Indiana Basketball Comes to Television

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Written By: Bill Murphy 12/30/2018

If the Bible is the Greatest Story Ever Told, then for Indiana basketball fans (for which Indiana basketball is regarded by many as at least a secondary religion), this may be the greatest story ever heard.

It was the season that followed the Garrett era, a season after McCracken had produced his seventh second place Big Ten finish in ten years as head coach of Indiana University,  a season that would usher in the Leonard, Schlundt, Farley, Scott,and Kraak era. Schlundt was a 6’9”, highly touted freshman who would be eligible to join the four sophomores because of a waiver that allowed freshmen to compete at a varsity level as a result of the Korean war. 

It would be a season that would mark the fiftieth year of Indiana basketball going all the way back to February 8, 1901, when Indiana played its first game against Butler, a 20 to 17 loss.

It would be the season in which IU, McCracken, WTTV, Paul Lennon, Bob Petranoff, Bob Cook, Gary Ruban, Herman Wells, and Chesty Foods would make college basketball history. It would be the first televised broadcast of a regular season collegiate game, and this is the story of how it all came about.

This was the brainchild of Paul Lenmon. Bob Cook, and Bob Petranoff. The first order of business was to ask Carl Onken, the station's chief engineer, to see if it was possible to microwave-relay a signal from the IU Fieldhouse on seventh street to the transmitter. When the answer was yes, then the next course of action was to seek permission from President Herman Wells, and Athletic Director Pooch Harrell. The response took both Lennon and Petranoff by surprise. Both Wells and Harrell were concerned about fans not showing up to the games if it was televised.  Harrell's exact response was "Why would anyone pay a dollar for a ticket to our game if they can see it for free on TV.

Lennon didn't blink. His response was, "How about we buy the empty seats at a dollar apiece." He pulled a number out of the air, of say 750 people staying home and not coming to the games, and if that's not enough we can adjust it for the next game. With that very meeting, television rights fees would begin. Both Harrell and Wells while expressing doubts that they could get anyone to pay that kind of money, agreed to allow WTTV to broadcast the games. 

The first two steps were done, but before Lennon could get too excited , Bob Petranoff said to him "Paul , don't get too excited Who's going to pay IU? And who's going to pay WTTV for the airtime? And who is going to pay you. Of course the 24 year old Lennon didn't have a clue. But Lennon had a vision and he really wanted this to happen. Motivation can be a powerful incentive, so Lennon drove to Indianapolis to meet with Gary Ruben, who had a new client in Terre Haute,  Chesty Foods. With Eckrich meats already sponsoring the Television of high school tournament, then maybe Chesty Foods and Chesty Potato Chips would be a perfect match after all people would sit down with a bowl of chips and watch the game. Ruben asked how much it would costs Chesty per game. Lennon would reply totally off the cuff, $2,500 dollars a game. Ruben's next question was, how many commercials would they get? Lennon would again answer off the cuff saying about 12, depending on timeouts.

Ruben would call Lennon two days later to say that Chesty would take all 11 games. With that phone call, Chesty Potato Chips would become IU basketball's first television sponsor. 

The first game was played on December 6,1951, against Valparaiso at the old Fieldhouse on seventh Street.  The game was a sellout but IU would keep the $750 fee. The Old Fieldhouse was a field  of dirt covered by a roof, surrounded by limestone walls, of course. A portable basketball court would sit in the middle. It was dim, dark place by TV standards, so lights had to be added. They were hung quickly from steel beams. WTTV had two black and white cameras that were taken from the Bloomington studios right after the news, brought to the Fieldhouse, and then taken down right after the game and rushed back to the studio for the 11 o'clock news. 

The press box was a wooden deck above the south stand of bleachers. Bob  Cook, who was the assistant athletic director and publicity man for the university, would do the statistics for the game while Lennon would do the play by play, all the commercials(which were live, as was halftime), and the post game summary. Lennon and Cook would sit above the noisy student body for nearly three hour broadcast. Petranoff was located in a cold remote truck calling the shots. While in the booth, Gary Ruben would hand Lennon a bag of Chesty Potato Chips at the opening an each timeout for the commercials, all of which were ad-libbed on the spot. Paul Lennon would say, "the first night, I was like a deer in the headlights. When the red camera light came on and Gary Ruben handed me that bag of Chesty Potato Chips,  I just suddenly blurted, 'I 've got my ticket, have you got yours?' This 39 cent size of Chesty Potato Chips is your ticket to tonight's game and all the other games coming up"

 With that phrase, the Chesty Foods business exploded. Before that game, they were just another chip after the game all over central Indiana store shelves were empty of Chesty Chips. Overnight, Chesty took a dominant position in the market for potato chips. Chesty which at one time operated with one shift  would quickly add shifts two and three.  This was the power of television advertising and the draw of Branch McCracken and Indiana basketball. 

As for the game itself, Indiana defeated Valparaiso,  68 to 59. The Mac Men as they were called were lead in scoring by Dick Farley

With 19 points. Miranda and Leonard each poured in 9 points apiece. Masters would have 10, and Kraak 8 while Schlundt had 6 in his first game for the Hoosiers.  Branch's team would leave the court the same way they had entered it, by trotting over a path of heywood laid from the court to the dressing room to keep their shoes clean. Except for the December 22 game against Kansas State, which was aged over Christmas break while the students were gone. The Hoosier would play in front of a packed house, but Indiana would keep the $750 for each game. By the 52-53 season, Indiana would want $2,500 per game and get it. The season was right there for everyone to see as long as you had your ticket. Got your chips? I've got mine. Let's watch.