Birge made a name for himself as a player, referee

Courtesy of Evansville Courier & Press
Former high school and college referee Cyril Birge poses in the gymnasium in the former Jasper High School in 2004. This is where he started his career in Jasper in 1939. One of Birge's career highlights was refereeing the 1954 Milan-Muncie Central state championship game that inspired the movie, "Hoosiers."


People are often asked who the one person is that they admire the most. For former Herald sports editor Jerry Birge, that’s an easy one — Cyril Birge, his father.

Cyril was born June 20, 1915, in Jasper. He grew up poor, and had a difficult childhood. The Birge family moved around a lot, from Jasper to Huntingburg to Dale. He turned his attention to athletics as he got older, and Cyril played baseball and basketball.

“Cy,” as he was affectionately known, starred for the Wildcats on the hardwood, leading them to state for the first time ever after besting Vincennes in overtime in regionals. There was no semistate back then. It was a 16-team state tournament. Jerry said his father was part of a big three, along with Eddie Rottet and John Steffen.

Jasper got to the Final Four that year, and led Logansport, 26-18. But the Berries went on a 13-2 run, supplanting Jasper, 31-28, in the semis. Logansport went on to win the state championship. However, Arthur “Marty” Gosman received the Gimbel Medal, which was the name for the Arthur L. Trester Mental Attitude Award back then. The Wildcats finished with a 29-2 record that year.

Jerry began to understand what that team meant to his father and to the community in the mid- to late 1940s.

“He had a great scrapbook,” Jerry said. “I mean, a scrapbook of the whole season and postseason, and my mother (Antoinette, “Net”) was dating him and she kept the scrapbook. And then after his senior year, when it was all over, she gave him the scrapbook, and it was absolutely beautiful.”

Only the 1949 Wildcats that went on to win the whole thing have made it to state since Cyril and the Wildcats did so in 1934. He earned a basketball scholarship to play at Purdue University, and Rottet earned a scholarship to continue his basketball career at Northwestern University, but that day never came for either one.

The two worked for a highway crew that August to earn money. They were thirsty one afternoon on a hot day. Nobody had any water. So, they drank water from a well at a property next to the road they worked at. It helped them cool down and they went back to work.

They both got sick, and the sickness soon escalated. Both came down with typhoid fever. Cyril was in a coma. His weight plummeted to less than 100 pounds and he lost the scholarship. Rottet, however, at just 17 years of age, was gone.

“He came out of [the coma] in December and then learned that his friend had died, which really got to him,” Jerry said.

Cyril got himself back into shape, and became a janitor at Jasper High School when jobs were at a premium during the Great Depression. Jerry talked to people who told him his father took the position very seriously, and was a good janitor. Cyril took pride in the position, and wasn’t ashamed of it. He also had jobs in aluminum siding and recapping tires. He happened to be in the gym one afternoon when then-coach Woody Weir, an Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer, asked him to referee an exhibition basketball game for him. Cyril, who was never a referee before, agreed to call the scrimmage.

“Woody came to over to him, and he said, ‘Cyril, you know basketball,’” Jerry said. “And he said, ‘You really handled yourself on the floor pretty well. Have you ever thought of becoming a referee?’ And he said, ‘No, I hadn’t.’”

Cyril saw it as a good way to make extra money, and Jerry touted how his father worked very hard to be the best referee he could be, just like anything else he did. Jerry said his father became popular among players and coaches because he let the players play. Cyril began officiating high school basketball games in 1939, and also had a stint refereeing basketball games in the Big Ten Conference.

He worked to earn a reputation as an official, and worked his way to refereeing state tournament games. Cyril had the honor of officiating the most famous state tournament game of all in 1954. He refereed with Marvin Todd in that year’s state championship game between Milan and Muncie Central.

The team that was an inspiration for “Hoosiers” completed its dream season as Bobby Plump’s championship-winning shot carried Milan past the finish line, 32-30. For the first time ever, not a single complaint was made to the Indiana High School Athletic Association about the officiating following that year’s title game.

Jerry wasn’t there in person, but he saw the game on television while at a friend’s house for a party. He was in high school at the time.

“We sat in her living room,” he said. “Not everybody had a TV, but she did, and I remember watching that game on her TV, and how great that made me feel to see not only Milan win it — because we were all cheering for Milan — but for seeing my dad refereeing it.”

Cyril and Todd were part of the Miracle of Milan when they’d get invited to the common reunion dinners the Indians had in subsequent years. The Birges couldn’t remember where they were when they found out Milan’s story was loosely inspirational to an upcoming movie, but they couldn’t wait to see it. It was the greatest thing in the world to them.

Jerry noted that not everything in the movie was completely accurate, but it doesn’t have to be 100% historically correct. The father-son pair were there for the world premiere at Indianapolis’ Circle Theatre. Jerry thought it was special, and his father, who was interviewed by reporters, was as proud as can be.

“That was a fun, fun night to see that movie premiere,” Jerry said.

He refereed his last high school game in the early 1970s between Barr-Reeve and Loogootee. Jerry praised his father’s knowledge of the game, and thought that knowledge, coupled with keeping things in control, was what contributed to him being so great at what he did.

Cyril was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995. Jerry likened it to the Academy Awards with how beautiful of a ceremony it was. Inductees wore tuxedos, and the whole family was there. Children, grandchildren and cousins were on hand to see Cyril’s induction take place. Cyril, not much one for public speaking, gave his thank yous, and was straightforward, Jerry said.

Basketball was no longer a big part of his life after his refereeing career ended. He didn’t always go to games, but Jerry would take him to them. Jerry said his father would be selective about the games he would go to.

“He was still a fan, and, of course, I know he couldn’t watch a game without watching the referees to make sure they didn’t make any bad calls,” he said.

Cyril was 93 years old when he passed away on Oct. 2, 2008. Jerry would often bring his father to Owensboro, Kentucky, for a week when he was living there. The two talked about sports and life. Jerry noted how his father loved his kids, grandkids, great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids. He found himself blessed to have had his father for as long as he had, and added Cyril was sharp until the very end.

“I still to this day, I’ll see something on TV or I’ll hear something about a basketball game or whatever, and I think, ‘I got to call Dad and tell him,’” Jerry said.

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