Dick Luedke has been the voice of Illinois State men’s basketball for a long time. Except for a five-year hiatus, Luedke has been calling play-by-play for Redbird hoops since 1981 on WJBC radio. Earlier this season, he marked his 1,000th game behind the mic.
Luedke’s debut season coincided with Illinois State’s entry into the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). So he has occupied a courtside seat for the Redbirds’ many highlights, and many heartbreaking moments, at the season’s culminating event: Arch Madness, the colloquial name given to the conference tournament since its move to St. Louis.
Every March, thousands of fans descend on the Gateway City for four days of competition that determine which team will earn the MVC’s sole guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament. In the run-up to this year’s edition of Arch Madness, we asked Luedke to look back on his time covering the tournament. Here are a few of his favorite memories.
Redbird Arena, then in its inaugural season, hosted what turned out to be the final tournament game played outside St. Louis. Luedke said the best drawing teams—ISU, Wichita State, Tulsa, Bradley—had taken turns hosting the tournament after the conference stopped holding each game at the home court of the higher seed.
That latter arrangement had resulted in some chaotic travel schedules. “It would be kind of crazy because you would be playing a game on Tuesday, and you would not know where you would be playing on Thursday,” Luedke said.
Luedke described a highly intense championship game. The Redbirds, led by first-year coach Bob Bender and leading scorer Rickey Jackson, outlasted Southern Illinois, 81-78. The game was in the balance until the final moments, as you can see from the video below.
Luedke remembers the atmosphere inside the arena more than any particular moment in the game. “That crowd that night versus Southern Illinois was the most electric crowd ever at Redbird Arena,” Luedke said.
1997 and 1998 title winners
Illinois State has won four MVC tournament titles, with the last coming in 1998. The Redbirds had won the tournament the previous year with pretty much the same cast.
Those were hard-defending teams coached by Kevin Stallings at the peak of his highly successful ISU tenure. On the court, a trio of stars led the way: Dan Muller, the Redbirds’ current head coach; Rico Hill, the team’s most talented player in Luedke’s estimation; and Jamar Smiley, whom Luedke regarded as one of the top point guards in school history.
In both finals, the Redbirds beat Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State), then coached by former Indiana Hoosier star Steve Alford. “The Redbirds were not very deep teams, but very well coached,” Luedke said.
What Luedke remembers most about those seasons was Muller’s shot in the final seconds to upset Tennessee in the opening round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. *Watch that highlight at the bottom of this story.
The Redbirds have been a frequent bridesmaid since their last tournament title. They have made it to six of the past 11 finals, falling twice in overtime.
One bright spot, said Luedke, was a victory over a powerful Wichita State squad in the 2015 semifinals. The Shockers boasted future NBA players Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker and lost only once during the MVC regular season. The Redbirds won that game by three points to qualify for another final. Despite leading by 15 points in the first half, Illinois State went on to lose to No. 11-ranked Northern Iowa.
“There has been so much MVC tournament championship game frustration here recently,” Luedke said.
Luedke’s most poignant Arch Madness memory occurred off the court. In 2017 Muller was honored as MVC Coach of the Year at a tournament luncheon. During his acceptance speech, he spoke about the plane accident that rocked the Bloomington-Normal community in April 2015 and killed seven people, including assistant head coach Torrey Ward.
“It was just one of the greatest speeches I have ever heard,” Luedke said. “He put tears in my eyes.”
The speech starts at the 56:19 mark.
*Muller’s last-second shot
Update: The Redbirds secured the No. 7 seed and will open Arch Madness at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 7, against Evansville. The TV broadcast will be on the MVC TV network, which includes NBC Sports Chicago, FOX Sports Midwest, FOX Sports Indiana, and FOX Sports Kansas City. All game audio broadcasts will be available on WJBC 1230 AM, Nash Icon 93.7 FM, GoRedbirds.com, and the Tune In app.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.