As a youngster growing up in Somerset County, Travis Eisentrout was a basketball junkie. If there was a pickup game to play, a practice to attend or a game to watch, Eisentrout was there.
That’s what happens when you’re the son of a coach.
Between all the playing and coaching, Eisentrout and his father, Barney, a longtime and successful coach at Turkeyfoot High School, still made it a point to spend one night each week together attending a college basketball game.
Two games that would go on the Eisentrout itinerary were the bi-annual PSAC contests between California University and Indiana. For years, the Cal-IUP games would be high-stakes, tension-filled contests. At the least, a PSAC West Division title would be on the line. Sometimes the games meant home-court advantage in the PSAC tournament or NCAA Division II tournament for the winner.
And the fans of both teams, and the students at each school, took notice. They arrived early and packed Cal’s Hamer Hall and IUP’s Memorial Field House.
“For those Cal-IUP games, you had to pull out the bleachers on the top level of the gym for all the extra fans who would show up. And there still wasn’t a seat to be found by the start of the game,” Travis Eisentrout said. “I can remember sitting in the aisle at Hamer Hall for a Cal-IUP game.”
Yes, a Cal-IUP basketball game was big. The only other small-college basketball rivalry in this corner of the state that could match it was Waynesburg-Westminster in the 1980s. Cal-IUP was Duke-North Carolina, only on a Division II level. It had the same intensity.
“This game used to be THE game,” said Bill Brown, who has been Cal’s coach for 17 seasons and succeeded Jim Boone at the zenith of the rivalry.
But times change. Now, Cal-IUP seems to be just another basketball game. The fire and passion in the rivalry has been lost. When the Vulcans and Crimson Hawks met Wednesday at Cal’s Convocation Center, it had the same feel as any other another midweek contest. The players were just as intense as in the past, but the fans – at least the ones who managed to show up – were hardly at a fever pitch.
The official attendance for the men’s-women’s doubleheader was 279. There were no more than 200 inside Cal’s spacious and cavernous Convocation Center during the men’s game.
“This is sad, because I remember what this rivalry was,” Eisentrout said before tip-off of the men’s game.
These days, Eisentrout is California’s Athletic Events Coordinator, and the rivalry with IUP is one he has a unique perspective on. He played basketball at IUP before transferring to California, where he finished his career.
Those who opted to stay away Wednesday missed perhaps the most amazing comeback in this long series. California overcame a 22-point deficit to take a brief two-point lead in the final three minutes, only to have IUP make seven of eight free throws down the stretch to pull out a 70-68 victory. The game wasn’t decided until Cal’s Keith Lowe had a three-pointer at the buzzer kick off the back of the rim.
Years ago, that shot would have come with 3,000 people in the gym on their feet screaming. This time, you could hear Lowe frantically dribbling the ball up the court.
There are many theories for why the fire is burning out on the rivalry. Surely, one is the records of the teams. IUP is 13-2 and firmly entrenched in the Division II Top 25. Cal, however, is muddling along at 5-6 in the PSAC and 6-9 overall. Winning teams draw more fans than ones that hover around .500.
Brown offered another theory.
“It used to be that the Cal-IUP game was always played on a Saturday night,” he said. “Then it was changed to a Wednesday thing. When they did that, the dynamics changed. I’m sure that the geography and logistics had something to do with the change to a Wednesday night.”
The Convocation Center and IUP’s new 5,000-seat Ed Fry Arena can be partly to blame, too. Hamer Hall and Memorial Field House were old-school gymnasiums with fewer seats and lower roofs. They were loud. They were basketball gyms, not oversized theaters with thousands of empty seats.
It also doesn’t help that the state-affiliated schools in the PSAC now have a six-week break between semesters. That meant Cal’s students weren’t on campus last week. They won’t return until Jan. 28. No students mean no home-court advantage.
“This game had the feel of a neutral-court game,” Brown said.
Added Eisentrout, “I was at IUP last year when Cal played there. It was between semesters, without the students, and attendance was about the same as this – only a few hundred.”
That lack of a home-court advantage in January is something that concerns Brown, and should concern the other coaches of the state-affiliated schools in the PSAC’s West Division. With Pitt-Johnstown and Seton Hill scheduled to join the PSAC next year, they will join Gannon and Mercyhurst as private schools in the West. Those private schools will likely be in session in January long before those at Cal, IUP, Slippery Rock, Clarion and Edinboro. That also means a home-court advantage for the private-school basketball teams in January.
“It’s a concern when you go to Erie, to Gannon, in January knowing their place will be packed,” Brown said. “At the same time, our students aren’t on campus. In California, we have about 5,000 people, and half of them are senior citizens. We don’t have the one rescource you need, and that’s people.”
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at email@example.com.