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MnB B1G Preview: Can Kevin Wilson Reverse Indiana's Culture of Losing?

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Back in 1976, the Indiana Hoosiers played host to the Ohio State Buckeyes in Bloomington. Indiana hadn’t held a lead against the Buckeyes, let alone won a game against them, in 25 years. Ohio State scored first to go up 6-0 and then Indiana inexplicably managed to score a touchdown, convert the extra point, and take the lead, 7-6. Lee Corso – he of College Gameday fame – was then the coach of the Hoosiers, and after they took that one point lead against Ohio State, he called a timeout, pulled his team on the field, and took a picture of them with the scoreboard in the background, commemorating Indiana’s first lead over Ohio State in any of the players’ lifetimes. Woody Hayes and the Buckeyes proceeded to mercilessly beat the Hoosiers into the ground and win the game, 47-7. 1

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Indiana, perhaps more than any other Big Ten school, is the embodiment of football futility. Minnesota was certainly terrible near the end of the Tim Brewster era, but the success under Glen Mason was more than Indiana’s had in a long time. Purdue has been relatively decent – easily better than their in-state rivals – over the last decade and a half. Illinois has been to two BCS bowls. Northwestern has carved out a niche as a solid middle-tier program (remarkable, considering where they’d been for decades before their 1995 Rose Bowl appearance). There have been lower-tier programs that have flitted in and out of the Big Ten cellar sure, but nobody has been as consistently bad as Indiana has been lately. I won’t belabor the history of Indiana football, as we all know how bad it's been.

Nothing better defines Indiana football than its lack of success. Some schools can pride themselves on their consistency as quintessentially above average; some are characterized as perennially underachieving; some are blue-bloods; some are part of the lower-tier caste that simply cannot compete, occupied by most non-BCS conference schools. The most unfortunate group is the BCS also-rans, as they are probably mired in what’s the most difficult purgatory to escape: even if they can load up on terrible non-conference opponents and scrape together six wins a year, real progress will have to come against established conference foes and moving up the hierarchy in a conference like the Big Ten is exceedingly difficult. Indiana is stuck there with teams like Duke, Vanderbilt (unless they continue to improve under James Franklin), and Kansas2. To say that Indiana is in the worst shape of any BCS school – speaking of the relatively recent past and prospects for the future – probably wouldn't be too much of a stretch. Outside of Bill Lynch's first season, a 7-6 campaign that ended with a bowl loss to Oklahoma State, Indiana hasn't had a winning season since 1994. The modest success under Bill Mallory and the excitement brought by stars like Anthony Thompson and Antwaan Randle El are long gone. Any progress from the tragically brief Terry Hoeppner era seems to be gone as well.

Indiana's mediocrity and irrelevance are due to a few factors, most of them pretty obvious. The elephant in the room is the basketball program, but I don't think that having an elite program in one major sport precludes having one in the other. Certainly most of the attention in the Indiana fanbase is centered on the basketball program (and I don't blame them, considering what Tom Crean's Hoosiers are predicted to do in the near future.) It's difficult to compete in football as a basketball school, but it's not impossible: UCLA had a good program in the eighties, UConn somehow made it to a BCS Bowl recently, and North Carolina was brought back to relevancy by Butch Davis and the improper benefits given to player by agents. It's hard for basketball schools to have elite football programs, but having a decent or above-average football program isn't an impossibility. What does make it more difficult is that there essentially aren't any casual Indiana football fans. Anybody in Indiana without affiliation towards Indiana or Purdue would most likely root for Notre Dame, so not having much of a fanbase makes it difficult for Indiana football to become a presence in the state's sports consciousness. Other usual suspects -- a seemingly irreversible culture of losing, lack of a solid recruiting base, and a general lack of support for IU football -- help seal Indiana's spot at the bottom of the Big Ten.

On an early afternoon in 2009, the 4-4 Indiana Hoosiers traveled to Iowa City to face the Hawkeyes, then undefeated and ranked #4 in the country.3 A week earlier, the Hoosiers blew a 25 point lead against Northwestern and lost by one point, but early on, they looked to be more than capable of pulling the upset. Indiana was up 21-7 in the third quarter when Ben Chappell dropped back to pass from the Iowa 2-yard line. The ball was tipped from behind, ricocheted off of an Iowa defensive lineman, bounced off the facemask of Indiana's right tackle, grazed the arm of Chappell, and was grabbed by Iowa's Tyler Sash and returned the length of the field for a touchdown. On the next drive, an obvious touchdown was overturned and Indiana missed the subsequent field goal. Iowa overcame four third-quarter interceptions by Ricky Stanzi, came back, and won the game 42-24. Indiana didn't win a game for the rest of the season.

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Indiana has hitched their hopes of a turnaround to Kevin Wilson, an offensive guru that made his name as one of the primary architects of the Oklahoma offenses in the 2000's. It was a fairly splashy hire at the time; Wilson was regarded as one of the top coordinators in the country and was one of the country's finest coaching prospects. Unfortunately for Indiana, his first season was pretty much an unmitigated disaster: the Hoosiers went 1-11 and didn't record a win against an FBS 1-A team all season. With such a poor showing, it's hard not to concede this past year as a casualty of the exceedingly difficult rebuilding process. A project like Indiana will take more than a few years, so Wilson -- and the administration -- had better be in for the long haul. There are essentially three possible eventualities for the Kevin Wilson era at Indiana:

  1. Failure and an eventual firing.
  2. Modest improvement, until Wilson can find a better job somewhere else -- Indiana hasn't been a stepping stone job in the past, so improvement to the point where a coach can actually be hired away would probably be better than most tenures.
  3. Pulling a Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin) or Bill Snyder (Kansas State), bringing Indiana to national relevancy, and staying on as coach until he walks into the sunset as an Indiana legend and the best coach in program history, with a few Rose Bowl rings on his hand.
Each result, as listed, is progressively less likely. There's a long list of coaches who have taken on difficult rebuilding projects at places where it's hard to win, and most have failed. History suggests that Kevin Wilson will simply be another casualty of the zero-sum nature of college football -- in order for the elite to stay elite, the bad have to stay bad. If he does well and exceeds expectations, a tall task, Wilson will be in line for several higher-profile jobs. Northwestern's miraculous Rose Bowl run in 1995 and the foundation for a successful program were orchestrated by Gary Barnett, who later left Evanston for Colorado. If Wilson manages some flash-in-the-pan success and parlays that to a better job, or better yet, manages to sustain a relatively high level of winning before moving on, his tenure would probably be considered a success. Anything beyond that -- building Indiana into a consistent BCS contender and staying there until retirement -- would be a huge surprise, but it's not impossible.

Looking at coaches who have succeeded at reversing a culture of losing could prove instructive into how Kevin Wilson plans on doing the same at Indiana. The most remarkable turnaround in the history of college football was at Kansas State -- the Wildcats had only totaled four winning seasons in the 53 years before Bill Snyder took over, and had lost 27 consecutive games prior to his arrival. Snyder recruited junior colleges heavily, taking high level prospects who could enter the program more physically mature than players coming in straight out of high school. He also saw the merits of taking advantage of college football's systemic incentivization of weak scheduling: Kansas State wisely paid lower-level schools to come in to Manhattan, and the Wildcats often ran the table against these easy non-conference schedules. Snyder's strategy and coaching paid off -- Kansas State had a winning record in his third year, made a bowl game in his fifth, and finished in the top ten six times in his tenure, including six eleven win seasons. Snyder retired in 2005, but later returned in 2009 after the comic failure of the Ron Prince era. Last year, the third in Snyder's second stint as coach, the Wildcats went 10-3. He's 72 years old. Earlier this week in his Reddit chat, Mike Leach said that Snyder might be a sorcerer, and he's right -- Bill Snyder is a rare coach, but emulating his methods of success could provide Kevin Wilson a blueprint to orchestrate his own turnaround at Indiana. Having a Snyder-like turnaround is pretty much out of the question -- we'll probably never see another one like it -- but it's possible to have a modest one.

First and foremost, Wilson looks to be recruiting heavily in the JUCO pool. The Hoosiers signed eight junior college transfers in its 25-man class, and this influx of talent should help Indiana on both sides of the ball. Two of those JUCO players were linebackers who enrolled early and are both slated to start. Another, Cameron Coffman, should challenge Tre Roberson for the starting spot at quarterback. Bringing in players who are ready to play right away rectifies some of the issues that Indiana faced last year, namely youth and inexperience, and some of these players are good enough to start. Wilson also seems to have grasped that an easy non-conference schedule is conducive to a quick turnaround: the Hoosiers don't play a BCS team or a team that finished with a winning record last year on their non-conference slate. They do have a future series scheduled with Missouri, but outside of that, their future schedules over the next several years are stocked with non-BCS opponents (and Wake Forest). Wilson's angling for a quick turnaround with these tactics; getting to six wins -- and more importantly, a bowl game -- with an incredibly easy non-conference schedule isn't exceedingly tough, but it might be a few years. By then, Wilson's strategy of recruiting from the junior college ranks will have paid off and Indiana won't be nearly as young as they were last year, or even will be this year. It's not exactly a novel strategy, but it's probably the optimal one.

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Twice, Rich Rodriguez-led Michigan teams were undefeated heading into Big Ten play, and both times, they faced the Indiana Hoosiers, who were also undefeated. In the first matchup in Ann Arbor, a late touchdown pass from an injured Tate Forcier to Martavious Odoms and a controversial Donovan Warren interception (to which Bill Lynch threw his gum in disgust) was the difference between a Michigan win and Indiana's first win in the Big House since 1967. The next year, Michigan traveled to Bloomington and another media darling, Denard Robinson, led a late drive to end Indiana's upset hopes. Despite totaling over 550 yards of offense, the Hoosiers simply couldn't slow down Robinson, and great performances from Ben Chappell, Darius Willis, and Tandon Doss went unrewarded. Both games were chances for huge upsets early on in conference play, and Indiana fell two wins short of a bowl in 2009 and one win short in 2010. 4

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Any gains made by Indiana will have to be made at the expense of other teams in the Leaders Division. As of right now, the two top dogs are Ohio State and Wisconsin and that doesn't look to change anytime soon. Even if Urban Meyer falls short of his "National Championship every year" expectations from Ohio State fans, he's still recruiting at a high enough level and coaches well enough to consistently be at the top of the Big Ten, at least. Bret Bielema has the Badgers running on all cylinders and has Wisconsin built for long term success. (Indiana fans should know this as well as anyone, considering the bludgeonings that the Badgers have given the Hoosiers lately.) Penn State is interesting; I honestly don't know how well Bill O'Brien can do in Happy Valley, although I do know that a.) succeeding a legend like Joe Paterno is exceedingly difficult and b.) that some change, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, is much needed. With the resources and history at Penn State, it would be hard to see them drop off drastically, but a few off years wouldn't be out of the question. Illinois is sort of intriguing as well -- Ron Zook could recruit but couldn't coach, and the Illini have moved on to Tim Beckman. The questions are if Zook left enough talent there, if Beckman can sustain that level of talent, and if he can utilize it better than his predecessor did. At Purdue, Danny Hope seems to be on a bit of a hot seat, so I wouldn't say that the Boilermakers are particularly stable. The drop-off from the Joe Tiller era isn't insignificant.

To me, a reasonable goal for Indiana would be to move up to the top of the second tier in the Legends -- Ohio State and Wisconsin have a stranglehold on the top and Penn State will probably be up there too, but surpassing Illinois and Purdue, programs that certainly have their own question marks, is definitely feasible. Unfortunately for Indiana, their conference schedule looks to be tough over the next few years: Michigan State, as their cross-division rival, is on the schedule every year, and as much as it pains me to say it the Spartans have built an excellent program and will be solid year-in and year-out. Michigan rotates onto Indiana's schedule in 2013 and 2014 as well. On the other hand, the questions at Purdue and at Illinois could provide an opportunity for the Hoosiers. It's a zero-sum situation and right now, gains (wins in the Big Ten, basically) will need to be made at the expense of other conference foes -- Illinois and Purdue could be Big Ten teams that Indiana will have a good chance of beating in a few years (and Minnesota rotates onto the 2013 and 2014 schedules too). If Indiana can manage to beat those conference opponents, handle their non-conference opponents, and pull an upset every now and then, the Hoosiers have the potential to be a Northwestern-type program that consistently manages to get to six or seven (or more) wins a year. Getting past teams like Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin will not be feasible in the long run, but Indiana certainly can make strides to become a middle-tier team in their division.

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This is the year that the Kevin Wilson rebuilding project begins in earnest, and even though the Hoosiers probably won't contend for a bowl berth this year, they should definitely improve from last year's dreadful 1-11 mark. With a cast of exciting playmakers like Tre Roberson, Stephen Houston, and Kofi Hughes, and an influx of JUCO talent on defense, the Hoosiers should be much more competitive than they were a year ago. Long-term, Wilson seems to have the program on a proven path to success, and with the question marks at Purdue and Illinois, there's an opportunity for Indiana to become a decent program and reach a level of respectability that hasn't been attained since the Bill Mallory era. Of course, the status quo might not change, Wilson might not make the strides that fans and the AD hoped for, and we could be having this discussion and discussing another coach's rebuilding project again in a few years.

1. That Ohio State team went on to win the Orange Bowl, but not after receiving a 22-0 loss at the hands of Michigan in the Horseshoe.

2. The recent apex under Mark Mangino notwithstanding. The 2007 season was insane enough regardless of Kansas's 12-1 Orange Bowl win. I doubt that they'll be approaching that level with the smoking crater that Turner Gill left our good friend Charlie Weis.

3. Iowa was the luckiest team I've ever seen. Aside from that Indiana game, they won against Northern Iowa on two blocked field goals, only beat Arkansas State by a field goal, had a last-second touchdown in East Lansing to notch a two point win against Michigan State, and had a late interception to beat Michigan by the same margin a few weeks earlier. Their luck ran out when Stanzi went down against Northwestern: they lost to the Wildcats and to Ohio State the following week.

4. This isn't about Rodriguez. I'm not sure if Lynch's tenure was doomed or not, but winning either (or both) of these games would have been extremely huge for Indiana's program. Michigan wasn't exactly up to its standard in '09 or '10, but a win over a historically elite program like Michigan could have been a watershed moment for Indiana. At the very least, beating them at home would have put the Hoosiers in a bowl game in 2010 and could have saved Lynch's job.