MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — Traveling on the only road leading to this typically small southern town, more than two hours from suburban civilization, can be a lonely experience for someone unaccustomed to rural bleakness.
For miles, the only signs of life are sprawling farms with hay rolled up like giant balls of twine, roadside motels with perpetual vacancy signs and stores advertising bait and tackle here, a sale on chain saws there. You see more cows than cars along the way.
"Sometimes when you're out on that road, I guess it could seem like the middle of nowhere," Bill Hodges says.
Milledgeville, however, is far from nowhere to Hodges. Nowhere is where Hodges spent the years after his short but memorable career as basketball coach at Indiana State had unraveled in tragedy by the spring of 1982.
Now, four years removed from the big time at Indiana State and two years since he last held a coaching job, Hodges has followed the road here to Milledgeville (pop. 12,176) and become the coach at Georgia College.
No, not the high-profile University of Georgia, which gave us Herschel Walker and Jan Kemp. That's about 60 miles up the road in Athens. This is just plain old Georgia College, an NAIA school with an enrollment of 3,900, no football team and a heretofore anonymous basketball program.
But Hodges, who coached Larry Bird and Indiana State to 33 straight wins in 1978-79 before losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the NCAA final, can truthfully say that he has never been happier than he is here.
"Bill told me recently that this reminded him of the situations that had been the happiest in his life," Mike Peeler, Georgia College's athletic director, says.
Hodges, looking out of his sparsely furnished office on a rainy morning, concurs with a simple nod.
"I'm happy, and that's the important thing," he says, softly. "The whole atmosphere here is great."
Not a lot of good things have happened to Hodges since the watershed 1978-79 season, when his team came so close to an undefeated season and the national championship.
Technically, Hodges was Indiana State's interim coach that year, an assistant filling in because Bob King, the head coach, had suffered a heart attack before the start of the season.
Bird left for the National Basketball Assn. the next year, but Hodges stayed on as coach when King retired. The glory ended abruptly:
--Hodges' teams totaled just 34 wins the next three seasons.
--His wife left him, instigating a bitter divorce.
--Then, prize recruit Kevin Thompson, a hometown star from Terre Haute whom Hodges had known well, died of cancer late in the 1981-82 season.
The day after Thompson's death, Hodges quit, probably saving Indiana State officials the trouble of firing him.
Unable to find another head coaching job on the college level, Hodges spent a year at Palm Beach Junior College in Florida, then a year as an assistant to Dave Buss at Cal State Long Beach. When Buss was fired in 1984, Hodges was out of work once again. This time, he could not find a job in coaching.
In what Hodges now calls the lowest point in his life, he returned to Florida and sold insurance. He continued to send out his coaching resume, to colleges large and small.
There were two long years of waiting for the phone to ring. When Georgia College finally called, Hodges hit the road to Milledgeville as fast as he could.
And he found it wasn't such a lonely road, after all.
At first glance, it might seem that Hodges has been enduring a Faustian existence, as if he had made a pact that he would achieve nearly everything a coach desires in one season, then to suffer through hell ever after.
But Hodges never asked for, nor even expected, the sudden success he had at Indiana State. And nobody could have anticipated the nightmares that followed.
Had King not suffered a heart attack before the 1978-79 season, Hodges would probably have remained a nameless, faceless assistant on a Sycamore team that was headed for success no matter who was coaching.
Instead, Hodges was chosen as King's replacement and his life changed dramatically--for better and for worse.
Even with an extraordinary player such as Bird, it is extremely difficult for any college team to have an undefeated season. But the Sycamores made it through their nonconference and Missouri Valley Conference schedules without a defeat, Bird's high-flying exploits drawing national attention.
Since Bird in those days turned down most interview requests, Hodges became the central media figure of the team. Andy Warhol once said that it would be nice if everyone could be famous for 15 minutes, but Hodges and fame didn't get along well.
Here was a pleasant, soft-spoken man from Zionsville, Ind., suddenly having to deal with not only his first major college coaching position but also hordes of reporters asking him why Bird was snubbing them.