought a sense of fun to the game. He clad his players in boxing robes rather than warm-ups, outfitted them in T-shirt style jerseys, and instructed them to wear orange uniforms at away games. It worked. As Time magazine later recalled, McCutchan made the Purple Aces “the pride and passion” of Evansville. “Season tickets to the best seats,” Time noted, “were so hard to come by that die-hard fans fought over them in divorce settlements.”
In the heady days between 1959 and 1971, UE men’s basketball won its five national college championships, but by 1977 the program had lost some steam. Season ticket sales had dropped and just as the team was moving up into the NCAA’s prestigious Division I, McCutchan retired, at the age of 65.
University officials chose Bobby Watson, a charismatic, hard-charging coach who’d run up a string of victories as an assistant coach at Oral Roberts University, to follow in McCutchan’s wake. Watson understood almost immediately what UE basketball meant to the community, recruiting some hot-shooting freshmen, reviving the old Purple Ace riverboat gambler as the team mascot, and launching his own public relations campaign with Rotarians, Kiwanis Clubs, and community leaders to keep the rabid McCutchan fans on board and to win new ones. In the weeks after he was hired, 1,000 new season tickets were sold.
In spite of a bumpy start of three losses to one win, team spirits were high on the evening when Watson and his players boarded the chartered DC-3 airplane bound for Nashville and a game against Middle Tennessee State University the following day. They spent three hours waiting at the airport for the plane to arrive. The plane, owned by the Indianapolis-based National Jet Service, had been delayed by nasty weather.