Jack Herron’s Return to Glory – Celebrating a Man, a Court and IU Tradition
By Pete DiPrimio
March 29, 2019
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The Baller and the Court are back, in a manner of speaking, seventy-plus years after their last basketball adventure, and family has gathered to celebrate.close window
Picture a once-forgotten Indiana University court, a nearly century old wooden testament to Cream 'n Crimson championship heritage.
Connect it to a fiercely competitive ex-Hoosier, Irish by heritage, Logansport Berry by birth, Marine by training, who once told Branch McCracken, Indiana's former Hall of Fame coach, a man intimidating enough to have earned the names The Sheriff and The Bear decades before Bob Knight raged across the Big Ten landscape to, in so many words, shove it.
Would you expect anything less from a 5-7, 155-pound force of nature once known as "Super Mouse?"
There's even a touch of Night at the Museum magic, as if late at night, when no one is around at the IU Warehouse and Surplus Store, the past comes to life.
Jack Herron has been gone for 29 years, a 66-year-old victim of lung cancer that came as a shock for those who knew this former IU three-sport athlete, and his impact still resonates with life-altering force.
"It was such a loss," oldest child Dianne Herron says softly. "It was awful."
Her seven brothers and sisters murmur in agreement.
"We think about Dad every day," Dianne says. "It means so much to have somebody appreciate his history and legacy."
On a cold and sunny recent Saturday, Jack lives again, in the memories of his eight children, 15 grandchildren and other family members who come from across the state, and beyond, and in the Indiana University history showcased by officials who have set up this moment.
"We're honored to have you here," IU Warehouse/Surplus Stores manager Todd Reid says.
Honor comes with a piece of that historic court, a section of the free throw lane … and a mystery. Jack was never a Hoosier superstar in the manner of Bill Garrett or Bobby Leonard or Don Schlundt or Archie Dees from that mid-20th Century era.
What Jack lacked in fame, he made up for in substance he kept to himself.
"Dad was not a braggart," eldest son John Herron says. "He didn't share any of this. When we did ask questions, he'd say, 'That was 25 years ago.' Or, 'That's none of your business.'"
John laughs as he says this, and his siblings laugh with him. They, too, had heard it before and, in so many ways, still do.
"He didn't talk a lot about athletics," Dianne says. "We first realized he played at IU when we found scrapbooks in the attic. He'd tell us a little bit."
Before we get to what he told them, and much more than that; before we detail the court upon which so much Hoosier spectacle occurred, let's get to the heart of what made Herron special.
Flashback to the early 1990s. The head coach of the Logansport High School girls' basketball program was seeking assistant coaching help. He knew of Jack Herron, a local legend as much for his military training, lifelong sports exploits (challenge him in golf at your own risk) and intense youth coaching prowess as his IU heritage. Jack was a man of passion and conviction and, when he deemed it necessary, colorful vocabulary.
Jack's intensity was such that his children called him, "Jumping Jack Flash," but "not to his face," Dianne says.
When Jack decided to help coach the girls, the youngest of his four sons, Jim, couldn't believe it.
"I told Mom, 'That will be a disaster. You know how tough he is. You know all the cussing he does. He'll have them crying. They'll all quit.'"
Then Jim went to a practice and saw a softer version of his father he hadn't expected.
"He was so nice to them. He had nicknames for them. They worked hard and had fun."
They also won, highlighted by a sectional championship.
A few months after that title, Jack died. A few months after that, so did his wife, Ruth, at age 59.
"The girls on the basketball team dedicated their season to our parents," Jim says, "and they won the sectional again. They put pieces of the net on their graves. It was covered with ribbons and flowers and pieces of net."
Adds another sister, Barb: "We were robbed. We were. We missed out on spending more time with our parents."
And yet, in this moment, no one misses anything.
The Baller is back.
The air smells of saw dust. A power saw bites deep into the old wood, spewing particles.
The family is cutting up the free throw lane so that all eight children will have a piece. Reid says that each piece will come with a certificate of authenticity.
"This is quite an honor for us," he says, "to meet the family of a team member who played on this floor."
Reid has set up a memorial that includes the mid-court section of the floor. It's a rectangular chunk of grayish wood, with the faded white-and-red center court still visible. Above that is a sign that reads, "Old Fieldhouse Floor (1928-1960), Home of the 1940 & 1953 NCAA Championship Teams."
Photos and mementos are displayed nearby to celebrate Jack's accomplishments.
"The blood, sweat and tears are there on the court from Jack Herron and all the other great players who played on it," Reid says. "None of this is what it is without that court and without all the Jack Herrons to play on it."
He gestures to the family.
"Your father was well known. He was easy to track down."
So was the history of the Fieldhouse that once housed the court. It opened in 1928 at a cost of $350,000.
By comparison, the most recent renovations to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall cost $40 million.
The Fieldhouse, with a seating capacity of close to 10,000, replaced the old gym in what is now called the Intramural Center. The old gym could seat around 2,000, which wasn't big enough as IU basketball under coach Everett Dean developed into a Big Ten power.
The Fieldhouse was a multi-purpose facility. Major League Baseball's Cincinnati Reds used it for spring training in 1943 because of World War II travel restrictions. The IU football team used it for indoor practices. Even some freshman football games were played there.
The court was used until 1960. It was removed and ended up, according to IU historian and Tri-North Middle School teacher Chris Williams, at a horse barn owned by Mary Toombs.
"She was going to panel the barn with it," Williams says.
That didn't happen and the court wound up, mostly forgotten, at a Martinsville warehouse off Hwy 37. Williams and Reid got word of some kind of old wooden floor stored there, and went to take a look. Despite some water damage, they instantly knew what they were looking at.
Cream 'n Crimson history.
IU once had 144 pieces of the original floor. Now it has 86. All of them, Reid says, are special.
"Late at night you can almost hear Jack and his teammates yelling and cheering. You can almost hear the roar of the crowd."
Williams says IU was 234-74 on the floor with four Big Ten titles, 16 All Americans and three Big Ten MVPS.
One of those All-Americans was center Branch McCracken, who would go on to become the Hoosiers' coach while winning a pair of national championships. He scored the first point on the court with a free throw.
When Dean left for Stanford in 1938, McCracken took over and coached the Hoosiers to five straight Big Ten runner-up finishes. That included the 1940 national championship, the first of IU's five.
During that title season, the Hoosiers finished a game behind Big Ten champ Purdue, but won both regular season meetings. The NCAA Tournament had started a year earlier, and only took eight teams. The Selection Committee chose IU over Purdue because of the head-to-head results.
In the NCAA tourney, Indiana used its full-throttle approach -- ground-breaking given the deliberate style used by most teams of the era -- to beat Springfield 48-24, Duquesne 39-30 and Kansas 60-42 and win the championship.
"That was the team where the name, 'The Hurryin' Hoosiers' came from," Williams says.
McCracken led IU to another national championship in 1953, and to several other near misses.
His last real title chance came during the 1959-60 season. Led by All-America Walt Bellamy, the Hoosiers finished 20-4, 11-3 in the Big Ten. Their losses were by a combined 11 points.
On Feb. 29, 1960, at the Fieldhouse, in the season finale, IU crushed a powerhouse Ohio State team 99-83 to finish a game behind the Buckeyes in the conference race. Ohio State, with superstars Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, and a volatile reserve named Bob Knight, went on to win the national championship.
Knight returned to IU as a coach 12 years later and stayed for 29 seasons, winning three national championships and 11 Big Ten titles.
"If IU had gotten the chance to get into the NCAA Tournament (in 1960)," Williams says, "it might have won the whole thing."
That was the last college basketball game ever played on the floor.
"When you talk about Indiana basketball and historical significance," Williams says, "this floor is where it started. It was with Everett Dean and Branch McCracken and Harry Good as coaches.
"Harry Good never won a Big Ten or national championship, but you can't overlook him. What he did is significant history."
The same could be said about Jack Herron.
Herron wasn't a Hoosier superstar, but he was good enough to play three sports -- football in 1944, basketball from 1944-46 and baseball in '44 – after earning 13 letters at Logansport High School.
Basketball was his major sport.
Jack played under Harry Good, who had come from Indiana Central (now the University of Indianapolis) when World War II caused McCracken to join the Navy after the 1942-43 season.
That was a difficult time to coach, Williams says, because so many men were leaving for military service.
"There was lot of roster turnover. Good was always wondering if a player would be shipped off or stay. It was hard to compete that way.
"This was the first time freshmen were eligible. He had nine freshmen on that 1943-44 team. One of them was Jack Herron."
As a freshman, Jack averaged 2.7 points in six games for a 7-15 team. As a sophomore, he averaged 5.1 points as the Hoosiers improved to 10-11.
Because of the war, manpower became such a problem that, "They used football players to help fill out the roster," Williams says.
"They even pulled in Ted Kluszewski (a Hoosier football and baseball standout who later became a Major League home-run-hitting star for the Cincinnati Reds) to play. Basically they used any able body that was athletic enough to fill the roster."
In the 1946 Big Ten opener at Michigan, Herron just missed beating the Wolverines with a last-second jumper. With the score tied at 58-58, and the crowd roaring, Jack scored the apparent game winner. Disappointed fans ran onto the court. Players headed to their locker rooms.
Amid the confusion, no one noticed that officials had ruled the shot came after the buzzer. Referees got the players back and cleared fans off the floor for an overtime session.
IU scored all nine overtime points and won 67-58.
Those Hoosiers, in Good's last season before McCracken's return, finished 18-3 overall, 9-3 in the Big Ten, good for second place behind Ohio State (10-2). Jack averaged 3.8 points.
"This was an era when games were low scoring," Williams says. "In his three years at IU, Jack Herron had several games where he'd score eight to nine points."
He could dribble opponents into submission with his ball-handling skills, and became a one-man stall in close wins over Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and, especially, Purdue.
McCracken returned for the 1946-47 season. Jack was set to be a senior, but decided not to play.
"Dad had high respect for Harry Good," John says. "He said, 'Branch and I didn't see eye to eye.' Branch came back and that's when Dad left. When I asked him why, he told me it was none of my business. I never asked again."
Jim Herron says the story he heard was that McCracken didn't offer his father enough scholarship money, so he decided to get a job. He married Ruth and children soon followed, eight in a nine-year span.
There was Dianne, John, Julie, Joanie, Bob, Dan, Barb and Jim.
Their mother was used to large families. She was the youngest of 11.
The Herrons grew up in the Logansport house were Jack was born. The problem – the house was not designed for so big a family.
"We only had one bathroom," John says. "There was no shower. Just a bathtub. That's what we had to get 10 people ready for church on Sundays."
Don't feel sorry for them, he adds.
"We lived on the poor side of town, but we never wanted for anything. We had love."
To understand Jack Herron means understanding tough love in an era where political correctness was hard to find.
Case in point, Jack took over his son Jim's youth football team. The previous coach had guided them to a last-place finish in the previous season.
That was NOT in Jack's game plan.
Neither was G-rated vocabulary.
"He was so tough, kids were quitting, including the quarterback," Jim says. "On his first day as coach, he came in and said, 'You know that saying that winning isn't everything? That's bull! We're here to win. That's what we're going to do. We're going to hit!'
"That's what we did. He got the kids so fired up to play for him."
The quarterback job went to 11-year-old Jim. It came with steep leadership demands.
"If somebody jumped off sides," Jim says, "I had to run. I'd be in the huddle, somebody would jump, and Dad would say, 'Take a Lap!'
"We practiced on the Babe Ruth Field, and I had to run all the way around it. When I got back to the huddle, I'd say, 'If any of you bastards jumps off sides, I'm kicking your ass!'"
The result, Jim says, was, "We became a well-oiled machine."
To speed up the pace, Jack used hand signals to call plays from the sidelines.
"Dad wanted us to be right back at the line of scrimmage after a play," Jim says. "I'm 11 years old and he's giving me signals and numbers. He worked us hard. We'd be ready for the next play before officials had spotted the ball."
It all left a lasting impression.
"A lot of people in Logansport still come up and tell me, those days on the Packers Youth Football Team were the best," Jim says. "That's the way it was."
To understand Jack Herron means understanding commitment, dedication and the fact the father had a high tolerance for his sons' pain.
Marine training, you see, rarely fades.
"My dad used to tell the boys, 'You're not hurt. I don't feel a thing,'" Jim says with a smile.
Jim lived through that as a 9-year-old third baseman. During one youth game he fell while running to first base and cut his knee so badly "you could see the tendons," he says.
The traditional response -- get him to the hospital.
Jack's response – play on.
He took Jim home, laid him on the kitchen table, squeezed the cut closed and tried to use bandages to seal it. That didn't work. His wife told him, in blunt terms, to take their son to the hospital. After a brief argument, Jack agreed.
"While we were driving there," Jim says, "he was lecturing me that it's so important not to let your team down. That I was going to play the next day.
"We get to the hospital. The doctor stitched me inside and outside because the cut was so deep. He wanted to put a cast on it to keep it immobilized. Dad said, No, he has a game tomorrow.
"The doctor wanted to give me crutches. Dad said, No, he has a game tomorrow. They brought out a wheelchair so at least I didn't have to walk on it right away. Dad said, He doesn't need it. He has a game tomorrow.
"I was 9 years old and the next night I played. It worked out fine. There was some bleeding, but the stitches didn't break."
For those thinking that was wrong, Jim says, "That's how Dad was. You were dedicated. You showed up and did your job."
As John puts it, "You talk about a general. Dad put Bob Knight (whose nickname was The General) to shame. If you wanted play a sport, you'd better be in it at 150 percent."
His father demanded maximum effort, John adds, without crossing lines.
"Dad was intense, but he was fair. If you didn't want to play, he was OK with that.
"(Younger brother) Dan was in Little League. He'd be in the outfield and a butterfly would go by and he'd watch that. He was all about nature. That was OK, too "
Jack always sought an edge.
"He was ahead of his time," John says. "He was an innovator.
"Tiger Woods would talk about visualization. Dad told me that's what he did growing up. He didn't have TV, just radio. He'd listen to games. He'd lie in bed the night before a high school game, visualize what he was going to do, and then go out and do it."
Challenge Jack at your own risk. One day a family member told Jack, "Let's play golf. I'd love to kick your ass."
"That's all it took," John says.
Jack taught himself to play golf through Hall of Famer Ben Hogan's book on fundamentals. He won multiple city and county tournaments, qualified for the state amateur, and tried to qualify for the U.S. Open.
As for his ability to coach golf, Jim says, "I played No. 1 on my high school team just by being taught by my dad."
Adds Dianne: "Sports were always a big part of his life. Part of that was growing up in the Depression. He followed the sports heroes of the day.
"He was very competitive. He was a natural athlete. Anything he ever did, he exceled at or practiced at it until he did excel."
The children inherited their father's love of sports. Julie, Joan and Barb played tennis. The brothers "played every sport," Dianne adds.
Bob, for instance, played on Logansport's 1975 state baseball title team.
Dianne grew up an IU fan. She says she slept with a Beat Purdue t-shirt until she wore it out.
She went to Hoosier football and basketball games, and got her heart broken when IU lost to Kentucky 92-90 in the 1975 NCAA Tourney regional finals, her heart lifted by the national championships of 1976, '81 and '87.
"We have such a love for sports and IU," she says.
Jack was forever doing things for his kids, and for those in the neighborhood.
He built a backyard skating rink. He fixed broken bicycles. He coached multiple teams.
As a salesman and then an inspector for the state of Indiana trucking industry, he was on the road a lot, but not so much that he missed out on what was important to his family, or any one.
"Dad had a soft spot for kids, especially kids who were disadvantaged," Dianne says. "Kids would bring their report cards to him, and he'd give them a buck or something. Give them praise."
She pauses as the power saw roars again. More mementos are being cut up to share.
"Dad always told us to look out for each other. He'd say blood was thicker than water. Nothing was more important than family."
Behind her are two football photos of her father. In them he is forever young, perhaps 20, all dark wavy hair and intense expression.
One is a portrait shot without a hint of a smile. The other shows him posing with a ball in his left hand, right arm extended as if to ward off a tackler, wearing a helmet without a facemask, a serious man about to embark on a serious Cream 'n Crimson adventure.
"To come down here and see the floor and hear the history," Dianne says to Reid and Williams, "to see your support, to have somebody appreciate his history and legacy, we can't tell you how much this means to us."
Somewhere, you figure, the Baller agrees.