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‘Oh my God, it’s the Aces’: Remembering the University of Evansville plane crash that shook college basketball

The headline the next day read, “The Night It Rained Tears.”

It was a cold, rainy night on Dec. 13, 1977, a night in Evansville, Indiana, history that everybody remembers. What they were doing. Where they were. The details are seared into their memories.

At 7:20 p.m. CST, Air Indiana Flight 216 took off from Dress Regional Airport on Evansville’s north side. Ninety seconds later, after clipping trees off of Twickingham Drive, the plane crashed, taking the lives of the 29 people who were aboard.

People around Evansville slowly learned of the crash. For some, it was a neighbor knocking on the door. For others, it was a telephone call, or from local television news. There were various reports of who was on the plane — some correct, and some not.

Gene Hollencamp was working at Patrick Aviation at the airport that night with Patrick Alvey. He watched the plane take off, disappear into the clouds after taking a hard left, and then heard an explosion. As a former medic in the Vietnam War, his instincts kicked in. He ran toward the crash site, along with Alvey, who was familiar with the neighborhood the plane landed just outside of.

When they made it to the crash site, Hollencamp tells me, “It looked like it had come down in a graveyard because there were these mounds that looked like gravestones sticking up here and there. As we got closer, I realized it was,” — he pauses to collect himself — “the seats from the plane had blown out.”

Hollencamp looked for survivors, checked vital signs, and carried the few who appeared to have a chance to safety. It was for naught — all 29 souls on board died that night.

Hollencamp didn’t know who was on the plane while at the scene — until he started leaving.

“As we started making our way out, my foot hit something,” he says with a recollection as if he were just discovering it again for the first time. “I look down and I picked it up, it was a U of E bag that they would carry stuff in.”

“I saw that and that’s when I realized — oh, my God, it’s the Aces.”

The University of Evansville Aces were rockstars at their peak. They won five national championships at the Division II level under legendary coach — and appropriately, an Evansville native — Arad McCutchan, who created a rich history within the program.

McCutchan was an original. He wore a red suit on the sideline, and despite the fact that the University’s official colors were purple and white, McCutchan had his team wear orange uniforms. In the winter time in Indiana, the fans’ heavy coats were dark colored, and it was hard for players to pick out their teammates, so he made the call: The team would be orange. They were also famous for their sleeved jerseys.

The Aces won five national championships in 13 years between 1959 and 1971. In February 1965, the year they won their second consecutive and fourth overall title, Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford came to town to write about the “best small-college basketball team in the nation.”

In 1965, the Aces were led by Jerry Sloan and Larry Humes — two of the most recognizable names in the program’s history. Neither were Evansville natives, but became so good the city adopted them as their own. Sloan is still regarded as a god in Evansville.

“People here just adore — they could tell you everything about him,” current U of E head coach Marty Simmons says, while talking about a picture hanging up in Evansville’s facilities.

“He’s palmin’ two balls,” Simmons says, as he stretches his wingspan, pretending to hold two basketballs like Sloan is in the photo. “His hands are enormous! Ugh,” he sighs, “Lethal weapons.”

And they weren’t just beating teams in their division. Programs like Notre Dame, UCLA, Purdue, and others lost to the Aces throughout the years. Longtime WFIE sports anchor Mike Blake told me, “Press Maravich told Arad McCutchan after winning the fifth and 1971 title, ‘Mac, you could have played with the Final Four this year.’” That’s how good the Aces were.

Tickets were hard to come by. “If you didn’t have tickets to the Aces games, you were hoping for somebody to die,” Blake says, about the competition for season tickets. Despite being a college division school, the attendance for Roberts Stadium was top 10 nationally, even among Division I schools during McCutchan’s peak years at the university.

McCutchan’s tenure came to an end in 1976, and the team was set to hire Sloan, who would go on to coach the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz, as their new coach. However, Sloan would rescind his acceptance just days later. The team then turned to Oral Roberts coach Bobby Watson to come be the new head coach. He accepted.

“We went from ecstasy, to great disappointment, back to, ‘Boy, this is gonna be fun,’” Blake tells me. Watson would lead the Aces.

To come close to understanding the heartbreak that the city of Evansville and the university suffered on the night of Dec. 13, 1977, you first have to know the town, its people, and the depth of their passion.

Athletic director Mark Spencer explains it to me in his office in early November. He tells me about working the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta doing ticketing. He was two blocks away from the bombing when it happened.

“People [in Atlanta] don’t remember that — they remember the ‘96 games ‘Oh that’s right, we had the bombing and it kinda dragged out,’” he says.

“Here, something like that would be just so woven into the fabric of their lives.”

Spencer elaborates. He says that a player getting in trouble, Colt Ryan breaking the school’s scoring record, and then D.J. Balentine breaking it would be a big deal in Evansville.

“The most recent tragedy is ‘The Bounce,’” he says. Northern Iowa’s Wes Washpun bounced a mid-range jumper off the rim and into the basket to sink the Aces and their chances for an NCAA Tournament bid in 2016.

“It becomes a part of them, they don’t let things go and they don’t let things slide because what might not have been a major event — a mid-level event is a major event here.”

This is a place where you identify yourself by where you went to high school, and either the west or east side of town.

“There’s such an immense school pride, and you never lose that,” Evansville mayor Lloyd Winnecke tells me. “If you went to Reitz High School, man, look out — you’re a Panther for life. If you went to Central, you’re a Bear for life.”

The city was, and remains, basketball crazy.

Though the Aces aren’t the juggernaut they once were, support remains strong. Paul Werner has been a booster for the program for 50 years. When I ask him if he still goes to games regularly, he says, “Oh, three hours early.” He missed his first game in 30 years this season because of back surgery. It’s been eating him up that he’s had to be at home watching the Aces instead of at the arena or traveling with the team.

Stafford Stephenson, who was an assistant on the 1977 University of Evansville basketball team, was once asked to describe Indiana high school basketball to his friends in Virginia. He said that everyone in Virginia thought it was a big deal when Ralph Sampson filled up a gym with 5,000 people for the state championship. In Evansville, that’s a regular season game on any weeknight.

That’s high school basketball. The Aces, at their peak, were another thing altogether.

In 1977, in Watson’s first year coaching the team and the year of the crash, the team was promoted to Division I. The Aces lost their first two games of the 1977 season to Western Kentucky and DePaul. Finally on the road on Dec. 6, they got a win against Pittsburgh. Stephenson jokes it might have given them a little too much confidence going into their game against Indiana State.

“Larry Bird and company wore us out,” he laughs.

Courtesy of the University of Evansville

However, Stephenson says Watson and the staff believed that even though Evansville started 1-3, the team had great promise. “We were not disappointed,” he says. “We were optimistic about what the future was going to hold.”

They were soon going to get another chance to improve, by playing Middle Tennessee.

Stephenson recalled Dec. 12, the day before the team was set to takeoff for Nashville. “We had practice, it had not been a real good practice,” Stephenson says. “We were not happy with the way things had gone in that one. Bobby got them together, and basically sent them back to the dorm. [Watson] said, ‘Get out of here, take a deep breath, come back tomorrow, and let’s go.’”

That was the last time Stephenson saw the team.

Kathy Vonderahe vividly remembers the last time she saw her husband Maury King on Dec. 13, 1977.

“That morning I remember clearly him leaving, and me standing at the front door — and walking down the sidewalk and then turning around,” she says. “We had a few more words, and then he left.”

“That’s just like a moment that’s frozen in my mind.”

King co-owned a furniture store on the west side of Evansville. He was a member of Evansville’s West Side Nut Club, which holds the “Fall Festival” — the city’s most popular festival annually in the first week of October.

He was also a sports enthusiast, so he naturally wanted to be involved with the Aces in any way he could, whether it was welcoming visiting teams, helping with meals, or even calling games with the legendary voice of the Aces, Marv Bates.

“Any opportunity he got to be with the team or help or do anything with the team, he was right there,” Vonderahe says. When Watson invited him to travel with the team that day, he couldn’t refuse. The Aces were loved by the community, and they embraced them with open arms. It wasn’t abnormal for somebody like King, a big Aces supporter, to travel with the team.

Air travel was new for the Aces in 1977. Because they moved up to Division I, Watson wanted his team to travel like a Division I program would.

After it happened, many of the first responders were residents of the Melody Hill neighborhood the plane crashed in. Whether or not they knew it at the time, they created even more of a connection with the team that night.

The crash site was hard to get to. The plane settled on the edge of a ravine east of the airport and just shy of the railroad tracks, not far from the trees it had clipped on Twickingham Drive. The visibility that night was poor by all accounts. Aside from it being misty and foggy, the plane landed where there were no lights. What they could see, the first responders haven't been able to forget.

“It was as bad as anything I’ve ever seen,” Hollencamp says. “The state of the bodies was,” he takes a long pause, “was pretty bad.”

But not all were bad — Hollencamp came across Michael Joyner. He put his leather jacket around him, “He wasn’t responding and breathing very shallowly,” he recalls. Joyner would die at the crash site minutes after Hollencamp found him.

Evansville police officer Mike Cook and his partner Stanley Michael Ford were patrolling the north side of town near the airport later that night, and would get the call after Hollencamp and Alvey’s arrival.

“Mike and I were riding around and we got this run,” he tells me. “Both of us kind of looked at each other like, ‘What is this?’ We realized it was an airplane crash.”

They, like other first responders, had trouble getting to the crash site. Cook and Michael waded through waist-deep water until they saw the flames.

“I did not know, and I don’t think Mike did either, that this was the University of Evansville,” Cook says. “You get there, and you checking bodies to see if you can find somebody alive.”

They found senior John Ed Washington, and he was alive. Cook could smell aviation fuel, and knew that they needed to get Washington to safety. “We found a banner that turned out to be a U of E banner. When we saw the U of E banner, we saw a couple of U of E bags, and that’s when I started realizing it was the basketball team.”

Cook and Ford then used the banner as a stretcher to carry Washington from the crash site to safety. Unfortunately, he died just minutes later from internal injuries.

“I don’t think it was more than 5-10 minutes max, when you think about it, it seems like it was forever,” Cook says. “You’re hoping that — for the best. But you know by — I could tell by the way he was breathing, he was having a very hard time breathing, laboring and I was just trying to talk to him a little bit.” Cook stops talking. He tries to collect himself, but starts to weep.


Larry Smith was the first reporter on the scene for WFIE, which was the only station at the time with a live truck. He arrived after Cook and Hollencamp, and was aided by following one of the fire department personnel units toward the wreck.

“I tripped over one body, because they were thrown hundreds of feet away from the airplane,” Smith recalls. “That made my heart stand still. Still does to think about it. I took three or four more steps, and I came across the next body. I very reverently approached it, and gently stepped over it.”

Smith, among others, says that most of the passengers on the flight were still strapped into their seats, but the condition of the victims varied.

Hollencamp decided he and Alvey would be leaving once police and firefighters arrived. “I could tell [Alvey] was really getting stressed out. I mean, he was looking pretty bad.”

I asked Hollencamp what they did once they got back to Patrick Aviation. He told me, “Tried to find alcohol,” which they had. Hollencamp’s friend ran a chain of liquor stores in Evansville, and brought them a bottle of whiskey.

While moments passed at the crash scene, Smith prepared to broadcast to the city of Evansville what had happened.

“It’s quite a responsibility when you face the prospect that you’re going to probably be the first person to tell a community that they’ve lost 25-30 of their finest young people and community leaders.”

Kathy Vonderahe and her two kids had just gotten home when she sat down and turned on the news. She recalls the bulletin coming across the screen that there had been a plane crash — but the Aces were supposed to leave much earlier that day.

She called assistant athletic director Bob Hudson’s wife, and asked if they got away on time. Mrs. Hudson said, “Oh, no honey, they were really delayed and they should have not left but very long ago.”

Vonderahe tells me, “Right then, nobody could convince me that it wasn’t that plane.”

It was confirmed moments later. As Blake read off the names of the individuals on the plane, Vonderahe watched with her 6-year-old son, who recognized the players as their images popped up on the screen. He recited the names before Blake could announce them.

The bodies from the wreckage were taken to the CK Newsome Center in downtown Evansville after being transported from the crash site by train. It was too muddy for cars to get to the crash site.

On the night of the crash, Grant Taylor, brother of Aces junior Bryan Taylor, had been in Huntingburg, 30 miles from his home of Tell City, Indiana, for a high school basketball game. On the way home with his friend, they heard on the radio there had been a crash in Evansville. But he didn’t think it could be the Aces and his brother because it was a short flight, and they didn’t play until the next day.

After the school contacted the Taylor family, Grant and his parents went to Evansville. “We went to the temporary morgue that they had set up and had to identify my — Bryan’s body,” Taylor says, shaken.

“Bryan loved basketball,” he says softly. “That’s what he was going to do on the night he was killed.”

The family of Mike Joyner, a “sharpshooter” on the team from Terre Haute, rushed to the CK Newsome Center to identify their loved one. It’s typically a two-and-a-half hour drive, but the Joyners made it in an hour and 15 minutes. His brother, Robert, said in Trophies and Tears, “I saw the shoes sticking out from under the blankets.”

“They were Michael’s favorite shoes. He wore them so much they had a hole in the bottom. When I saw the shoes, I knew it was him and that he was gone.”

There was one Aces player who did not make the flight — David Furr. He was working as a statistician, after having suffered an ankle sprain so severe that doctors said it was better off broken.

Two weeks later, the 18-year-old Furr died in a car accident with his younger brother. “It was like a tremor after an earthquake,” Blake says. “The earthquake was unbelievable, but the tremor that — oh, my God, when is this going to end?”

Dan Heierman, a 1981 graduate of the University of Evansville said in From the Ashes, “I guess about the only explanation we seemed like at that time we came up with was — God wanted a truly first-class Division I team in heaven and,” he briefly pauses. “He needed the whole team.”

Assistant coach Stafford Stephenson was not on the flight. He didn’t even learn about the crash until the day after. He spent the day in Florida recruiting and scouting, which turned into a late night for him. He went to McDonald’s and got a hamburger because he hadn’t eaten all day. When he got back to the hotel, The Johnny Carson Show was on when he turned on his television, and then he went to bed.

“I woke up the next morning, and went down and bought a newspaper out of a vending machine and saw a headline that read, ‘Basketball Team Dies in Plane Crash’ and I thought, ‘Wow, that is awful.’” he says.

“And started looking at it, and names just — sort of jumped off the page. Bobby Watson, Bob Hudson, who was our assistant athletic director — and I realized that, that, what I was reading was our team.”

Stephenson would head back to Evansville, where the city and university were taking the first uneasy steps toward healing. The student body president, Chris Weaver, called the university chaplain to say that Neu Chapel should be ready for a gathering. “Students starting showing up, in Neu Chapel, without any notice being given,” he said in From the Ashes. They sat in the seats of the chapel, quietly, holding hands with one another.

On Feb. 11, 1978, just under two months after the crash, the Pittsburgh Steelers came to Evansville to play in a charity basketball game to raise money for the crash victims and their families.

“They all said, ‘When do they want us to come?’ Not, ‘I’m available next Saturday’ or ‘I’m available June the 15th,’” Stephenson tells me. “It was, ‘When do they want us to come?’ and they came.” The university offered to pay their travel expenses, and the Steelers declined.

Stephenson took Keith Vonderahe, Maury King’s 6-year-old son, back in the locker room to meet the Steelers. Back there, they met players like Lynn Swann, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, and others.

“It was the first time since the plane crash that there was — you felt joy in the arena, and in the community,” Stephenson says.

“This was a unique group of people I think,” he says. “It would have been really interesting to know had it not happened, what those guys would be doing today 40 years later. I am convinced that they would be successful in whatever [they do].

“It was important for me to — let people know what type of kids they were. I don’t want to let that fade away.”

Harry Lyles Jr., SB Nation

The National Transportation Safety Board report on the cause of the plane crash was released Aug. 17, 1978. It determined that the takeoff was attempted with the rudder and right aileron control lockers still installed, causing a nose-high altitude immediately after takeoff. It was something that the pilot was unable to recover from.

Another contributing factor was the failure of the flightcrew to ensure the baggage was loaded in accordance with the configuration on the load manifest, causing a rearward center of gravity.

“I think that was just another kick in the gut,” Mayor Lloyd Winnecke says. “As a city, it was a huge body blow.”

Vonderahe, Stephenson, along with countless others, compared that tragic night of the crash to the President John Kennedy assassination — because everybody remembered where they were and who they were with when they found out.

“It’s one of the few times — like most of us when we lose someone — your immediate circle is affected,” Vonderahe says. “But the rest of the world just keeps going on, and sometimes you want to yell, ‘Come on, stop! Something’s happened!’

“But with this, I mean, everywhere you went — if you went to the grocery, no matter where you went — it was like everybody was in it with you.”

The “Weeping Basketball” sits on the University of Evansville campus near the University Center, and next to Neu Chapel where the memorial service for the team was held on Dec. 14. I walked to go see it from the Carson Center, where the Aces practice basketball, and their volleyball teams compete.

There are old seats from Roberts Stadium outside of the Carson Center. As I get ready to cross the street, a man on a John Deere tractor passes by going east on Lincoln Avenue. All over campus, there are notes on the sidewalk in chalk. “Come to University Worship Sun @ 11,” one read. Another promoted, “Serious-fun-a-thon Carson Center Small Gym.”

I make my way to the courtyard, and it’s a beautiful memorial. There are 29 stakes that come from the fountain to represent the 29 individuals who were on board Air Indiana Flight 216, water spraying gently, as it hits the ground with a soothing calm.

In front of it, lie two concrete blocks — the left one reads, “In memory of those gallant and devoted men who gave everything they had, even life itself, to the sport and to the university they loved.” It also includes the names of those lost on the flight.

The right one reads, “Out of the agony of this hour, we will rise.” Below that, “SEVEN TWENTY-TWO P.M. DECEMBER THIRTEEN MCMLXXVII,” the date and time of the accident.

Students on campus sit on the concrete benches, some reading, texting, and some just enjoying the nice afternoon. It was 55 degrees out, but the clear skies and beaming sun made it feel like 70.

The memorial and its setting are subtle — nothing too big, but also nothing that you wouldn’t just notice. For this tragedy and this town, it’s perfect.

Evansville is 40 years removed from this tragedy, but remembers and grieves it — along with the flood of 1937, and tornado of 2005 — like they all happened yesterday. This is a town that does not hide from its tragedies. “I can show you the high water marks where they say 1937,” says Grant Taylor.

I was in attendance for the Aces’ game November 10 against Arkansas State at the Ford Center, where the Aces have played since Roberts Stadium closed in 2011. Many people echo Stephenson when it comes to the Ford Center: “It’s nice, but it’s not Roberts Stadium.”

Aces games aren’t the gigantic social event they used to be, and they don’t fill up the Ford Center. But as long as you’re there to root for the Aces, there’s still a sense of unity between yourself, and everyone else in the arena.

As people pour in sporting mostly purple, with splashes of white and orange, they walk past the memorial in the arena. To the left, it features pictures from their four games that season. Next to that are pictures of the 24 individuals involved with the program and university that were on the flight. On the far right, there are images from the tragedy, including the Courier & Press’ front page paper the next morning.

Harry Lyles Jr., SB Nation

In the middle, a statement from then-university president Wallace Graves, reads: “Out of the agony of this hour, we shall rise. Out of the ashes of a desiccated dream, we shall build a new basketball team, stronger, more valiant than ever before. That was the mission of our fallen brothers. Their dream will be fulfilled. Their supreme sacrifice will be vindicated. Out of the brokenness and despair which now grips this institution will burst a new University of Evansville more sensitive to human needs, more resolute in purpose than ever before. That is our tradition. That is our destiny.”

Some people would glance at the memorial as they walked by it. Others would stop and read, and some would take pictures of it. It caught the eyes of just about everybody in the arena.

It, much like the “Weeping Basketball,” are reminders of the tragedy. But they also represent the strength, love, and unity that makes Evansville unique.

“Without this community, and the history that was built to that point, there’s no way [the crash] should have killed the program for a generation,” Spencer tells me.

Though years went on since the crash, there was still one last loose thread to be tied. The team still hadn’t played Middle Tennessee, the opponent they were heading to meet that fateful night, in its history. Middle Tennessee’s manager that season was waiting for an airplane that would never show.

“It took 33 years to play the game,” Werner tells me. “And kind of a sad thing, but it was a game that really had to be played to take care of any of the skeletons laying back in the closet from the crash.”

That changed in 2010, when the Aces finally traveled to Murfreesboro to play the Blue Raiders. The University of Evansville got an email ahead of the game that there was going to be a guest to greet the team as they arrived in Murfreesboro.

The manager who was supposed to meet the Aces in 1977 met the team and Werner as they came off of the buses. Werner recalled the chilling words from the manager.

“Glad to see you after all these years,” he said.

Correction: This article originally stated Mark Aguirre was on the Depaul team in 1977. He was a freshman in 1978.

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