THE VILLAGES — In this sprawling retirement community 90 miles north of Tampa, youth was on the run Wednesday. The girls varsity basketball team of The Villages High School, the Lady Buffalo, was in full flight on Senior Night, amid green and gold balloons and streamers. On the bench was their 73-year-old coach. It's his first season.
At one point during the 61-28 win over South Lake, Bill Hodges smiled at someone behind the bench.
"I love this bunch," he said. "They keep me young."
The bunch didn't know who he was when they met him, or what he did all those years ago.
All those years ago — 38 of them — Bill Hodges, in his very first season as a college head coach, along with a senior forward named Larry Bird, guided the Indiana State Sycamores to a 33-0 record and the NCAA championship game.
They fell to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in what remains the most watched and maybe most important game in college basketball history. One shining moment.
"I didn't know who Larry Bird was before we knew Coach," Villages junior point guard Nikki Hall said. "He's not the man who coached Larry Bird to us. He's Coach — our coach."
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Hodges was living in Florida two years ago when he helped a coaching friend at the Battle of The Villages high school basketball tournament. He fell in love with the community.
He lives near The Villages, with his daughter, Zoie, her husband Lanny and their three children, including Rylie, who plays on The Villages junior varsity girls basketball team and sometimes the varsity. Zoie teaches at The Villages Middle School. Hodges' son, Matt, lives nearby, in Wildwood.
At first, Hodges volunteered with the boys basketball team. Then he was asked about coaching the girls. He hadn't coached college ball in nearly 20 years. He'd never run a girls team.
"We're fortunate to have Coach," said Villages High athletic director Richard Pettus, who is also the school's head football coach. "I tell everybody we got lucky on this one. We hired a legend."
"I'm 49 and my first college basketball television memory was watching Indiana State-Michigan State in 1979," Bill Bootz said. "Now my daughter plays for the man who coached Larry Bird in that game."
And there's his daughter, Allison, a senior and a Hodges favorite.
"Coach is like an un-biological grandfather to all of us," Allison said.
"Coaching is coaching," Hodges said. "I don't coach these girls any different from boys, except maybe I don't raise my voice as much. But they're wonderful kids."
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In the spring of 1975, Hodges left Armstrong State University in Savannah, Ga., where he was an assistant coach, to return to the Indiana, where he had played for Zionsville High School.
He joined the Indiana State staff under head coach Bob King. Hodges instantly thought of Larry Bird. He had seen Bird play in high school, knew he was talented, knew that Bird had fled Indiana University after only a few weeks to return to tiny French Lick in the southern part of the state.
"Larry had been home all year, playing independent ball, working for the city street department," Hodges said. "We went to his house, me and another assistant and Larry's high school coach. Larry's mom slammed the door in our faces. She said, 'Why don't you leave him alone? He doesn't want to go to school.'
"I said 'Hell, let's go look for him.' There couldn't be two 6-8 kids running around French Lick …
"We're driving down this street and I see this big blonde coming out of a laundromat. I go up to him. Larry, I'm Coach Hodges from Indiana State. Hey, Coach, he said. He won't hardly look at you. Shy. He put this basket of clothes in the car. He said, 'I'm doing a load for Granny. Her washer broke.' He said he was working on his truck, too. He had grease on his hands. Just about that time, along comes Granny. She's about five-foot-two. She said, 'Larry, these nice gentlemen came all this way to see you. Invite them up to the house for some tea.'
"Larry was playing AAU for Hancock Construction. He picked up garbage for the city on Thursdays. Larry told me, 'You need to recruit my cousin. He would have been a great player if he'd went to college.' I said, 'Larry, they're going to say that about you one day if you don't take this opportunity.' Boy, I knew I had him then."
They stay in touch. They text. Hodges remembered that first summer with Bird at Indiana State, located in Terre Haute.
"We got Larry a summer job. He lived in my basement. Paid five dollars a week. He worked at the Thomas Mobile Homes park. He cleaned the pool and did the mowing. They played ball all summer. Larry was kicking everybody's butt. We didn't know what we were getting with Larry, honestly. Hell, no."
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The Villages girls went 11-10 last season. Hodges has them at 15-6 with the win over South Lake.
He still has a powder blue Indiana State jersey, No. 33, that he brought from home. It was autographed by Bird. It was the last Sycamores jersey Bird ever wore. He donned it for a charity game. He was an NBA star by then.
"It still has his sweat on it," Hodges said.
In the afternoon, Villages players shopped for senior night goodies. They were determined not to let the four seniors — Bootz, leading scorer Erin Cary, Lizz Fairchild and Amy Folker — on the gym floor to see the decorations until they received their presents: flowers, blankets, water bottles and basketballs they'd signed. And plastic tiaras for when they took the court with their parents.
"Don't remember a tiara for Larry," Hodges said with a chuckle. "The girls love celebrating. But they go out and put it on the line every game. I couldn't ask for more."
He once showed them tape of Bird and Indiana State. They saw those basketball trunks and roared.
"They're wearing booty shorts!"
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Before the 1978-79 Indiana State season, head coach Bob King suffered a brain aneurysm. He selected Hodges to replace him. Hodges was 36. Bird was a senior.
"I knew we were good," he said. "I just didn't know we were 33-0 good."
"Bill kept us on the right path," said Leroy Staley, a member of that team. Staley grew up in Tampa, where he starred for Jefferson High and Florida College. "Bill recruited me, sat down and spoke with my parents. They appreciated that. When I was thinking about leaving after my junior season, he called me and asked me to come back. He was always honest with me and he was a very good coach."
Bird averaged nearly 30 points and 15 rebounds and won several awards for player of the year. Indiana State made its first NCAA Tournament and promptly traveled to the Final Four.
In Salt Lake City, Indiana State beat DePaul in a semifinal. Bird scored 35 points and had 16 rebounds. That set up the final against Magic and Michigan State. Bird and Magic, first chapter. It was Indiana State's only loss. The game grows larger every year.
On a wall in Hodges' office there's a framed photograph of Hodges with a former Indiana State coach and a handwritten note that coach penned it after the title game. It quoted Scripture and ended this way:
I am sure you are disappointed, but you conducted yourself most admirably. Disappointment may be quite painful, but it is a temporary thing, and as the great statesman Winston Churchill said, victory is never final and defeat is never fatal. Best wishes and peace of mind.
AP Photo/Charles E. Knoblock
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That 1979 Final Four was as good as it got for Hodges. He never returned a team to the NCAA Tournament.
He went through a divorce. He resigned from Indiana State in 1982. He found success in five seasons at Georgia College, making three NAIA tournaments, then coached at Mercer for six seasons. He was out of college ball by 1997.
Hodges sold insurance for a while. He taught high school, history, for several years. He loved it. Teaching and coaching. In Roanoke, Va., he took the North Cross School to consecutive high school Final Fours, including the state title game in 2013.
"A coach is a coach is a coach," Leroy Staley said.
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The players asked and the coach agreed: Amy Folker would go up for the jump ball to begin the South Lake game — Amy, a senior guard, is listed at 4-11 on the Lady Buffalo roster.
"I'm 4-8," Amy said.
Nearing game time, Hodges told his players that the four seniors and Nikki Hall would start. And that if South Lake went to man, they'd go flex offense. Amy lost the tip to a South Lake player who was more than a foot taller. Everyone smiled.
The Lady Buffalo have earned a first-round bye in the district tournament that begins next week.
"Tomorrow, early practice. It's serious business," Hodges told his kids after the win.
Then they were off to the locker room, gabbing, giggling.
Bill Hodges grinned.
"I do feel younger around them. Don't you?"
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.