For Evansville residents old enough to live through it, Dec. 13, 1977 represents a “where were you?” moment.
Marty Simmons, not yet a part of UE’s history, isn’t from the area but also has recollection.
“I can remember being a middle school student, and my parents informing me, and just weeping – not understanding how something like that, so tragic, could happen,” Simmons said.
The plane carrying UE’s men’s basketball team crashed not long after liftoff, killing all 29 passengers aboard in the program’s first season playing Division I.
Coach Bobby Watson’s team was off to a sub-.500 start, but by many accounts the first-year coach had talent on his roster and was turning the corner.
“They had a player on the team that I was really fond of,” said the Lawrenceville, Ill., native Simmons. “I never met him, but just watched him on TV at the state tournament – Mike Duff. I thought he was like a Larry Bird. As a young kid in Illinois, you’ve always got the state tournament on TV. You read things, but that was when you could actually see them.
“I thought he was a terrific player and, actually as I got older, he had the single-season scoring record for the state of Illinois. My senior season I was closing in on that record. I was, I think, 10 points shy of it.”
Simmons, a former UE player now in his sixth season as the Aces’ head coach, understands the history — five College Division national titles, the crash, and a rebuilding that’s led to five NCAA tournament appearances. He makes sure players do, too.
“We do that through the recruiting process,” Simmons said. “We talk just so much about how we’re unique and different, being a small school yet we have these tremendous fans who come out and support us. And if they’re allowed to come to a game, they see that themselves.
“I’ve talked about being a small, private institution that’s playing in one of the bigger conferences, and we’re allowed to do that because of our community and the people that show support.”
(There are simply too many stories out there remembering the plane crash to list them all here. If interested in taking a look back today, click here to view the Courier & Press’ recent archives for stories related to Dec. 13, 1977.)