The 1979 NCAA Basketball Championship Game: Indiana State vs. Michigan State

Sports Illustrated, April 2, 1979 (Time, Inc.)

Michigan State and the Magic Johnson Show

Big things were expected of Coach Jud Heathcote’s Michigan State Spartans for the 1978-79 basketball season. Their powerhouse lineup said it all, led by 6’8″ sophomore Earvin “Magic” Johnson at point guard, who dazzled crowds with his lightning-quick passes and pinpoint shooting. Joining the Magic Man in their deadly hardwood assault were 6’7″ senior Greg “Special K” Kelser, 6’7″ sophomore Jay Vincent and 6’4″ sophomore Mike Brkovich at forwards, 6’7″ junior Ron Charles at center and 6’2″ junior Terry Donnelly at the other guard position.

The MSU Spartans lived up to their pre-season hype, posting a record of 21-6. One of their most impressive wins came in December in the Far West Classic when they manhandled Washington State, 98-52.

Michigan State went on to win a share of the Big Ten title with Purdue and Iowa. By virtue of their overall winning percentage and the fact that they had beaten Iowa twice, however, the Spartans were awarded the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

Larry Bird’s Cinderella Indiana State

In one pre-season poll, Indiana State was picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference. The prediction was not unreasonable, as ISU would field a lineup of unknown quantity led by a man with no previous head coach experience.

One player in Coach Bill Hodges’ starting lineup whose talents were definitely known was 6’9″ senior forward Larry Bird. In his two previous seasons at ISU the French Lick native had averaged 32.8 and 30.0 points per game, respectively.

With Bird as the unquestioned leader and star of the team, the Sycamores rounded out their starting lineup with 6’3″ junior Carl Nicks and 6’2″ sophomore Steve Reed at the guard positions, 6’7″ junior Alex Gilbert at center and 6’8″ junior Brad Miley at the other forward position. Also figuring prominently as the sixth and seventh men were 6’5″ junior transfer Bob Heaton and 6’4″ senior forward Leroy Staley.

Indiana State went on to become one of the greatest cinderella stories in college hoops history, compiling a perfect 29-0 record following a 69-59 win over New Mexico State in the Missouri Valley postseason tournament. Appropriately, ISU fans had adopted “Amen” as their unofficial theme song for the season.

The 1979 College Basketball Road to Salt Lake City

A total of 40 teams comprised the field of the 41st annual NCAA basketball tournament. Garnering the number one regional seeds were Notre Dame in the Mideast (Michigan State was #2), Indiana State in the Midwest, North Carolina in the East and UCLA in the West.

Indiana State opened play against Virginia Tech, with Larry Bird and Carl Nicks scoring 22 points each in an 86-69 victory. The Sycamores went on to dispatch Oklahoma (93-72), Arkansas (73-71) and DePaul (76-74), earning a shot in the title game. The DePaul contest was especially hard fought, with Larry Bird the deciding factor, going 16 of 19 from the field, grabbing 16 rebounds and handing out nine assists. “We couldn’t stop him,” said Blue Demons head coach Ray Meyer.

Michigan State opened tournament play with a 95-64 blowout of Lamar. The Spartans then rolled on to impressive wins over Louisiana State (87-71), Notre Dame (80-68) and Penn (101-67). In the latter, it was all Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser, with the two superstars pouring in 29 and 28 points, respectively.

Sports Illustrated, March 26, 1979 (Time, Inc.)

1979 NCAA Basketball Title Game Predictions

“IT’LL BE MAGIC MAN VS. THE BIRD,” crowed one newspaper headline, as the Spartans and Sycamores prepared to do battle in the great Salt Lake.

The pundits now made their predictions. Both coaches Ray Meyer of DePaul and Bob Weinhauer of Penn favored Michigan State, while Al McGuire, former head coach at Marquette and an NBC sports commentator, gave the nod to Indiana State. “I think it is meant to be,” McGuire said.

In a television interview, Larry Bird chastised Billy Packer, pointing out that the NBC color man had made the comment that Indiana State was overrated and would not make the final four, much less the title game. Packer duly acknowledged his error in judgment.

The 1979 NCAA Championship Basketball Game

On Monday night, March 26, 1979, Indiana State and Michigan State met for the NCAA basketball championship in Salt Lake City. The place was buzzing with excitement, as a capacity crowd of 15,410 fans packed the Events Center at the University of Utah.

It was the MSU Spartans who took command early, rolling to a 37-28 advantage at halftime. The numbers told the story, with Michigan State shooting 52 percent from the field and the Sycamores 38 percent.

The second half didn’t prove to be much better for Indiana State, as the Spartans defense continued to bottle up Larry Bird while Magic Johnson, Greg Kelser and Terry Donnelly put the necessary tallies on the board. At one point, the Sycamores managed to pull within six, but that’s the closest they got, as Bird could only manage seven of 21 from the field and hand out two assists.

When the final buzzer had sounded, the score stood Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64. Magic Johnson, who scored 24 points in the title game, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

The 1979 All Tournament Team, Trivia, Book, DVD

  • The 1979 NCAA All Tournament Team was comprised of Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser of Michigan State, Larry Bird of Indiana State, and Mark Aguire and Gary Garland of DePaul.
  • An estimated 20 million people watched the 1979 title game on television.
  • Final 1978-79 season records: Michigan State 26-6, Indiana State 33-1.
  • Number one NBA draft picks from the title game: Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Lakers), Larry Bird (Boston Celtics), Greg Kelser (Detroit Pistons).
  • Recommended reading: When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball, by Seth Davis (Times Books, 2009).
  • On DVD: Magic vs. Bird: The 1979 NCAA Championship Game (Team Marketing, 2004).