Indiana State began the 1978-79 college basketball season unranked and did not appear on the original NBC TV schedule. But as the Sycamores remained unbeaten and star player Larry Bird emerged as the consensus national player of the year, attention started increasing on the team and its talented forward. Eventually, NBC decided to add a late-season Indiana State game to the schedule so it could showcase Bird before the NCAA tournament.
Many fans were at least aware of Bird. The Boston Celtics selected him in the first round of 1978 NBA draft, but he still had eligibility left and returned to school for his senior season. Sports Illustrated put Bird on the cover of its college hoop preview his junior year and profiled the team in an article early in 1979. But the sport received relatively limited coverage in the pre-ESPN era and Bird's teams had never qualified for the NCAA tournament, so most fans had still not seen him play.
NBC sent Jim Simpson and Al McGuire to Terre Haute to call the Sunday 2/25/1979 contest against Wichita State. And Bird put on a brilliant 49 point performance as Indiana State went to 26-0.
Despite the NBC coverage, not all parts of the nation got a chance to see Bird that day. For one thing, NBC did a regional telecast of a South Carolina game in the same timeslot (although the network did send the Indiana State game to most of the country). Also, some NBC affiliates pre-empted the network games for local programming.
Earlier in the season, Indiana State had become the focus of an on-air debate between McGuire and co-analyst Billy Packer. McGuire believed the undefeated Sycamores deserved to move up to #1 in the polls while Packer was rather vocal in his disagreement. This drew such ire among Indiana State fans that Packer actually received death threats. NBC played it safe and avoided assigning him to the 2/25 Indiana State game. Packer instead worked the game in Louisville which opened the NBC doubleheader that afternoon.
Indiana State ascended to #1 in the polls the next day and backed up the ranking by advancing all the way to the national championship game. NBC did send Packer (with Simpson) to call the Indiana State games for the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament. For the Final Four, Packer joined McGuire and Dick Enberg. The Bird vs. Magic championship game against Michigan State remains the highest rated college basketball game of all time.
Looking back at how relatively few schools NBC tended to select for its featured Sunday telecasts, it is quite interesting to note that NBC put its spotlight on a 1979 Missouri Valley regular season game! And while this remains the signature event in Sycamore regular season history, I find it ironic that the memorable moments section of the official Indiana State basketball record book lists the wrong date for this game.