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The Rise of Indiana Football

Coach Wilson has arrived — will victories follow?

Kevin Wilson

Early Morning, Tight Ends Meeting

Kevin Wilson doesn’t speak in sentences so much as he unleashes word salvos. One fragment flows into the next and into the next and into the next until he punctuates these little clouds with a question that isn’t really a question at all. It takes some time to adjust to his manner of speaking. In the fog of a Monday morning, I go a good five minutes before I can comprehend anything he’s saying.

This is partly due to the terminology (vipers and flood and gold), but it is also because Wilson, the latest in a long line of rhetoricians hired to make something out of Indiana University football, talks at such a pace that it is impossible to keep notes in real time. In fact, I have to play back the tape recording of the following tongue-twister in Wilson’s North Carolina twang seven times before I capture the proper verbiage (and even now, I’m not sure if I got it right):

Coltfor3Acefor3Acefor3Coltfor3Acefor3Acefor3Coltfor3Poniesfor3AceAce.

So goes his description of the morning practice routine. He was hired as the head coach at Indiana last December, so I presume this progression makes sense to the half-dozen tight ends sitting around me, just as I presume it makes sense when Wilson squints and counts to five and starts talking about moving fast and then says Awright? and then talks about practicing fast and playing fast and then says You good? and then diagrams a throw by noting that this is the play in which the tight end nearly craps himself because he thinks he’s getting the ball and then says Everybody cool with that?

Silence. Apparently, everybody is cool with that.

The lights are low in here, no windows, a game-film interface projected onto a screen, everyone in the room other than Wilson still adjusting to the notion of consciousness at 7:28 in the morning. The coach is stocky and ruddy-cheeked and wearing baggy mesh practice shorts and a sweatshirt and an IU visor. On the door (WIN TODAY) and above the door (OFFENSIVE VALUES: RESPECT AND PROTECT THE BALL, LOCKED IN, RESOLVE, PHYSICALLY DOMINATE, EXPLOSIVE, INVESTED) and on the whiteboard (THE WILL TO SUCCEED IS NOTHING WITHOUT THE WILL TO PREPARE), everything in this room points toward the sort of rigorous self-actualization program favored by late-night infomercial hosts and gung-ho football coaches. And if there is one attribute Kevin Wilson does not lack, it is football coach. “He’s a, uh, very intense person,” someone told me, and that someone happens to be a man who coached under Woody Hayes.

There’s a symbiosis between man and maxim that becomes apparent as soon as Wilson bursts through that door. He is two minutes early this morning, though you get the sense that he has never not started a meeting at least two minutes early. In the roughly 12 hours that I spend in Wilson’s proximity during August two-a-days in Bloomington, I hear him make several jokes, but I never once see him laugh. Jokes are necessary, he tells me. Jokes defuse the day-to-day tension of melding a group of men into a working machine. But laughter wastes time, and Wilson is not the kind of man who burns precious seconds on such things as comedic pauses. When I asked him questions in his office later on this same day, he simultaneously scanned the morning paper and scolded his two sons for wrestling on his floor. “Typically you don’t get beat,” he told me. “Typically you lose games, and you lose when there’s a lot of negatives, and most negatives can be controlled.”

Hence that slogan on the door, which can also be found next to Wilson’s photo on billboards along Indiana Route 37: WIN TODAY. It is a mantra that has eluded all who came before him; it is a mantra that at times has seemed unachievable. Wilson’s charge is to elevate the Indiana University football team from the butt of a generation’s worth of jokes — from a sport of secondary cultural and historical importance — into a perennial Rose Bowl contender. As he tells his staff, it will require “the energy of sudden change.” If nothing else, he is a whiz with the phrasing.

“How’s everybody doin’?” he says.

Mumbled responses. Good, fine. Up on the video screen, a tight end is jousting his way through a drill. Wilson addresses some esoteric blocking technique. He chose to name himself the tight ends coach in addition to his duties as head coach. It saves money, but he also enjoys this; at least, I’m going to assume he enjoys this, because I don’t think I ever saw him smile.

“How’s everybody doin’?” he says again.

He talks more about blocking schemes. He accuses one of the tight ends of being “duckfooted.” He tells another not to be a “huggy bear.” He says crap and damn a few times. He says that thinking is detrimental to blocking, and it’s kind of a joke, but not really. Or maybe it is. I don’t know.

“How’s everybody doin’?”

He asks them about the horrifying stage collapse that happened the previous weekend at the state fair, lingering just long enough to permit it the proper gravity. He raises a few other questions that he probably already knows the answer to, just to make sure that they are still there, that the plan is still coming along, that they are not sleeping on him. He talks about accelerating into the block, about stepping long and keeping your feet wide.

“How’s everybody doin’?”

By this time, no one is answering. Is it really a question anymore? Or is it a koan of its own?

“I’m doin’ great,” says Wilson, cutting through the silence. “Thanks for asking.”

Late Morning, Practice No. 1

The mantra on the wall of the indoor practice facility (PLAY HARD, PLAY SMART, PLAY PHYSICAL): Wilson’s idea. Livening up the bare walls of the football complex with mural-sized photos of cheering fans and sideline celebrations from past seasons: Wilson’s idea. The two speakers strapped to a golf cart, blasting a Jack FM hybrid of George Jones and Rob Zombie and Birdman and Don Henley and MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”: Wilson’s idea.1


1.

Well, OK, not the music itself. I asked Wilson if that was his mix, and he shook his head. A few hours later, at the beginning of the early-evening practice — the second session of two-a-days — an unknown entity slipped in a hip-hop song with lyrics that were both explicit and literal. It got cut off after 30 seconds. “Somebody’s in trouble,” said the person standing next to me on the sideline.

These touches may seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of winning and losing. They may even seem frivolous. But while Wilson has never been a head coach before (unless you count that year he spent at Foard High School in his home state of North Carolina), he’s been one of the most successful assistant coaches in the country for more than a decade. At Northwestern he convinced coach Randy Walker to shift to a spread offense, thereby making the Wildcats a perennial Big Ten competitor; at Oklahoma he did the same thing, expanding Bob Stoops’ offense toward the edges of the field and shaping quarterback Sam Bradford into a first-round draft pick. All this was accomplished by moving quickly; Bradford’s strength, Wilson says, is that he was able to process information incredibly fast, “like the Internet.” (Wilson relies largely on video as a teaching tool, because he doesn’t believe kids have the patience to read anymore.) Even when he is a hard-ass, he does it with swiftness: If a player fumbles once during practice, he is immediately pulled for the rest of the session without a word. In Wilson’s practices, one drill melds into another, and sets are run with urgency, up and down the field, with the music serving as a metronome. (At one point, the team’s placekicker does the worm.) Acefor3Acefor3Coltfor3 … “You gotta learn to play when it’s cluttered up,” he says. “Things are going on, still gotta listen, still gotta concentrate.”

And then he starts talking about generating positive energy, and how positive energy has to flow from everyone in the program, including the student managers and the receptionists who answer the phone. That’s how it goes with Wilson. Everything becomes an exhortation. When your record as a head coach is 0-0, it all sounds pretty great to the people whose duty it is to listen to you.

“I’m tired of getting sand kicked in our faces,” says Indiana athletic director Fred Glass. “I wanted someone who believes. I believe you can win at Indiana. I just think we need a guy to lead us.”

A few days before this, Wilson made an appearance on a national radio show, on a little sporting zoo known as Zakk & Jack. The discussion was not marked by a good deal of positive energy. The hosts, one of whom was former Illinois quarterback Jack Trudeau, opened the segment by bantering about the historical ineptitude of Indiana football. Wilson said something about putting up 61 points on Illinois back when he was an assistant coach at Northwestern. They asked if Wilson had been yelling, unaware that his voice pretty much always sounds as if he’s been snacking on creek rock. Wilson muttered that he’d been dealing with clueless media people, and then added, “But anyway, I’ve got some things to do, guys, what do you guys need?”

Zakk & Jack took this as an insult. Zakk & Jack were permitting the football coach at Indiana University — Indiana, whose only Rose Bowl appearance occurred when Bob Knight was still coaching Army to the NIT — airtime on a national program, and Zakk & Jack presumed that Wilson would be grateful enough to suck up their banter as part of the price of promotion. Instead, Wilson shoved their mirth in their faces, and Zakk & Jack, lapsing into the kabuki outrage that’s elevated talk radio into an American institution, hung up on him. Then, weirdly enough, Zakk & Jack ranted for several minutes about how ungrateful Wilson was for the opportunity. Trudeau even said he regretted sending his kids to college at Indiana.

Maybe they thought this lecture would thrash Wilson’s reputation, but it didn’t. There is a difference between making a joke and treating yourself as a joke, and Wilson was not going to tolerate the latter. There is an edge to him, a simmering impatience that leads him to believe this program doesn’t need a five-year plan to succeed. This was not the first time his brusqueness had caused offense: A week after taking the job, Wilson reportedly cursed out a couple of resident assistants who wouldn’t immediately give him directions back to the suite where he was staying. He subsequently apologized, according to Glass. But he didn’t feel the same need to apologize to Zakk & Jack.

Also, he did have some things to do.

“I actually enjoyed that, you know,” says Wilson, who notes that in his previous job as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, he was often the most hated man in the state. “The more media coverage we get, the better we’re gonna be.2 And I’m not trying to be a negative-publicity guy, I didn’t understand why you were asking me to do the show — laughing about us, that made no sense to me. But I don’t want you to write about that, I haven’t said anything about it, because it’s not worth stirring it up.”


2.

This obviously has something to do with him permitting a stranger like me to spend an entire day in meetings and practices. Given the rampant paranoia of most major-college football coaches, it does make a bit of a statement about Indiana’s need to sell its program.

But I am writing about it, because if anything, those two minutes of radio defined Wilson to a listening public who had probably never heard of him before. It may have even brought in some new fans who couldn’t have cared less about Indiana football until they realized that the new coach actually cared about Indiana football.

That said, it’s not as if Zakk & Jack, for all their artless blustering, didn’t have a point. With the exception of a surprise appearance in the 1968 Rose Bowl and a run of second-tier bowl appearances under coach Bill Mallory in the 1980s, Indiana football has been defined by failure ever since they began keeping records in 1887. No coach beyond the 1940s has completed his tenure with a winning record. Since John Pont departed in 1972, five coaches have been fired; one (Sam Wyche) departed for the NFL; and one (Terry Hoeppner) died of a brain tumor. Bad luck, poor stewardship, administrative neglect, outright heartbreak: This is a program that has been subject to all of the above. Not to mention Lee Corso.

“I remember in 19691978, we got beat 62-19 by Nebraska,” says Don Fischer, who has been the radio voice of Indiana football for 38 years. (Actually, it was 69-17, but you get the point.) “And Lee had a television show that aired Sundays at noon, where, you know, he’d come back and review the previous day’s game. And the opening scene, there’s a casket, and there’s organ music, and there’s candles and flowers. And Corso pops up out of the casket. And he says, ‘We ain’t dead yet.’

Corso actually won the Holiday Bowl the following season. He lasted until 1982, and transformed his inept huckster routine into an endearing television persona. Wyche replaced him, stayed for one year, went 3-8, then bolted for the Cincinnati Bengals. Mallory (the Woody Hayes disciple whose son is now Wilson’s co-defensive coordinator) went 0-11 his first season in 1984, made six bowl games, then got fired after a 3-8 season in 1996. Cam Cameron went five seasons without a winning record. Gerry DiNardo went three. Hoeppner went two. Bill Lynch took a 7-5 team to the Insight Bowl in 2007 (the first winning record at Indiana since ’94), and then went 12-24 the next three years.

“It doesn’t matter who the president of Indiana is, they have to have a great music program, and a good business school, and a great basketball program, because that is culturally and historically important to Indiana,” says DiNardo, who’s now an analyst for the Big Ten Network. “But whether they need a great football program? That may change, typically, depending on who the president or the athletic director is.

“Kevin’s aggressive in his approach, which is what’s needed. But the university has to continue to support it. They can’t get scared, or say he’s too hardline, because there’s tough times ahead. He can’t lose their support from a stylistic standpoint. Because that style hasn’t always played well in Bloomington.”

Early Afternoon, Team Meeting

“You got a head coach who maybe a lot of you guys probably think he’s a prick, right? Right? A lot of you guys probably do, but you know what? HE’S GOT A LOT OF SHIT IN HIS NECK. And that’s part of the reason why I came here.”

I’ve never heard the phrase “he’s got a lot of shit in his neck,”3 but I’m going to assume it is a compliment of the sort that excitable defensive football coaches deliver to their bosses. Early in Wilson’s tenure, four different assistants that he’d brought in departed for higher-profile programs. His coaching staff are still getting to know each other even as they get to know their on-field personnel. At the morning staff meeting, Wilson wrote 11 words on a whiteboard. Apparently, these are the 11 core commandments of Indiana football (not to be confused with the list of offensive and defensive values, the overall motto, and other varied dictums, both original and borrowed): DEMANDING ACCOUNTABLE HONEST LOYAL UNSELFISH COMPETITIVE PRIDEFUL RESPECTFUL FEARLESS CONFIDENT RELENTESS. He assigned each one to an assistant, and asked them to make a brief presentation in front of the team.


3.

A Google/Urban Dictionary search revealed nothing except a few references to the film Full Metal Jacket.

“Now listen,” Wilson told them. “I don’t want it to be phony, and it don’t have to be phony. But have a presence about what you’re doing, take it serious, don’t be stiff, don’t be rigid, have some fun with it, have some confidence, the more we all interact together and get in front of them, the better we are as a group.”

Today’s topic is RELENTLESS, and today’s speaker is Mike Ekeler, who played college ball at Kansas State and coached the linebackers at Nebraska before landing in Bloomington. Ekeler is one of those people who has no trouble taking things seriously. The presentation begins with a video of Ekeler in a college uniform, chasing the opening kickoff downfield during a bowl game, then darting maniacally toward the sideline. People laugh, as Wilson expected they would. Every joke has a purpose. And now Ekeler starts revving himself up about Kansas State’s turning its program around, about his yearning to win every single game even when their own coaching staff didn’t believe they could.

“YOU WANT TO BE PART OF A CLASS THAT EVERYONE TALKS ABOUT FOR YEARS TO COME? ARE WE RELENTLESS ENOUGH TO GET IT DONE?”

It is one hell of a stirring finish, even if it doesn’t really address the root of the problem. It’s not that coaches haven’t preached relentlessness in the past: In Mallory’s first season, he used the slogan LOCK YOUR JAW, implying that his squad would be so hardnosed that they’d rattle their opponents’ skulls (they lost 50-7 to Ohio State). And it’s not that there haven’t been other classes that almost turned it around; in Hoeppner’s second season, the Hoosiers upset a ranked Iowa team, 31-28, and there is a feeling around Bloomington that if Hoeppner hadn’t died, he might have altered the paradigm in short order.

But the truth is that the most important change Indiana has made to its program can be seen in the space that we’re sitting in right now. It is an expansive team room with tiered seating and modern audio-visual equipment, and until 2009, nothing like it existed.

In Mallory’s day they used to practice on the soccer field, until John Mellencamp donated the money to pay for the indoor practice pavilion that bears his name. Other than chain-smoking rock stars, Indiana’s roster of big-time football boosters is slim, which means the facilities have historically been some of the worst in the Big Ten and the budget for improvements a mere sliver. The football offices when Mallory got there were smaller than the ones he worked in at Northern Illinois. The stadium is one of the three smallest in the conference, and cuts such an unsightly figure from afar that Hoeppner chose to nickname it The Rock.

When DiNardo was coach from 2002 to 2004, he asked to hire his own dedicated strength coach, and they wouldn’t let him. In DiNardo’s last season, before the Hoosiers played at Oregon, he piped out duck calls through the speakers at practice, and someone from the administration approached him and asked, “Who’s gonna pay for that?”

The answer to that question eventually came from the place where these solutions typically arise. The answer came from television, from the Big Ten Network, whose revenue-sharing structure, according to Glass, dumped about an extra $18 million into the school’s budget. That money paid to build this entire football complex at the north end zone of Memorial Stadium, and it paid to convert the old football complex into an academic support center for athletes. The money paid for the new athletes’ cafeteria, and it paid for the five strength coaches listed in the media guide, and it paid for a larger weight room and a players’ lounge and a “director of performance nutrition” to remove the cookies from the lunch buffet and replace them with yogurt. And of course it paid for Wilson, whose contract calls for him to make $1.2 million per year over seven seasons.

“Kevin’s coming in at the best time that any coach has ever come in,” Mallory says. “He’s got the best setting ever in that regard.”

When delivering sales pitches to teenagers, these sorts of aesthetics matter; the square footage of the weight room becomes a talking point. Already, Wilson has lured what some are calling the highest-rated recruit in school history: Gunner Kiel, a quarterback from Columbus, Ind., whose brother Dusty happens to be competing for the Hoosiers’ starting quarterback job this season. Kiel turned down Alabama, USC, and Michigan to play for Wilson. It is a victory that the coach is not permitted to comment on at this point, except in abstractions. But then, nobody speaks in abstractions quite like Wilson does.

“Don’t be smart enough to screw yourself now,” he tells his players. “You know what I mean?”

And everyone in the room nods like they’ve heard this one a thousand times before.

Late Afternoon, Tight Ends Meeting No. 2

More video. More blocking technique. To liven up the afternoon, Wilson has moved off How’severybodydoin’ and on to Doesthatmakesense?

“Runandstrike. Doesthatmakesense?”

“Getsomerhymeandreasontothemadnessnowyouwithme. Doesthatmakesense?”

“We’renotjustrunningjustblindlytotherightandtheleft, we’rerunningtorelatetothedefense. Doesthatmakesense?”

“Setuptotheleftsecondsteprightdownhiscrotchandbangthecrapoutofhim … it’s all ball bearings.”

For a second, Wilson appears to be referring to some sort of footwork scheme. It isn’t phrased like a joke. It doesn’t seem like a joke. No one is laughing.

“What movie’s that?” he says.

No one answers.

Fletch. For the fifth time. C’mon.”

“What kind of movie’s Fletch?” someone says.

“It’soneofthegreatestmoviesofalltime. C’mon. It’s got, uh, Chevy Chase in it. He was the guy who was in, like, Caddyshack. He was the guy who was in Family Vacation. Clark W. Griswold. You just watch BET all day long, donchu? C’mon, man, we live in a diverse environment now. I betchu watch the Spanish channel a lot, don’t you? Because you think they’re talkin’ dirty and stuff? Huh?”

And then, without warning, the moment is over, and it’s back to technique.

Wilson asked me to censor part of this joke, for fear that he might offend people. But when you talk to the athletic director who hired him, his unrefinement is part of what landed him the job in the first place. In moments like these you realize that Wilson is not simply preaching blind fealty to slogans, that behind all the football coach, there is a wry character who is not above quoting fictional newspaper columnists. “He’s got this little twinkle in his eye that the kids pick up,” says Glass, the athletic director who hired him. “He’s smart as hell. He sees the irony in things.”

This quality, Glass seems to imply, was as much of a necessity as anything related to football. Because for all the propaganda about Winning Today, history dictates that Kevin Wilson will require a sense of irony. He needs to be in on the joke before he can turn it around on people.

Evening, Practice No. 2

There is actually a moment, in the midst of one of our conversations, when Wilson acknowledges the possibility of failure. “Maybe it’s not gonna work for us,” he says. “Time’s gonna tell.” And then he quickly moves off that topic and on to something more upbeat, about how he helped build dormant programs at Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern, about how the era of Peyton Manning and the upcoming Super Bowl in Indianapolis and the establishment of a Big Ten championship game at the Colts’ stadium means that this is already more of a football state than it used to be.

Of course, there’s no guarantee these things will trickle down to his program, and there’s no guarantee that Wilson will be here long enough to benefit even if they do.

By luring Gunner Kiel, Wilson could have changed the recruiting paradigm at Indiana, or he could have just gotten lucky with a kid who already had ties to his team. They’ve tried it all before in Bloomington; there have been breaking points for every coach when the negatives cannot be controlled, when all those exhortations on the whiteboard stop making so much sense, when a contentious public appearance becomes less of a rallying point and more of a reason to pile on. “The real question is whether they can overcome the mentality of, ‘Here we go again,'” says Don Fischer, the longtime play-by-play man. “What happens once we experience some adversity with a loss or two and everybody thinks we can’t get it going again?”

Until that happens, Wilson is the latest in a long line of saviors, comforting the afflicted, offering hope to the hopeless. In the late afternoon, in the midst of the second practice of the day, he jumps on a golf cart and rides through the parking lot of Memorial Stadium toward a gathering of athletic department donors. He jumps off the golf cart, steps to the podium, gets a standing ovation, and talks for 450 seconds without taking a breath, making a joke about the lettuce at the training table, commending the people in attendance for their positivity, declaring practice open to the public, and then darting back to the stadium on his golf cart. It is not the most stirring address, but he has an unquestioned presence that endears him to the masses; he plays the role of football coach as well as anyone ever has at Indiana. And for now, everybody is cool with that.

Michael Weinreb is a Grantland staff writer and the author, most recently, of Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB and How the ’80s Created the Modern Athlete.


Previously from Michael Weinreb:
Where is Micheal Ray Richardson?
The Life of Bubba Smith
Statis Pro Baseball: An Instruction Manual
Remembering Renée Richards

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