December 13, 1977: A Night that Will Never Be Forgotten in Evansville, Indiana

12 12 2007

It’s just before 3:00 p.m. on November 24, 2007 in Evansville, Indiana, a good-sized town on the Ohio River. About 200 miles to the northeast, Pieter Van Tongeren walks off the basketball court at Ball State University’s Worthen Arena. The six foot eleven inch University of Evansville freshman has hit the game-winning shot in the final seconds to give Marty Simmons his first win as a division I head coach. The hard-fought victory for the Purple Aces has come on the road, and many back in Evansville switch off their radios to proceed with their Saturday afternoon, comfortable in the knowledge that this promises to be the first of many wins for the coach, himself a star player for Evansville in the 80s, himself a hero in the waning moments of past games.

The team’s record stands at 1-3, and Simmons has urged the fans and media to have patience as his mostly young team learns his system and his style of tough, aggressive defense. Christmas, the coach says, is when the real potential of this team may start to shine through.

Flashback thirty years: An even younger first year head coach and his raw, fledgling University of Evansville basketball team stand with the same record: 1-3. The program, with its long history of championship success at the “small college” level has made the leap to its first year of division I competition. The town is enthused by the infectious charisma and confidence of the new coach, Bobby Watson, who covered the entire area prior to the season, giving speeches and generating excitement about his new ball club. Watson, like Simmons three decades later, has cautioned that it will take awhile before his team really starts to gel…maybe around Christmas.

On December 13, 1977, the players are anxious to start gelling a week or two before the coach’s preseason prediction. At the airport in Evansville, the team, including their optimistic thirty-four year old leader, Watson, boards a plane on a damp, cold, fog-filled evening and hopes for a tough road victory against Middle Tennessee State. They’ve discussed the opposition and practiced their game plan. This is the type of moment they dreamt of growing up on elementary school playgrounds and in high school gyms throughout the area, and they want to show the town they belong at this level. They want to play well. They want to play smart. They want victory.

The team won’t get that victory, though. In fact, they won’t make it to Tennessee at all. They won’t make it more than a short distance from the airport. In one of the greatest sports tragedies in history, none of them will make it out of the night alive.

At 7:21 p.m., the plane carrying 29 souls crashes about 90 seconds after takeoff. Most of the people are ejected from their seats into a muddy, difficult to access area just outside of a subdivision and perish immediately. A small number of passengers survive the initial crash but live only a short time before being pronounced dead at a hospital. The families, friends, university and town are in shock.

Later newspaper accounts will note the poor weather conditions, possible sudden wind gusts, improper weight balance on the plane, and maybe even errors by the crew as possible factors in the crash. Regardless of the exact cause, a university of around 2,000 students is shaken to its core. A town of 100,000 or so joins in the grief.

In the following years, the team was rebuilt and achieved notable success in the 80s and early 90s. Players like Brad Leaf, Theren Bullock, Scott Haffner (who once scored 65 points in a game for UE, sixth all time for a single game in NCAA division I history), Dan Godfread, Andy Elkins, Reed Jackson, Marcus Wilson, and the aforementioned Simmons brought wins and glory to the program. Head Coach Jim Crews received national attention as the team piled up wins in front of home crowds that regularly reached 9,000 and 10,000 in Roberts Stadium. The team advanced to play in the NCAA tournament a few times, despite being one of the smallest universities in division I sports.

However, the wins and game attendees became fewer by the mid 90s and the program has had difficulty putting together the kind of seasons the town of Evansville has come to expect.

Enter Coach Simmons.

The town has adopted a guarded optimism about the program again. Coach Simmons demonstrates a passion for the job, and a persistent desire to return the program to its winning ways. Interestingly, Simmons was recently named as one of “100 Legends” of Illinois high school basketball, as was Mike Duff, a young man who had immense potential, and who died in the UE plane crash thirty years ago.

No one who lived in Evansville in 1977 will ever forget the events of that terrible night, a low point for the university. In 2007, however, there is hope for new, better memories for UE, as a new basketball era begins. It goes without saying that no wins on the court can make up for lives lost, but somehow it seems to help the town’s psyche just a little bit when their beloved Purple Aces can bring home a win.

The 1977 team is pictured below with head coach Bobby Watson (middle of first row).



33 responses

13 12 2007

Great tribute!

20 12 2007

This was a great read. I grew up in Huntington, WV and attended Marshall University…also the site on of one of college sports greatest tragedies and the inspiration for the movie “We Are Marshall.” I had no idea something similar had happened at another school. A very sad story. Good luck to the 2007 team!

20 12 2007

We thought that was a great movie. Marshall and Evansville will be forever linked. I’ll always be pulling for both. Thanks for your comment.

4 01 2008

Ahh, fond memories of Evansville. I lived in Newburgh (shh!) and over the two years I lived there, I became friends with a family who had a personal loss in that tragedy.

That was a really beautiful tribute… the important thing in cases like this is to simply never forget. Someone’s brother, uncle, son… you never know how much just thinking of that event allows the remaining families to know that person’s life was not lived in vain.

5 01 2008
Doc Hancock

Nice tribute.

15 01 2008

Nice article. My grandfather was one of the local supporters who was on the plane and was killed that day. I live in Texas now, but everytime I see Evansville can’t help but think of that.

15 01 2008

JL. I’m sorry. It was incredibly tragic. Thanks so much for stopping by. My dad was a fan of the Aces for a long time but was never a supporter or anything like that.

17 11 2010

I was a freshman at U of E. that year. That tragedy altered my life in ways I can’t even describe.
I teach at a university now, and just today I suddenly started talking about it to my creative writing class. We were on the topic of “things too difficult to write about.” All these years later I can write about everything but that. It is still too horrifying.

30 11 2013

I was also a freshman that year and played football. I lived next to basketball team I still remember talking to some of the players .

23 01 2011
Eddie Campbell

This morning I was watching the story of the 10 year anniversary of the Oklahoma State plane crash and was remembering when growing up seeing the story of the Evansville Purple Aces plane crash on a December night. Maybe because Oklahoma State was a major program and Marshall was a full football squad ESPN rarely does stories on this basketball program that just became a division 1 program for the 1st time.
Would ESPN ever do a cover story of this program or would Hollywood ever do a movie about the events before or after to go into the next season?

19 10 2011

I had graduated from the U of E the prior spring. I was dating a girl who was a Sophmore and had driven down from Cincinnati that weekend. That weekend she gave me the sad news that she’d fallen for the trainer on the basketball team. I drove bad to Cincy brokenhearted that night. Still I called to let her know I made it safely, not yet knowing about the tragedy. She was inconsolable, understandably.

13 12 2011

I had a friend on that team, Steve Miller from New Albany, IN. He was such a great guy & engaged to a girlfriend of mine. I was standing in my High School parking lot going to an alumni game when several of us received the news. We were in disbelief, everything changed in the blink of an eye. It was a sad time for us, the other team members families & the state of Indiana. I will never forget.

17 12 2012
Dan Miller

Im Steve’s brother Dan, We both went to New Albany, we miss him alot

17 12 2012
Kyle Keiderling

There is a profile on Steve in the book, Trophies and Tears. I was able to speak with someone who new him very well and get information on him for the book.

4 01 2014
Vince-Bonnie Sinnett Schweizer

Is this the same Steve that went to Harter School in Canton Ohio? So sorry for your loss.

4 01 2014
Vince-Bonnie Sinnett Schweizer

Is this the same Steve that went to Harter school in Canton Ohio?

13 05 2012


13 05 2012

Very sad my mom died last year and my family is blessing everyone

31 05 2012

I too remember this day very vividly. I was a sophomore at NC A&T SU and 2 of the players on that team were my homeboys from the Goldsboro/Dudley area in North Carolina. They were very good basketball players and everyone had high hopes and expectations of both of them. I was driving home for Thanksgiving and just happened to look and there beside me on the highway was the van bringing their bodies home. Very sad days…I will never forget the Evansville team.

31 05 2012

I meant I was going home for Christmas…sorry!

17 06 2012
Kyle Keiderling

Read with interst your post on Evansville and the loss of the Purple Aces on December 13,1977. It has been 35 years since the Night it Rained Tears- and yet the impact reamins as evdenced by the comments to your post. I have just completed a book on the University of Evansville Purple Aces and the symbiotic relationship that existed between the team and the city. It is scheduled for release in November and is titled, TROPHIES AND TEARS: The story of Evansville and the Aces. It is a tribute to the “best small college team in America. That the Aces are remembered primarily for the tragedy that took the lives of the 1977-78 team is understandable. What the book reveals is that they were in fact the giant killers of college basketball. They captured 5 National Championships- their coach was the first small college coach to be elected to the Hall of Fame and they produced a dozen all-Americans. The Aces were an American success story that will finally be told.
Kyle Keiderling

13 12 2012
Frederick Joyner

it has forever changed my life-i new them all even the coaches–my brother was number 35–right now im thinking of them-and it never gets easier when u miss someone -i miss them all–wonderful bright and talented young men outside the court—who’s laughter i still hear today-

13 12 2012
Kyle Keiderling

The book Trophies and Tears: The story of Evansvillea nd the Aces is being published this month. The book contains two chapters devoted to the 1977 Aces who perished in the tragic plane crash on December 13,1977 and each of the players is profiled in the book. The website for the book is

Date: Thu, 13 Dec 2012 14:57:10 +0000 To:

13 12 2012

It was my freshman year at the Univeristy of Evansville when that happen. I had met 4 of the people in my classes. I think I cried for the next two years.

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2 07 2013

i attended siu carbondale and when the siu basketball team filled in for the aces my heart goes. out to eldorado illinois mike duff what a fine human being just like barry smith and bill kittinger. from THOMAS OAKES jr.

13 07 2013

sad day…for the area..eldorado’s duff and kingston….actually taught some of the kids my age how to play some ball…..

13 11 2013

I grew up in Goldsboro, NC. I attended the same high school as two of the freshmen on that team. The city of Goldsboro was shaken to its core! Warren Alston and Barney Lewis are still heroes in my hometown.

13 11 2013
kyle keiderling

Their high school coach was asked to become an assistant at Evansville. He declined but sent his two best players to Bobby Watson. Along with the other Aces they perished on December 13, 1977. Their funerals drew overflow crowds in Goldsboro

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21 04 2017
Jim Szymanski

I was a young reporter for the Evansville Press the night of the crash. I will never forgot how hard we all worked through the night and into the next morning trying the capture the heartache of this event. We reporters all felt how much this story meant to the city. The next day, the entire paper was almost exclusively about the crash. It was the most memorable story I helped to cover in a 35 year journalism career. We reporters never felt the strain of our effort; adrenline took over. In the end, at least we could be proud that we had worked our hearts out for Evansville. It was small comfort, but comfort nevertheless.

12 12 2017
Brian Arbenz

Steve Miller, in his junior year on the Aces team in 1977, was the husband of a friend of mine from high school. Vickie was 20 and a new wife in a marriage which had a wonderful long future. A bright, expressive upbeat person, now she was a widow. Steve was a nice, quiet mature young man. We all miss him to this day.

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