Prior to the 2012-2013 college football season, a friend of mine, we’ll call him “Todd,” was in Bloomington, Indiana, for the weekend, and decided to pay a visit to a piece of our old stomping grounds, The Alley Bar. That name is a misnomer, considering there’s only room for 6-8 small bar tables, and certainly no alley. As he’s entering the bar, he immediately spots Coach Kevin Wilson. Wilson is known to frequent Bloomington’s vast selection of fine spirits establishments, and has a fiery temper (to say the least). As an example, when asked by a local (Louisville, Kentucky-area) reporter at the IU Athletic Department’s Tailgate Tour stop at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2013, what he thought about the “Never Lost a Tailgate” t-shirts (which are popular with IU students), Wilson responded with, “I’ve actually bought a bunch, took them home and I started my fires with those. You can laugh, but it’s embarrassing to me that you guys like the fact that we don’t lose tailgates…” He made these, and similar, comments shortly before this encounter, and Todd just so happened to be wearing one of the aforementioned t-shirts.
Mind you, the Hoosiers were coming off a 1-11 season in the first year of Wilson’s tenure, but Todd had always been a big supporter of the hire, and was excited about the future of IU football. Todd, as he tells it, couldn’t believe his luck, approached Wilson, and respectfully tried to make some small talk about the upcoming season. At this point, Wilson appeared to be more than a few into the process of tying one on, and immediately noticed Todd’s t-shirt. Apparently, Wilson then repeated something similar to the quote above (in addition to a slew of profanities, of course) to Todd, bumped chests with him, got a little spittle on his chin (this might be hyperbole), with the cherry on top being Wilson yelling that he was, “not a real IU fan.” Allegedly, Todd proceeded (allegedly) to get back into Wilson’s face, and say, “Well, Coach, put better than a 1-11 squad on the field! What don’t you understand about the fact that getting drunk on cheap beer in the tailgating fields is a better option than watching us get our ass kicked by 40!?” Accurate, all round (for both Todd and Wilson). Some context for all the dynamics going on above:
- On January 1, 1968, the Hoosiers made their second, and last, appearance in the Rose Bowl. IU played valiantly, but lost to Heisman Trophy winner, OJ Simpson (pre-Naked Gun, and, you know, that thing in LA) and the mighty Trojans of USC. That means we’re approaching the 50-year mark without a Rose Bowl appearance for IU. With all due respect to Northwestern, both for its academics, and my B1G-love, but NORTHWESTERN has been to a Rose Bowl since then…I repeat NORTHWESTERN. Not to mention the fact that we’ve only been to 8 bowl games in past 47 seasons. It would kind to call the history of IU football less than mediocre.
- Prior to both Wilson’s arrival, and the reign of the one they refer to as Bill Lynch, Terry Hoeppner (“Hep”) ruled the roost in Bloomington. Despite 4-7 and 5-7 records to start his career at IU, the 2007-08 had a lot of potential, and it’s fair share of NFL talent. James Hardy was a star at wide receiver (and eventual 2nd round pick of the Buffalo Bills), Marcus Thigpen was a stud at running back (who has had a solid career as a journeyman special-teams player in the NFL), the dual-threat nightmare, Kellen Lewis at quarterback (prior to his multiple “violations of team rules the following years), and Tracy Porter at corner (last seen returning a Peyton Manning interception for a touchdown to win the Super Bowl for the Saints). Unfortunately, prior to the start of spring practice it was announced that Hep would be sitting out for medical reasons, and succumbed to a brain tumor that discovered too late shortly thereafter. IU finished the regular season at 7-5, and earned to trip to the Insight Bowl, where Dez Bryant and the Oklahoma State Cowboys promptly abused the Hoosiers, 49-33. Hep’s death was a major blow to the program, because Hep was “THE GUY.” Unlike Lee Corso’s days at IU, Hep was recruiting well, was a good X’s and O’s guy, and, most importantly, had Corso’s charisma. He was changing the culture of the program, and I am convinced the team would have won ten (10) games that year with him at the helm. Bill Lynch’s ineptitude knew no low, and cost the team three (3) wins that season.
- Due to the lack of current, and historic success of the football program, Hoosier fans have taken what rookies to the game call tailgating, and turned it into an unofficial “sporting” event, where 100,000-150,000 people descend on Bloomington. What takes place on Saturday afternoons in the fall is not what normal people think of when it comes to tailgating (i.e. it’s more than just hot dogs on the grill, and a few coolers of beer). Imagine the biggest July 4th block party you have ever been to, paint it cream and crimson, then, multiply that by ten (10). During my time in undergrad, I would prepare for tailgates by doing the following:
- Trip to the liquor store: by the end of my time at IU, I would normally buy between 120-180 beers, 5-6 handles of cheap liquor, and about 10 big bags of ice.
- Preparation and packing: (1) I would pack our coffin-sized coolers full with the alcohol; (2) Decide where to go for the food, which normally turned into buying BBQ (shout-out to my boy Willie T, who has the best ribs and brisket around); (3) gather up all of our folding chairs, the custom-made beer pong table (which featured a replica of Branch McCracken Court in Assembly Hall), the cornhole boards, and all of the electronics we would need to turn my car into a mini-concert; and (4) placed all of the above in my SUV in a Tetris-like fashion.
- Going to bed early, so you could get up and get the best spots in the fields.
- Also, due to the lack of historic success of the football program, there are some IU fans that maintain a split allegiance. For example, when you ask an IU fan about the football team, the typical response is, “Oh, I love IU basketball, but I am a Notre Dame football fan.” There’s no such thing as split loyalties, but, I will even admit that the University of Texas and I became more than acquaintances during Vince Young’s time in the burnt orange. This is a major problem for any developing program; you must have a loyal base.
All of this is to say that each side had valid points. Wilson, despite his delivery, is correct. His job is to build a program, and one way to do that is to get the fans to actually to come to the games. It must be extremely frustrating to put in all that work trying to create something, only to have people more interested in getting sloppy drunk than watching the team. However, his personality makes him unlikable, and the product on the field speaks for itself. IU always has one of the best offenses in the B1G, but Wilson treats the defense like a red-headed step-child, and the team repeatedly loses games they should have won. This is where Todd’s point comes in: why would IU fans want to leave the parties in the tailgating fields, just to see the team get trounced by Our Little Sisters of the Poor.
My message to Coach Wilson is that if he just listens to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the IU football program is a sleeping giant, just waiting to be awakened from its slumber. With Fred Glass as athletic director, every facet of the program has moved light years ahead. IU has one of the premier weight-lifting/training facilities in the country, has a beautifully updated locker room, Memorial Stadium has been improved and expanded, the indoor practice facility is one of the best in country. Not to mention the fact that IU is in the middle of the fertile Midwest recruiting grounds, which has more than enough talent to make the Hoosiers a perennial success. That is not to say that I, and Hoosier fans in general, expect the team to be competing for a trip to the Rose Bowl every year, but there is absolutely no reason the football team should not be in a bowl game every year.