Athletics & Recreation
John Harrell knows that statistics are the lifeblood of sports — coaches, players, sportswriters and fans alike depend on numbers to tell the stories of athletes and teams. As an award-winning journalist, Harrell had been collecting data about high school football and basketball contests for decades but didn’t have a way to share that information with others until 2000 when the Huntington County native launched what’s now known as JohnHarrell.net.
Following sports used to be a slow process with box scores in newspapers the only data source. Harrell’s site helped to fill a gap and amplify information beyond local sources. His diligence in keeping the site current is legendary — since going live, Harrell has not missed a day of updating schedules, results, standings and more.
Harrell’s love of basketball dates back to his days growing up in Huntington, where as an 8-year-old he tuned into the radio broadcast of the legendary 1954 state championship game when tiny Milan upset Muncie Central. The game, dubbed the Milan Miracle, served as the inspiration for the movie “Hoosiers.”
A career in newspapers began when Harrell started delivering papers for the Huntington Herald-Press. Later, sports editor Jim Morrison gave him his first professional sportswriting job covering county high school games. As a senior at Huntington High School in 1964, Harrell was up-close for the Viking basketball team’s run to the state finals. That experience cemented his career path as a sports journalist.
After earning a math degree from Huntington College in 1968, Harrell jumped to the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. Harrell soon left for the Bloomington Herald-Times to join sports editor Bob Hammel, who had been the sports editor at the Herald-Press when Harrell was still a paper carrier.
While the unassuming Harrell might not say much in person, his work spoke loudly across the state, even before the launch of his groundbreaking website. His career at the Herald-Times included innovative page design, which garnered numerous state and national awards.
Both Harrell and Hammel shared a fondness for the numbers of sports and how they could integrate statistics into their work. Around 1980, Harrell connected with Jeff Sagarin, a computer guru who was developing algorithms for the ranking of college football and basketball teams. Hammel suggested they apply the same programs to rank state high school teams, and Harrell set off collecting the data.
By 2000, Harrell was thinking about how he could share the data he was collecting with newspapers across the state. South Bend Tribune sportswriter Earl Mishler had a website to track local teams in northern Indiana, inspiring Harrell to create his own site using the statewide numbers he had accumulated. The site was slow to gather followers, but once a link to his site was posted by the Indiana High School Athletic Association website, Harrell’s page took off.
Harrell soon found himself spread thin. In addition to his regular newspaper work, he had to update scores on his website. He was determined to keep the information current, which meant for some long nights. After 40 years at the Bloomington Herald-Times, he retired to devote himself full-time to his online effort.
While he’s particularly busy from August through March, there’s no offseason for Harrell. His wife Martha and their four adult children know that Harrell will mostly disappear to the basement office in their Bloomington home to input 1,700 football and 10,000 basketball scores each year. The speed and wide use of the internet has made gathering information a bit easier, but Harrell must still track down results and games rescheduled due to weather. He’s managed to get scores updated during visits to the children, and even when he had to spend time in the hospital.
Always the numbers guy, Harrell still enjoys gathering data well into his 70s. He maintains he’ll keep doing it “until he drops.”
Harrell’s efforts at the Bloomington paper and in establishing JohnHarrell.net earned him a place in the Indiana Sportswriter and Sportscaster Hall of Fame. He entered the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016 as the recipient of the Indiana Fever Silver Medal Award, given to individuals for contributions other than as a player or coach. Harrell has also been honored by the IHSAA, the state coaches’ associations in football and basketball and the Indiana Officials Association. He was inducted into the Monroe County Sports Hall of Fame in 2021.
Hammel contends that his former colleague, who he also counts as a friend, deserves all the accolades for his contributions to Indiana sports.
“I’ll guarantee you, no one has ever achieved distinction more quietly. There’s a real possibility – I’d say it’s almost a certainty – that there were times when he put in a full day’s work and never said one word,” says Hammel. “But no sportswriter has ever been known by more people border to border throughout Indiana than John Harrell.”