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THE 1941 KOKOMO WILDKATS

by

CLIFF JOHNSON

 

Alfred “Pee-dad” Campbell, who was serving his 7th year as the head coach for the  Wildkats, had high expectations for the 1940-41 season even though he had lost all but one starter to graduation from a fine 1940 squad that had made it to the semi-finals (then known as the “Super-Regionals”).  After attaining a 20-win season by defeating Marion in its regional final by the close score of 34-32, those 1940 Kats were then halted by a highly touted New Castle team in another tight battle, 40-38.  Immediately after that, those same Trojans, drained of energy from their previous effort, lost their nightcap contest against F.W. South Side’s Archers by a score of 39-27.  It’s pretty clear that the timing and intensity of tournament games always matters and will always affect subsequent game outcomes.  There’s not much that can be done about it.

 

The 1940 and 1941 editions of the Wildkats were special though.  After the war ended, several of those Kats, along with a couple of outstanding former players  from Howard County’s rural schools, went north to study electronics technology at Lawrence Tech Institute in the small community of Southfield, Michigan, twenty miles west of Detroit.  At the same time, they collectively formed what turned out to be a formidable small school basketball team that managed, under the tutelage of coach Don Ridler, to whip many big-name, highly ranked Division I university schools during regular season and tournament contests the next several years.  Their record of wins vs. losses, playing against strong teams all over the country for the six year period of 1947 through 1952, was 140-30, a winning percentage of .824. This was phenomenal for a small school and earned Lawrence Tech a national reputation.  Its successes in basketball during the late 1940s and early 50s are now legend.  The nucleus of the earlier teams was comprised mainly of Howard County high school graduates, most of them from Kokomo.  Key among the squad members were speedy 6-0 Norm Hankins, who was one of the leading scorers in the nation; Carl (Hump) Campbell, a 6-3 kingpin in the powerful backboard and offensive attacks;  Dave Talbert, a fast-moving, 5-11 ball handler, effective set-up man, and accurate shooter; Jim Stepler, a smooth 6-5 center from an undefeated 1943 Greentown team, and others like Barney Petty and “Bones” Wagner from Kokomo.  Chet Gabriel, a 6-6 dynamo center on the 1940 Kat team, also enrolled at Lawrence Tech but did not stay long, returning to Kokomo to set all kinds of local records playing AAU and Industrial League ball.   “Oh, what might have been!”, goes the old saying, had Chet only elected to remain with the Lawrence Tech Blue Devils!

 

Carl Campbell (no apparent relation to the coach) and Norm Hankins were the stalwarts of the 1941 team, but were by no means the only guns in Kokomo’s attack.  Campbell led the NCC in total points scored and game average, with Hankins not too far behind.  Another major contributor to the Wildkat’s success was Jack Turner, older brother of Gene Turner--a component of the famous 1944 Kat L-S-M-F-T team that was runner up to double-year champ Evansville Bosse.  Jack was not only a fine ballplayer, but later became a war hero.  Sadly he was also a combat fatality.  Dave Talbert and Max Galloway, while just sophomores, were already showing signs of having team leadership qualities.  Bill Hale played a strong forward position, while John Hoss and Carl Longshore, both slightly over six feet, alternated well at the center post.  Whitney Van Cleve, the only black player on the team, usually filled a starting guard spot and could handle the ball well but did not score much.  Jack Higgins was often one of the first substitutes off the bench to give a rest to one of the starting forwards.  Lewis Denny, a junior guard, was named to the team just prior to the finals to replace Carl Campbell who had turned 20 years old right after the semi-finals and was thus ineligible to play in the finals, under an IHSAA rule.

 

The case of Campbell, one of the two players deemed by the IHSAA that year to be ineligible for play during the course of the tournament (the other having been Edward James of Gary Froebel for an unrelated reason) is interesting.  The limitation-on-age rule might not have been thought through all that carefully by those on the IHSAA Rules Committee who proposed it in a very simplistic form and then adopted it.  And for better or worse, it’s been with us ever since.  Another view is, though, that in order to avoid a serious disruption to a team’s on-going court harmony and systematic play once it’s been honed and fine-tuned by a responsible coach, perhaps it would have been more rational or reasonable to allow a boy who turns 20 during the season to at least finish that season before declaring him ineligible.  Being fair to the player, the coach, the school, and to the fans seems more paramount in importance than abiding by an arbitrarily-established  rule that seems fair to no one.  Besides, how could only two or three months in any boy’s age justify the drastic action of abruptly forcing him to leave his beloved team and teammates?   Regardless, this is what happened to Carl Campbell and to Kokomo’s title dreams in 1941.  Campbell turned 20 just before the state finals so the standing rule thrust him onto the sidelines as a spectator.  He was not allowed to continue on participating with his teammates for a possible state championship.  Kokomo, in natural consequence, lost its next and final contest in the Butler Fieldhouse, not having the services of its best player.  It might seem pointless to grouse about this incident 70 years after the fact, but I suspect that the IHSAA’s moronic age limitation  rule, because of its poorly stated and overly simplistic wording, has been instrumental in ruining many other good teams in mid-season, over the course of all these intervening years.  One such instance that I recall vividly as a youth was the undefeated Glenn team of 1950 that lost the services of high-powered Charlie Sessions just before the tournament began.  I know there’ve been many others.

 

With that sidebar out of the way now, we’ll return to the main theme of this article.  The Wildkats’ 1940-41 regular season began with gusto, reflective of two huge win margins over the perennial mighty mite Rossville 47-26, and then Elwood 53-39.  School and community spirit became loud and upbeat at Kokomo.  Frankfort, however, always a big threat under Everett Case, and especially so at home in the ultra-narrow confines of Howard Hall, thumped the Kats 38-22 to bring the students and fans back down to earth.   But the boys captured the next three games in succession against Indianapolis Tech 34-26, Marion 36-29, and Peru 41-28.  Then the Marion Giants once again put a dampener on everything by bucking the Kats off their high horse at home in a close contest 32-31.  With this defeat Pee-dad Campbell began wondering where this season was really headed.  Lafayette and Muncie played tight against the Kats but both came up short on 31-28 and 30-28 counts.  New Castle, one of the better teams in the state, pulled off a double overtime 42-40 victory over the Kats and the season record now stood at 7-3.  A hard-fought but disappointing loss at Berry Bowl in Logansport (39-38) briefly rattled the team but they came back strong with a decisive 36-17 win over the highly regarded Tipton Blue Devils.  At this point the Kats started looking more like the team that Pee-dad Campbell had wanted.  They next took revenge against the Frankfort Hotdogs with a surprising 25-15 win, using Pee-dad’s latest ideas of defense.  Reverting to their strong offensive weapons the next game, they doubled the score on NCC title contender Richmond, 44-22.  That was a key victory, for at the time the Red Devils were battling the Kats for second place in the NCC.  Another win against the Archers of Fort Wayne South Side (37-31) preceded an unsurprising 39-27 loss to Anderson, possibly the strongest team in the state.  Another win over Logansport 35-25, was followed by a 40-31 loss to Hammond Tech, the previous year’s state champions who had lost only two games all season and were favored, right along with Anderson, as one of the prime candidates for the state title.  A 40-26 pasting of the Wabash Apaches allowed the Kats to close the season on a positive note.  Their season record for scheduled games stood at 13-6 and they had captured 3rd place in the tough NCC, right behind Anderson and Richmond.  Most of their six losses had been to stout opponents.

 

The Howard County sectional was a breeze for the Kats, taking decisive victories over the small schools Howard Twp. (67-23), Greentown (48-32), and Union Twp. (50-12).

 

The first game of the regional was much the same, with an easy 44-27 trouncing of Somerset.  However, the Marion Giants were in this tournament too and as Pee-dad  knew from past experience, any victory over that team would come hard.  He needn’t have worried though.  Tipton had returned to their best form in the afternoon session to knock off the Giants 41-35, despite the heroics of sophomore forward Joe Pfeiffer who plunked in 23 of Marion’s 35 points in defeat.  That night, the Blue Devils could not solve the Wildkat’s sticky defense and fell, 29-20.

 

The level of competition rose dramatically in the Kats’ semi-final.  The Huntington Vikings provided a lot of excitement in an affair that saw them gradually close a 10- point deficit in the 4th quarter with only four minutes remaining.  Kokomo barely escaped the Vikings’ fast-moving rally in winning 41-38, with Campbell and Hankins scoring a combined 30 points early on.  The final game that night against the F.W. North Side Redskins was a nip and tuck battle until the 4th quarter when the Kats blew it wide open with some fancy shooting by Campbell and Hankins that resulted in a 41-33 victory.  Campbell, in his final game as an eligible Wildkat performer, turned on the steam and scored nine field goals and sank a free throw for nineteen points.

 

With Campbell no longer on the team as the Kats looked toward their next game in the finals at Butler Fieldhouse, the general outlook was anything but optimistic at Kokomo.  The next challenge would come from the Washington Hatchets, who had become the tournament favorites even while Campbell was still eligible.  Wildkat fans nevertheless cheered their team on constantly with wild enthusiasm just for being in the final four.  The Hatchets left no doubt in anyone’s mind on Saturday afternoon, however, that they had a high caliber basketball team as they crushed the Kats 48-32.  Leroy (Hook) Mangin led the Hatchet onslaught with eleven baskets and a free throw, while Norm Hankins did his best to keep the Kats in the game by contributing half his team’s points by himself, mostly one-handers from the court corners.  Kokomo had great difficulty snatching any rebounds in this game since there was no one around to compete for backboard position with  6-4 center Jim Riffey of the Hatchets.  An inglorious finish perhaps to a season that might have ended much differently for the Kats had Hump Campbell only been born in April, 1921 rather than in March of that year.

 

 
 



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