The Evansville community is a force for continuity in college athletics. It is home to a pair of storied college basketball programs. The University of Evansville Purple Aces were the best College Division (later Division II) basketball program in the country between the late 1950s and early 1970s, winning five national championships before transitioning into a Division I program in the late ‘70s. The Aces have more than made muster at the DI level, earning five NCAA Tournament bids and seven additional post-season appearances. Since starting its men’s basketball program in 1970, the University of Southern Indiana established itself as a DII power, earning 23 NCAA Tournament bids, twice finishing as national runner-up, and winning a national title in 1995. With the 2022-23 season, USI basketball will compete at the DI level in the Ohio Valley Conference.
More than just home to a pair of highly successful programs, Evansville was among the main streets of March Madness for more than 65 years. From 1957 until 1976 (and once again in 2002), the city hosted the Division II Men’s Basketball Championship (long referred to as the “College Division Championship”) at the esteemed Roberts Municipal Stadium, then the home of Evansville Aces basketball. The Aces had the pleasure of winning five national titles on their home court. Future Basketball Hall of Famers including Evansville’s Jerry Sloan and Winston-Salem State’s Earl Monroe earned Tournament MVP honors at Roberts Stadium.
In more recent years, the city of Evansville has hosted the OVC Basketball Tournament. The OVC grants the first automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament every March at Evansville’s state-of-the-art Ford Center, the 11,000-seat multipurpose, a municipally owned venue that opened in 2011. Thanks to the Ford Center, Evansville once again became the nation’s top destination for DII basketball.
Evansville’s impact on DII basketball does not stop there. The nonprofit Evansville Sports Corporation and USI host the eight-team NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship, the culmination of a 64-team national tournament, at the Ford Center. The venue staged Division II’s Elite Eight in 2014 and 2015 before securing a long-term commitment from the NCAA to put on the championship from 2019 through 2025.
The opening of the 241-room Double Tree by Hilton hotel, connected by skywalk to the arena, no doubt helped Evansville secure this long-term deal.
Estimates of the event’s economic contribution to the region peg it at close to $1 million annually. The size of the economic boon to Evansville is in part dependent on which schools make it to the tournament. The recurring presence in Evansville of Northwest Missouri State, the champions of the last three DII tournaments (2019, 2021-2022), is beneficial to the local economy. More than 1,000 Bearcats fans followed the team to Evansville in 2022, requiring the college’s supporters to purchase a tremendous number of rooms and meals from local establishments during the team’s multi-day run in the River City.
“We have been proud to partner with the ESC to bring this great event to Evansville. We know it drives economic impact to the community, shows off Hoosier Hospitality, and improves the quality of life in our region,” USI Athletic Director Jon Mark Hall says.
NCAA officials, competing teams, and fans from across the country comment every year on their fantastic experience in Evansville. Many residents and corporate partners volunteer their time and expertise to make visitors feel welcomed.
“Every year, the NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Committee conducts a ‘walk-through’ of the facility [Ford Center] the day before teams arrive for practices. New committee members are always ‘wowed’ by the arena and the convenience of the connected headquarter hotel,” says ESC President Eric Marvin, who also cites the affordability of Evansville and its central location as key to the event’s continued success.”
Every year, fans and observers remark on the games in Evansville for their competitiveness and high quality of play. In the era of “one-and-done’s” (players who compete for just one year at the college level before turning professional), many of the top teams in the DI tournament feature athletes who are still getting familiar with playing one another. Not so in DII.
“Division II teams tend to play together longer because not as many players leave early to play professionally. As a result, there is great team basketball because the players have played together for a few years in many cases. They know each other and their opponents extremely well, which creates an extremely unique championship environment,” Marvin explains.
The presence of USI in the 2019 Division II Elite Eight significantly added to the live contests’ energy. USI made it to the semifinals of that year’s Division II Elite Eight Basketball Tournament. In the quarterfinals, the Screaming Eagles knocked off West Texas A&M 94-84 before falling in gut-wrenching fashion to Point Loma Nazarene in the semifinals. Playing before an exuberant hometown crowd was a remarkable experience for USI’s players, staff, and supporters.
“The electricity in the Ford Center for the two games we participated in was indescribable, and we were so appreciative that the Evansville community supported the tournament in such a strong manner,” Hall says.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. The Elite Eight returned to Evansville in 2021 in an albeit modified form, with daily testing regimens, social distancing, and highly limited attendance. In 2022, the Ford Center again thundered with vibrant crowds for the Division II championship.
“No other city gets this opportunity, and our local community has embraced this unique privilege,” Marvin says. “Our state was made for basketball, and this community proves it.”
There also is significant change afoot in the landscape of college athletics. In July 2021, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) allowed student-athletes to accept sponsorships based on their “Name, Image, and Likeness” (NIL). This new revenue source presents important challenges and opportunities for athletes and athletics departments, particularly in high-profile sports like college basketball. Basketball players at the University of Evansville and the University of Southern Indiana could secure sponsorships almost immediately from local businesses. So far, the local impact of NILs is not earth-shattering, but time will tell the effect of this new policy on college athletics.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
Division II Men’s Basketball Elite Eight Tournament March 22-25, 2023
Ford Center, 1 S.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Clayton Trutor teaches history at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. He is the author of “Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta — and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports” (2022) and the forthcoming “Boston Ball: Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Gary Williams, and College Basketball’s Forgotten Cradle of Coaches” (2023). He’d love to hear from you on Twitter @ClaytonTrutor.