Bill Benner Talks Career, March Madness & the State of Sports in Indy
Photographer / Michael Durr
As Bill Benner reflects on a career of 40-plus years as an Indianapolis Star sports reporter and columnist, Butler University professor, communications and public relations director, and co-organizer for many major sporting events in the city – a career, by the way, that is in many ways as productive as it ever was, but more on that later – he remains extremely optimistic about the future of sports in the Hoosier state and Indianapolis in particular.
Such optimism has merit. After all, Indy is playing host to this year’s NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament and has been home to numerous NCAA Men’s and Women’s Final Fours, the 1996 and 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming, and of course Super Bowl XLVI.
“I was fortunate enough to be at the Star as Indianapolis evolved as a sports city, and was almost the primary person assigned to write about the formation of the Sports Corp, the building of major venues, the attraction of the NCAA and Pan Am Games, and so much stuff that has happened here in Indy,” says Benner, who served as co-chair of the 2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee’s media relations committee, as well as on organizing committees for numerous NCAA Final Fours. “The city has come through on all of it, and will continue to do so.”
Benner says Indy’s development as a major sports city can be traced back to the forethought and planning of several local leaders, around the time Benner himself was starting out as a sports reporter at the Indianapolis Star.
“There was a vision that a few leaders had back in the ‘70s – Jim Morris and Ted Boehm and a host of others – going back to the building of Market Square Arena,” Benner says. “They had a vision to turn Indianapolis into a sports capital and make the investment with the arena, and then the Hoosier Dome, and attract the NCAA and bring Final Four here. All that led up to the Super Bowl, and then we had five consecutive Big Ten basketball tournaments, Final Fours, and now, of course, March Madness.”
Benner, an Indy native, came up through the Center Grove school system, and learned fairly early on that writing, particularly of the reporting variety, came naturally. He wrote for the school paper and yearbook in the latter part of his high school years, and by the time college rolled around he had obtained an evening job as a score boy with the Star, where his father Charlie worked in the printing department, while studying journalism at the IU-Indianapolis Extension (now IUPUI).
“Score boys worked with the sports department and gave out scores when people would call in wanting to know Pacers or college football scores, or horse race results,” Benner explains.
By the end of his freshman year Benner had developed a relationship with Cyrus “Cy” McBride, the Star’s executive sports editor, and expressed interest in whatever reporting position was available at the time. He was given a few small duties writing headlines and reporting game results and eventually took on an assignment in August of 1968 covering a Greenwood woman who had won the national table tennis championship. Thus, he secured his first byline as a newspaper reporter.
“Cy edited that story and worked it over, but thought it was pretty good, and from then on I stayed in the sports department,” Benner says. “In the following years they would let me go out and cover high school games, and I was hooked.”
Benner finished up his journalism degree at IU-Bloomington after a stint in the Army, and went on to work at the Star until 2001, writing as a full-time columnist beginning in 1990.
In the mid-1990s Art Levin, chairman of Butler University’s journalism department at the time, reached out to Benner about joining the faculty as an adjunct sports journalism professor. Benner developed a curriculum and taught at Butler from 1995 through 2004, drawing on his reporting knowledge and experience.
“I was lucky in that I had great students, several of whom have gone on to have great careers, and the teaching was a lot of fun,” he says. “It taught me how to be creative all over again.”
In 2001, Benner began as a sports columnist for the Indianapolis Business Journal, a position he would continue until 2013. Around the same time, he also decided to explore a few different career avenues and became vice president of communications for the Indiana Sports Corporation, while working for Visit Indy in a sports capacity. In August of 2013, he got a call regarding a job with Pacers Sports & Entertainment, eventually serving as both senior vice president for corporate, community and public relations, and also de facto executive director of the Pacers Foundation.
Last June, Benner stepped away from his role with Pacers Sports & Entertainment after seven years, and continues to serve on several boards, including Special Olympics Indiana, the Finish Line Youth Foundation, and the Pacers Foundation.
Nowadays, Benner tries to spend as much time as possible with his wife Sherry, their children Allison and Ashley, and two grandkids William and Emma.
“I love the mountains out west, and we have a place in the mountains in Colorado, but I’m still a Hoosier at heart,” he says.
As for Benner’s accolades, the list is lengthy – he was twice awarded Indiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association (now the National Sports Media Association). In 2017, he received a Sagamore of the Wabash award from the governor, which is Indiana’s highest individual honor.
This spring Benner is slated for induction into the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame, of which he was president from 1998 to 1999. The induction ceremony will be held during the Final Four here in Indianapolis.
“I’m so honored by it and elated,” he says of his Hall of Fame honors. “It was a total surprise to me. After I left the Star I continued to write for Indianapolis Business Journal, but I truly haven’t been a full-time basketball writer since I left the Star, so for them to reach back into the archives and honor me like this is a tremendous thrill.”
Benner feels Indy is more than ready to handle the logistics, crowds and fanfare of the upcoming NCAA March Madness – and he should know, having written about and helped organize so many of Indy’s major sports events.
“I don’t think there’s any other city that could do it,” he says. “Every time we’ve hosted a major event – a Final Four, the Super Bowl, the World Championships for gymnastics – Indianapolis has always raised the bar. I have no doubt that this will be the case when we host not only the Final Four, but all of March Madness.”