Wilson-led Hoosiers nod to Mallory’s fierceness

Rest assured, Indiana University football fans, there is hope.

Chances are excellent you’ve heard that refrain at some point over the last two decades.
So what makes this new era different?

Well, you definitely need to look beyond the surface, because that still looks the same. The Hoosiers dropped to 1-4 after Penn State escaped with a 16-10 victory Saturday in IU’s Big Ten season opener at Memorial Stadium — a game that Indianapolis Colts vice chairman Bill Polian inspected from the press box, where he scribbled copious notes throughout.

Incidentally, the last Hoosier squad that won a bowl game, Bill Mallory’s 1991 team that beat Baylor 24-0 in the Copper Bowl, was honored at halftime.

The scene may eventually turn out to be the most veiled example of foreshadowing in the history of the program.

Four coaches have led the Hoosiers between Mallory’s reign and first-year coach Kevin Wilson, whose demeanor and attitude comes the closest to matching Mallory’s since the former coach and IU parted ways after the 1996 season.

Last summer while I was a graduate student at IU, I shared a half-hour phone interview with Mallory for a story I was writing for the Indiana Daily Student. With his booming voice and motivational presence, Mallory talks in a way that makes you believe anything is possible. If at the end of our conversation he had told me to move to Alaska and start selling popsicles, I’d have been on the next flight to Anchorage.

It’d be difficult to describe Mallory without using the word “fiery” sometime in the first five seconds. And he was demanding, too. Former Hoosier quarterback Dave Schnell — who died earlier this year of cancer — once told me about Mallory and his coaching staff: “They were hard on us, and you either responded or you were gone.”

The current Hoosiers can relate. I asked a handful of players Saturday to describe what practice is like under Wilson. Upon hearing the question, each player immediately got this look on his face as if he were thinking, ”˜Where do I even begin?’

“If we’re slacking, he’s going to make sure we pick up the intensity,” running back Stephen Houston said. “We start off fast and we finish strong. And it relates out here to the field because practice is hard, and playing the game is easy.”

Quarterback Dusty Kiel agreed, saying, “He puts us in situations to where the game is easy. We play really fast, and he’s behind us.”

Before Saturday, I had my fair share of doubts about Wilson, who accomplished just about everything an offensive coordinator can before making the career jump. But I came away impressed after listening to him talk during his nearly 10-minute postgame press conference.

He was insightful and added perspective without rambling. He didn’t make excuses, but he made everyone realize there are plenty of obstacles surrounding his team. And he also may have unintentionally (or not) offered a glimpse into the challenges ahead when he said he thought the Hoosier linemen were “soft” upon arriving on campus.

Saturday was a “Go Pink” day at Memorial Stadium, as Hoosier coaches wore pink hats and players sported pink gloves and pink-tinged lettering on their helmets to raise awareness for breast cancer.

At the press conference, I asked Wilson, considering it was his career-opening Big Ten season opener, what kind of energy and excitement did he want to see from not only his players, but also from the fans. He offered a minutelong response, saying he was happy with the players but added he knows they can do a better job of getting the crowd going and into the game.

He talked as if the Hoosiers are sitting on a fan explosion. They just need to play well enough to light the fuse.

“Talking about people who are fighting cancer, it’s gameday, every day,” Wilson said. “And you beat that with prayer and a lot of fight and a great attitude, and that’s what we needed to do to win that game. We needed a lot of fight and a lot of attitude.

“We didn’t make some plays we needed to. We didn’t have the physical presence and size we needed to. We could have clicked a little bit better, quarterback-receiver play, but we talked about fighting, we talked about having an attitude, and for the most part I was proud of the kids.”

The way the players talk about games being a welcome relief from the brutal week of practice is definitely what fans should want to hear.

It’s not that practices weren’t physical or fast-paced before; they were. But this year has a different vibe, players indicated, than previous years with Bill Lynch.

I met Lynch while I was in Bloomington, and got to know him a little bit. The perception of him being genuinely nice, kind and considerate is true. He really is a great guy.

I interviewed him a handful of times as I was writing for the IDS and hosting my own sports talk radio show last summer, and the subject always seemed to focus on anything but the action on the field.

His players excelled in the classroom — 42 Hoosiers achieved at least a 3.0 GPA last fall. They also helped out in the community, and as much as can be expected with a pack of 20-something males on scholarship at a state university, they stayed out of trouble.

Under Lynch, the Hoosiers’ most admirable traits seemed to be displayed off the field.

To his detractors, that was a problem. But for me, that’s what made rooting for Lynch and his Hoosiers so easy.

The scuttlebutt was always he was too nice a guy to win, at least at a BCS-level program. Maybe some people believe that notion, but I’m not that naïve.

The line between being too nice to win and owning a Super Bowl ring, penning a New York Times bestselling book and having a cushy television gig can sometimes be phyllo dough thin. Hello there, Tony Dungy.

For Wilson, that’s not a concern. He’s not worried about making friends, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As one person told me Saturday about Wilson, “It’s not his job to charm anybody.”

The personality switch doesn’t necessarily mean an uptick in wins will follow, though, at least not right away.

Mallory needed four seasons before collecting his first winning campaign in 1987. That year began a streak in which Indiana finished with a winning record in six of eight seasons and played in five bowl games.

A trip to the postseason doesn’t seem to be on the horizon this season, but the players are adamant about their commitment.

“We’re going to keep pushing forward,” Houston said. “We’re going to regain respect here at Indiana for our football team.”

No coach has been able to equal the success Mallory achieved since he left, though Lynch did make a bowl his first year. Players, assistant coaches and even administrators need to take responsibility, or at the very least acknowledge Wilson will need help if he’s going to last. And that maybe if Lynch received more support, he’d still be leading the Hoosiers.

Still, Indiana is now Wilson’s team.

And even though I’m only one person, they’ve got me.

I’m hooked. I’m a believer.

Don’t let me down, Hoosiers.

Contact John Patishnock at jpatishnock@dcherald.com.

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