"Indiana football" is a phrase that inspires either indifference, amusement, or an attempt to clarify whether or not you meant "Indiana basketball." You know, like that team from Hickory? That isn't meant as some mean-spirited joke, particularly in light of Michigan's own close calls against the Hoosiers in 2009 and 2010; it's just an incontrovertible fact. For as long as I have been alive, Indiana has not been very good at football. This is an absolute truth that has simultaneously been both underscored and de-emphasized by the game played on the hardwood, whether the guys in the iconic striped warmup pants were any good or not. If Indiana basketball is good then everybody seems to forget about what happened on the gridiron in the fall. That's fine, but also proves the point.
Now that Tom Crean has the Hoosier basketball Death Star at least semi-operational again (think Return of the Jedi), the football team's floundering this fall will likely go even more unnoticed than it otherwise would have. It is somewhat telling that I've talked about basketball almost as much as football in this opening paragraph, right? IU football is a sort of anti-matter in that it is defined by its state of not being; that is, not being basketball. Perhaps football is not for everybody. Nobody said it had to be. There are "football schools" and "basketball schools" for a reason.
I attended the 2010 game in Bloomington with a few friends, a game that I somewhat inexplicably decided to write about several months later. Michigan had ran through the non-conference slate with equal parts ease and heart attack-inducing pyrotechnics, but the Wolverines were 4-0 nonetheless before heading into Bloomington for the conference opener. IU came in at 3-0, although their pristine record came against the following triumvirate: Towson (turns out they're bad at basketball and football), Western Kentucky, and Akron. A Bill Snyder-esque non-conference slate, indeed.
And yet, the atmosphere all morning and into the afternoon leading up to kickoff was raucous. Although there was a strong aura of "most of these kids probably aren't planning on making it to the game" emanating from the student tailgates, everything looked and sounded like the type of scene you'd find at a school where football actually matters.
The game began and IU drew first blood, driving down the field with ease against a Michigan defense that had already looked vulnerable against both Notre Dame and UMass. Ben Chappell was Peyton Manning for the day, Tandon Doss a Reggie Wayne analogue, and Darius Willis, Jordan Kovacs's tormentor in 2009, was also back to somewhat inexplicably bust long runs despite not being very fast. The crowd was engaged, and Memorial Stadium was, wait for it: sold out. Not surprisingly, this was the first such sell-out since stadium renovations were completed in 2009. A little more surprising, however, is the fact that this game marked Memorial Stadiums first 50,000+ turnout for a game against a team not named Ohio State or Purdue since 1992. Think about that. Despite all the inflation that usually goes into attendance recording, the IU "brand"--and I type that unironically--was not strong enough to bring in over 50,000 people against teams like Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, Michigan State, or Michigan. On this day, things at least seemed different.
With that said, my friends and I were easily able to obtain tickets located in the student section, so that is where we perhaps foolishly decided to sit/stand. After spending the entire game attempting to prevent a guy behind us from literally headbutting one of our friends* while marveling at the spectacle that was early 2010 season Denard, Michigan had emerged victorious by the ugly score of 45-32. Like eating any sort of barbecue, it was good in the moment of consumption and right up until the first gastrointestinal siren began to voice its deep-seated displeasure about what was to come. You could say that the second half of that season was just one unceasing case of the 'itis, but that is a sob story for another day.
I was too busy attempting to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of Denard's performance with the team's overall mediocrity--in spite of its 5-0 record--to think about what was going on around me. I certainly had no urge to talk any sort of trash to anyone, or to even turn around and give the guys that had been bothering us all game a yeah that's right look, an unspoken dropping of a non-existent mic. What I do remember, however, is amusing, a bit predictable, and definitive of the Indiana football experience.
After Denard punched in the game-winning score, the IU offense took the field to attempt to make a miracle happen with a mere 17 seconds left. The students behind us had no time for miracles.
*(Seriously...this man was very serious about his intentions to headbutt another human being--i.e. one of my friends--on that day. His head was very large and bald, and so it seemed conducive to the execution of such an act. Fortunately, nobody was headbutted, and we all left Bloomington with a win and without concussions.)
As I attempted to calm down after Denard's long pass to Hemingway (and the eventual clinching score) in order to will the Michigan defense to avoiding a Colorado Redux ending, the students--some of whom I was absolutely sure weren't actually students because they either wore nothing IU-branded, said they were from elsewhere, or looked 32 years old--were busy pulling the metal bleachers on which they had been standing out of the Memorial Stadium concrete. All of this was happening as fans across the way began to file out in streaming lines of crimson and cream, disgruntled, far-off arterial lines being bled out of a stadium that had seen much literal bleeding over the years. It was as if nobody even gave the team a chance to pull off a miracle. I mean, Ben Chappell had thrown for 472 yards (no, that is not a typo) before that final desperation drive. You would think that that alone would've merited at least a token effort from the fans. Of course, I'm thinking about all of this through the lens of Michigan fandom; this is Indiana we're talking about.
My friends and I began to file out after enjoying the stadium for a few extra minutes. The metal bleacher had been pulled out of the concrete entirely by the cadre of students and other miscellaneous persons of unknown affiliation. They placed the thing on their shoulders, like a crew team carrying its boat. It was bizarre and absurd and in a way incredibly perfect.
Everyone else around us discussed their plans for the night, also known as when they were going to head over to Sports. No one was upset. Everything was fine. The outcome was expected. It's the kind of place where people joke about "never losing a party" but actually mean it.
I don't know about you, but this has never been my reaction after any loss experienced in the Big House (and as a recent grad, I had the "opportunity" to experience quite a few losses). Still, it's hard to be critical of the students and IU fans in general. After all, they did have to suffer through the Gerry DiNardo era. Yes, it's sometimes easy to forget that he was employed at not one, but three BCS conference schools as a head football coach. He managed to make LSU look terrible throughout most of his five-year tenure, which is like Ron Burgundy's dog Baxter eating the entire wheel of cheese. Nick Saban of course led the Tigers to a national title a mere four years later. All of this is to say that Gerry DiNardo was not great at coaching, even for schools like Indiana and Vanderbilt.
As a Michigan fan, the closest analogue to IU football that I have is Michigan basketball re: fan support/attendance. Otherwise, I have nothing to draw from, nothing that allows me to truly relate with what it means to be a fan of Indiana football, a program that has won two Big Ten championships, the last one coming in 1967, before Bo Schembechler had even arrived on the Big Ten scene. Indiana has only appeared in nine bowl games in its entire history, which, if you start with the program's sole Rose Bowl appearance on New Year's Day of 1968, is good for approximately one bowl appearance every five years. In the last decade, the Hoosiers appeared in one bowl game, an Insight Bowl defeat against Oklahoma State in 2007, wrapping up Bill Lynch's first season as head coach.
Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding what would seem like an entirely hopeless case, the IU fanbase has in fact come a long way in recent years. The late Terry Hoeppner, whom, in purely B1G tradition, came to Indiana from Miami (OH), seemed to be laying the groundwork for a competitive football program. IU won three conference games in 2006 for the first time in 5 years; this may seem like not much to write home about, but let's not forget that Indiana won a single game, period, in 2011, and the outlook doesn't look too rosy for IU in 2012, a season in which conference wins may be very hard to come by (especially with Minnesota absent from the schedule). While Hoeppner had begun to improve the product on the field, he just as importantly helped to partially jolt the fanbase to life.
In a short time, Hoeppner's positive influence on IU football resulted in a 39-percent increase in per-game attendance, a 46-percent increase in overall season ticket sales, and a 110% increase in student season ticket sales. You might joke that said increases don't mean much when they're improving upon a relatively small number to begin with, but consider the topic at hand here. Michigan basketball has at least been competitive most years and we still struggle to fill Crisler; we are in no position to judge.
These increases occurred after Indiana had gone 4-7 and 5-7 in 2005 and 2006, respectively. It's not much of a surprise to hear that fan participation increased significantly after a coach took an incredibly young team upward through the Big Ten ranks (from 10th in '05 to tied for 6th in '06).
Unfortunately, it seems that the groundswell of good will that Coach Hoeppner had begun to build in Bloomington has understandably stagnated. Other than the aforementioned 2010 Michigan game--which seems like it was as big as any IU football game in the last 20 years--IU averaged a mere 39,758 per home game the rest of that season (although to be fair, three of those five remaining home games were against non-conference cupcakes, with the other two coming against Northwestern and Iowa). Things obviously weren't much better on the attendance front in 2011 given the whole "winning one game" thing. The single game attendance high last season was 42,621 against Penn State, good for 80.5% of Memorial Stadium's capacity. That is not good, not to mention that this attendance figure was higher than that of the season-ending rivalry game against Purdue.
The pertinent questions are these: What can be done to help bring back the same enthusiasm that Coach Hoeppner was able to inspire? Can IU football ever be successful in the Big Ten, let alone competitive and/or competent? Can IU ever hope to fill Memorial Stadium, which holds a capacity crowd of a little over 52,000? Coach Wilson will have to appeal to the fanbase like Hoeppner once did. Appealing to the fans for support and general good will at a program like Indiana is like taking out a loan; you get it and hope to pay it back later after whatever it is you need it for has proven profitable (i.e. wins on the field).
This may be a little reductive, but the plight of the lower-tier BCS program can often be explained as an issue of identity (among other things, such as resources, talent bases, etc.). Other than simply not being good, Indiana football has been mostly faceless outside of the Antwaan Randle El era (that's not to say that IU hasn't had any good football players...it definitely has). Who was Bill Lynch? I never really figured that one out, and maybe that's why he's no longer coaching in Bloomington. While this might not win me any friends in the IU community, Hoosier football should take a look at the Tiller model at Purdue, or Northwestern going all the way back to when Pat Fitzgerald was wearing a helmet instead of a purple and black windbreaker. Pick something, recruit for it, and do it well. Odds are, you will upset one of the big guys along the way if you do what you do well.
Programs like Northwestern and Purdue have done it, offensively, with the spread, and that's what IU will continue to have with Kevin Wilson at the helm. Given the caliber of offenses that Wilson oversaw in Norman, I thought (and still think) that he was the perfect hire for a school like IU, a place generally incapable of attracting enough raw talent to field consistently solid defenses but certainly capable of attracting decent enough skill players. Wilson will have quarterbacks Tre Roberson and JUCO Cameron Coffman to work with, in addition to a young and talented Stephen Houston at the tailback position. IU is still probably at least a year away from fielding an offense that Big Ten defensive coordinators need to lose any sort of sleep over, but Wilson has proven that he knows how to run an offense.
The easiest way to attract the casual or disgruntled fan, in my mind, is lots and lots of pure unadulterated offense. Purdue had "basketball on grass", and for some time that worked for them. Northwestern did their thing as well, as I saw for myself while watching Michigan lose 54-51 at Ryan Field in 2000. Northwestern couldn't play a lick of defense but they sure could score. This is what I think Indiana should aspire to achieve. If the aforementioned doesn't exactly sound lofty--giving up 51 points isn't exactly ideal--don't forget that Michigan shared the Big Ten championship in 2000 with, of course, Northwestern and Purdue.
At the same time, that type of success likely represents the apex of what IU can hope to achieve. Even if they do get there, the path will be littered with broken dreams, unmet goals, and the occasional Motor City/Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl invite. It won't be easy, just as the climb to respectability wasn't easy for Purdue or Northwestern, but it can be done. I'm sure there was a point when nobody thought that Northwestern would ever be successful in the modern era of college football.
I will say that while the fan response around me at that game in 2010 was a little underwhelming (albeit predictable and understandable), I was generally impressed with what I saw that day in Bloomington. I've been to games at Ryan Field and Ross-Ade, and in my humble opinion there is no reason why the in-game experience in Bloomington can't be as good if not better than what those two venues have to offer (the pre-game experience is without a doubt better at IU). The potential is there, and if Kevin Wilson can manage to pull some wins out of thin air this year and next, there's a chance that a lasting culture of football observance on Saturdays--not Sundays--can be built. At the risk of undercutting my point by referencing basketball again, it's not as if passion for sports is lacking in Bloomington (just go to any game at Assembly Hall) as it might be at a place like, say, Northwestern (of course I'm generalizing a bit here).
IU fans need to be given something with which to identify, something to hang their hat on and say "This is why we show up. We might lose in the end but at least we gave 'em all they wanted." The potential is there.
But, as we all know, potential is just potential, a dormant entity waiting to happen (or not happen). It may. It may not.