A Cult Hero, Former Division II Coach and Surprising Support Cast: Reviving a Dormant Indiana State Men’s Basketball Program

A Cult Hero, Former Division II Coach and Surprising Support Cast: Reviving a Dormant Indiana State Men’s Basketball Program

Josh Schertz’s goggles are fogging up. The coach of the Indiana State Sycamores is sitting at a postgame news conference in the Hulman Center in Terre Haute, Ind., rehashing a thrilling victory over the Bradley Braves, and he’s wearing goggles—which is odd, of course. Oddly endearing, which is the prevailing aura that has blossomed around this basketball team.

Anyway, Schertz is sitting there in front of the usual sparse media crowd after a wild overtime game in a raucous arena, and he’s got a set of fan giveaway goggles on his round face. Just like thousands of Indiana State backers in the building earlier that night, he’s honoring College Jokić, or Cream Abdul-Jabbar, or Larry Blurred—whatever nickname you prefer for his improbable star center with bad eyesight and a Play-Doh body. And the damn goggles are fogging up on Schertz.
That’s the only thing faulty about the 48-year-old coach’s vision. In 2021, he saw a vibrant opportunity at Indiana State, when others saw a long-dormant program. On the recruiting trail, he saw a big man who would flourish in his skill-centric style, when others saw a paunchy non-athlete. He saw a surrounding cast of fearless shooters and slashers, when others saw spare parts. He saw a place to run and gun and swish and splash, when others saw a dead-end job.

Now here he is in Year 3, Indiana State the champion of the Missouri Valley Conference for the first time since 2000. The Sycamores are an absolute blast to watch, putting the ball in the basket more efficiently than any team in the nation, with an effective field goal percentage of 59.8%. They have won 26 games so far, the most at the school since 1979, stirring up cherished memories of the only time this program was a national phenomenon.

No, Larry Bird is not walking through that door at Indiana State. But Robbie Avila did, and he’s got company. The Sycamores aren’t No. 1 the way they were 45 years ago, and they’re probably not going to the Final Four—they’re not even a lock to make the NCAA men’s tournament yet. But if you want a mid-major team to fall in love with as tournament basketball begins this week, there is room on this reconstructed old bandwagon.

Robbie Avila and his big brother had a habit of wrestling, and as is often the case when brothers tangle, things get broken. Chief among those things: Robbie’s glasses.

After breaking yet another pair of them during yet another tussle in eighth grade, Robbie’s mom was finished paying for new ones every few months. Her solution: Robbie would wear his Rec Spec goggles as everyday glasses for the foreseeable future. He’d already been wearing them in sports since starting as a football player in third grade (“I couldn’t really see anything on the field without them,” he says). After a parental decree, he would wear them to school and everywhere else.


That lasted for two years, an awkward thing at an awkward age. “They’re obviously not the flashiest thing,” Avila says.

He got used to it, and the goggles became something of a trademark for a rising standout at Oak Forest High School in Chicago’s south suburbs. Now the player and his goggles are celebrated in Terre Haute, where a fan sponsored a giveaway of 3,000 pairs for “Be Like Robbie Day” in January. There were T-shirts featuring goggles on a basketball that the entire team wore for warmups.


“That was amazing,” Avila says. “If someone can use me as a platform for kids who are a little insecure about wearing them on the court, it’s a blessing.”

Avila’s cult hero status, complete with multiple nicknames, is not something the world saw coming when he arrived as an unheralded freshman at Indiana State in 2022. High-major programs had no interest in a pudgy kid who couldn’t jump over a sidewalk crack, but Schertz was extremely excited about him. He worked hard to beat out Missouri Valley rival Northern Iowa Panthers for the big man.


“He thought the game like a point guard,” Schertz says. “He passed the ball like a point guard. And then when I got to know him, he has a maturity level you just don’t see.”

Schertz hadn’t even coached a game yet at Indiana State and was relying on tape from his time at Division II Lincoln Memorial to show Avila how he would fit in his offense. But the vision he sold was successful. The coach still has the FaceTime call from Avila in the call log on his phone from when he committed to the Sycamores.

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