One for the books: ISU vs. IWU

January 1970

by Matt Bischoff (IWU Class of 2010) for The Argus (10/19/07)

WJBC audio of final seconds of game

In the final meeting between the two schools, Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan faced off at Horton Fieldhouse in front of a packed crowd of over 7,000 people.

"Sometimes games don't live up to their build-up," current Athletic Director and former head basketball coach Dennie Bridges said, "but this one did."

IWU and ISU began playing each other in basketball during the 1909-10 season, which was back when ISU was known as Illinois State Normal University. Over the years IWU developed a 68-42 edge in their all-time record against each other.

At the time, ISU was a Division-II basketball program that was looking to move up to D-I.

"They wanted to put their basketball program on a different level than ours and said they had no room on their schedule for us," Coach Bridges said.

This was a weak argument, according to Coach Bridges in his book, "A Dunk Only Counts Two Points," because several non-Division-I teams stayed on their schedule, including some teams less talented than IWU.

Many felt ISU was just attempting to avoid the embarrassment of possibly losing to a small college and even some ISU fans were upset the series was ending. Either way, it became clear to ISU that it had far more to lose than it had to gain through this rivalry.

"Because of the public feud over the last game, the build-up was dramatic," Coach Bridges said.

At the game, the animosity between the two schools became even more evident. In his book, Coach Bridges writes, "While the two teams were warming up . . . a group of Illinois Wesleyan students paraded around the floor holding up a live white chicken. They held a sign which read, 'the real Redbird.'"

With tensions high and an almost "carnival" atmosphere, the game got underway. ISU led throughout the first half, which included a 39-32 half-time lead. The Titans, though, were a second-half team that season, going 16-0 in conference play while only leading at half in seven of those games.

With good second-half shooting, IWU tied the game with 4:16 left, which led the Redbirds to go into a stall to keep the Titans offense at bay.

This strategy worked and ISU held a one-point lead with seven seconds to go. It was the Titans ball, and they in-bounded it at three-quarters court.

"We wanted our best passer, who was forward John Gibson, to get the ball to either Tom (Gramkow) or Stan (Broers) and let one of them take it on the dribble down the court and beat his man to the spot," Coach Bridges said.

1970 graduate Tom Gramkow recently recalled, "On the way out to the court after the huddle, Stan said, 'You take it,' and I said, 'Nah, you can take it.' I guess I broke for the ball first. I did make a move that I don't think I had ever done before, but they were overplaying my right hand so I had to dribble left. I whirled around, took a couple of dribbles, got to my spot about the top of the circle and shot it."

Bouncing around the rim a few times, the 18-footer fell, giving the Titans a 69-68 victory over ISU, whose enrollment at the time was more than seven times that of IWU.

After the shot went in, Coach Bridges recalls the scene in his book as, "pandemonium . . . In all my years of coaching, nothing matched the screaming mob scene. Fans were vaulting out of the balcony to join in the joyous madhouse celebration. The playing floor was a sea of people."

The Titans went on that year to lose in the first round of the National Tournament to eventual champions Kentucky State, but when the 1969-70 season is remembered, the ISU-IWU finale stands out.

"I think at the time [the win] meant more to the long-time followers and alumni of IWU, but as the years go by and since they actually have never played each other again, the players on that team have a memory that will never be forgotten," Gramkow said.

For Coach Bridges, the game has also had a lasting impact. Although this game was not quite as important to him as the 1997 National Championship, "at the time, it was everything."

Unfortunately for current students of both schools, several attempts to revive the series have failed, and for all intents and purposes, the 1970 game will remain the last between these two schools.

For IWU fans, though, at least the memory of victory helps to ease the pain.