Valparaiso and Evansville will share the hardwood Wednesday night for the 83rd time. Butler and St. Joseph’s are the only two schools that have faced off against the Crusaders on more occasions.
The two programs also share a connection that ended in tragedy for one school and mass confusion for another.
A DC-3 charter plane crashed less than two minutes after takeoff on Dec. 13, 1977, killing all 29 people on board, including the Evansville men’s basketball team. Through miscommunication, a mistaken first responder and an incorrect United Press International wire report, word got out that the Valparaiso men’s basketball team was also aboard the flight.
Valparaiso was scheduled to play at Missouri on Saturday, Dec. 13 and the Crusaders flew out of Porter County Airport that morning toward Columbia. The original plan was for Valparaiso’s charter plane to drop the team in Columbia before flying to Evansville to pick up the Purple Aces and take them to Murfressboro, Tennessee. The plane was then going to return to Columbia following Valparaiso’s game and take the Crusaders home before returning to Murfressboro the next day.
Those plans were scrapped when weather conditions forced the original DC-3 plane carrying Valparaiso to land in St. Louis. The Crusaders then bused to Columbia while the Indianapolis-based National Jet Service (the charter company used by both teams) readied another plane to head to Evansville. The replacement plane arrived several hours late. With all the baggage placed on board (and much of it to the rear of the plane), the DC-3 waited to take off while a larger plane was on the runway. Once given the green light to take off, the pilots waited for the wake of the previous flight to dissipate before proceeding. The flight took off and immediately the pilots realized there was a problem. Ninety seconds later, the plane crashed on the outskirts of the airport property and everyone on board was killed. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that human error was the cause of the crash and it had nothing to do with the weather or the wake of the previous plane.
Two factors led to the confusion about Valparaiso’s connection to the crash. The first was that the original flight manifest listed both Evansville and Valparaiso’s basketball teams. Secondly, a first responder saw a gym bag among the wreckage with a large “V” on it, not all that dissimilar to Valparaiso’s logo (The bag was later deemed to be a Vincennes gym bag). Taking both pieces of information, the United Press International ran a wire report that listed both teams among the dead.
“I was sitting in my dorm room when I heard the news,” then-Valparaiso student John Bowker said. “I ran down to the station (WVUR, Valparaiso’s college radio station) where our guys were calling the basketball game at Missouri.”
Bowker, who now works at Valparaiso and has served as the men’s basketball public address announcer for the last 27 years, remembers receiving panicked phone calls at the station from people wondering what had happened to the Crusaders.
“We were getting calls from all over,” Bowker said. “Parents, students; people wanted to know why we were broadcasting a basketball game if our team had just been killed. People didn’t know what to think.”
The confusion only increased because Valparaiso was late in arriving to Columbia, so the game started later than originally scheduled. People who joined the game in progress called the station and questioned if it was a tape delayed broadcast from earlier in the night because the game was on-air later than it should've been.
The WVUR studios were filled on that Saturday night as news staffers were busy compiling a story on a dorm fire at Providence College that had claimed the lives of 10 sorority women earlier in the day. Once word of the Evansville crash occurred, students kept showing up to do whatever they could do to help at the station.
The biggest difficulty for Bowker was trying to get word to WVUR announcer Rex Trautman and Valparaiso sports information director Greg Smith, who were courtside in Missouri.
“There was no two-way communication between us and Rex in the studio,” Bowker said. “We wanted to let them know that word has gotten out and for them to rest assure everyone that the team was safe.”
During the game, Trautman was handed a copy of the wire report from Missouri assistant sports information director John Heisler that stated the Valparaiso team had crashed and that there were no known survivors.
"Here we are with this note and here's the team in front of us," Trautman said. "I thought this was such a strange thing. What an error this is. What a catastrophic thing to get wrong. I think we mentioned the report coming out of the break and I guess we laughed it off. We had no idea what had happened. We only mentioned it once and just continued with the broadcast."
A member of the Valparaiso traveling party placed a phone call back to Indiana and then members of the athletic staff began calling concerned family members. Poor weather kept the Crusaders in Columbia for the evening and players spent much of the evening after the game calling loved ones and informing them that they were safe.
Back at the WVUR studio, Bowker and the rest of the staffers worked the phones until well past midnight as concerned people were still calling in.
“It was one of those nights that when everything was over, we just kind of sat around and looked at each other,” Bowker said.