Sorrow of 1977 Evansville Plane Crash Felt in Pittsburgh 'I Watched a Team Help Heal a Community'

By Sciullo, Maria | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 13, 2017 | Go to article overview

Sorrow of 1977 Evansville Plane Crash Felt in Pittsburgh 'I Watched a Team Help Heal a Community'


Sciullo, Maria, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Some were just boys, eager to take on the world as part of a new Division I basketball program at the University of Evansville. They were the Purple Aces, stepping up to the NCAA big leagues, with a new coach, new branding, new expectations.

Division I meant upscale travel, fewer long bus rides. So they boarded the two-propeller charter airplane on a foggy evening in Evansville, Ind., charged into a sky heavy with clouds, and took off.

Ninety seconds later, they were gone.

Dec. 13 marks 40 years since the accident. Fourteen members of the team, their head coach, Bethel Park native Bobby Watson, and 14 others en route to a game in Murfreesboro, Tenn. - including athletic department staff and the local radio play-by-play man - perished when their flight failed to gain altitude.

Indiana Air Flight 216 left Evansville Dress Regional Airport and crashed into brushy hillside, ultimately taking with it 29 souls and the heart of a town.

"People old enough to remember what happened at the time, they talk about it the way you might the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger disaster. They can tell you what they were doing, what time of day it was," said Tom Kazee, the University of Evansville's current president.

"It's left an imprint on the psyche of the city that's really quite remarkable."

Evansville is a solidly Midwestern city in southwestern Indiana, and yet the events of what was commonly described as "the night it rained tears" would be wed to Pittsburgh in more ways than one.

There was Watson, of course, a high school star for the Black Hawks in the late 1950s. There also were odd bookends: Evansville played the University of Pittsburgh Panthers seven days before the crash.

The following year, with yet another new head coach, Dick Walters, and an entirely new team, the Purple Aces would make their first plane trip to play in Pittsburgh, at Fitzgerald Field House.

Somehow, the Pittsburgh Steelers and a couple of table tennis champions from Carrick wound up in this story, too.

'It's the Aces'

Mike Blake remembers hearing something about a plane crash as he returned to his office at WFIE-TV in Evansville.

"I was the sports director and had just covered two high school games," Mr. Blake said. "I came into the station around 8 o'clock, Central time. The GM would rarely be in the newsroom at that hour, but he was there and he said 'It's the Aces.'

"And everything changed."

Evansville had a population of around 131,000 in 1977. Roberts Stadium, home of the Aces, seated 10,000 comfortably. It was a time of victories, and peculiarities: legendary coach Arad McCutchan was dressing the team in, of all things, T-shirt uniform tops, orange for away games. Instead of warmup suits, the players wore boxing robes on the bench.

Everyone loved it, and sellouts were common.

When McCutchan retired at the end of the 1976-77 season, the head coaching job went to a beloved alum and former Evansville star, Jerry Sloan. But Mr. Sloan changed his mind less than a week into the job. Watson was waiting in the wings.

"I called him a 'sophisticated Fonzie,'" Mr. Blake said. "He was about 6-foot-8, and whether you were a big booster with big pockets, or a guy sitting in a bar, or an Aces student or in the media, he connected."

"Bob was a great storyteller, he could capture an audience," said Watson's sister, Lois Watson Ford, of Lexington, Va. "He could draw people to him, and was very loyal to his friends."

Their father, Carl Watson, moved his family from Latrobe to Harrisburg, finally settling in Bethel Park, when Bobby was in seventh grade. He played various sports but nothing compared to basketball. Bobby's mother, Olga Villani Watson, had been a softball player, and Carl played football at Saint Vincent College.

Watson surprised everyone by choosing Virginia Military Institute after graduation from Bethel Park. …

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