I revised this essay at the conclusion of the 2010 season, but had to revise it again at the beginning of the 2011 season. As the story goes, Bud Wilkinson allegedly said that even he couldn't win at Indiana. Sadly, it's been four decades since IU had a share of the Big Ten football championship and went to the Rose Bowl and even then it was only because of a somewhat outdated Big Ten rule that disallowed Purdue to go.
Over the years, I've had numerous discussions with fellow alums about why we've had such a drought. Why the losing becomes overwhelming. And embarrassing. After Purdue demolished IU 62-10 last year, I decided to do some research to see if the losses were as overwhelming as I had imagined them to be. What I discovered was something even Stephen King couldn't write about.
I discovered that between 1968 (the year after they went to the Rose Bowl) and the end of the 2007 season, IU won 175 games, lost 269 and tied 6 for a sterling winning percentage of 39 percent. In the Big Ten, they won 103, lost 207 and tied 4 for a staggering 33 percent. In that same period of time, the only other team not to win a Big Ten championship has been a former national powerhouse, Minnesota (with 6 National Championships), and in the last two years they've at least turned the program around. Likewise, in that same span of time, IU only won 7 or more games 7 times and 5 of them came under the charge of Bill Mallory who, ironically, was fired after a few "losing" seasons. Go figure. In the 2000s, including the latest Purdue humiliation, IU is 35-70 (33 percent) overall with the only winning season being 2007 and 19-49 (27 percent) in the Big Ten.
The success of all football programs runs in cycles. Purdue, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State even USC, Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma all have had low points in their "winning traditions," but those institutions have made a concerted effort to win at both the coaching level and at the facilities level. As a matter of fact, one has to go back 70 years to the era of Bo McMillan to find a coach with a winning record at IU and even he was only .500 in Big Ten games. Between their first Big Ten championship in 1945 and their second in 1967, IU won 64, lost 122 and tied 6 for an overall winning percentage of 33 percent. In the Big Ten, they won 32, lost 133 and tied 5 for an overall Big Ten winning percentage of 18 percent. As a matter of fact, in the seven years between 1960-1966, the year before its Rose Bowl, IU's Big Ten winning percentage was 12.7 percent!
What I find rather disconcerting is that the institution has presumably recognized there has been a losing tradition at Indiana and it has accepted that losing tradition. While other institutions have looked for the best possible person to coach their teams, Indiana, except in the case of Bill Mallory (perhaps things might have changed had the late Terry Hoeppner survived), has not. I've argued with fellow alums (and a former trustee) and have heard that because IU has never had a winning football tradition, it's hard to begin one. But I find that argument rather specious. For example, prior to 1980, no one would have ever considered the University of Miami (FLA) to be an example of a "traditional" football powerhouse. Yet in the past 25 years, since 1983, they've won 5 national championships. In that same period of time, Michigan, Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State have only won one each.
So, perhaps IU fans are asking too much. If we include the 2010 season (including the Wisconsin debacle), since their first season in 1887 (of course they went, 0-1-1), IU's overall football record is 438-581-43 (43 percent) with a Big Ten record of 188-425-24 (30.6 percent). Astonishingly consistent. Let's put that in perspective. In other words, in order for IU to get even overall, they'd have to go 12-0 for the next 12 years and in order to get even in the Big Ten alone they'd have to go 7-0 every year until the year 2041. But at this rate, (i.e. losing 7-9 games a year) IU Football will achieve that magic number of 1000 losses by 2055! But when you thought it couldn't get any worse, there's the old IU-Purdue rivalry for the Old Oaken Bucket which Purdue leads 55-27. So, if the Hoosiers win the next 29 games, then by 2037 they'll be even with Purdue.
So, once again IU fired Coach Lynch and hired Kevin Wilson from Oklahoma believing that finally things would "turn around." One has to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt that things "might" turn around in the next five years, but the odds are truly against him. The latest in a long line of IU fiascos was the loss to North Texas State which came into the game giving up over 120 points in three games. Conceivably, IU could have come into the game 3-0 had they not "choked" to Ball State and Virginia at the end of the game. But they did. So, it was conceivable that even playing on the road they had a chance to beat North Texas. By the end of the first half, IU had given up almost 400 yards of total offense and though they finally got to the point in the second half when they realized defense counted it was too late and they lost the game 24-21 dropping to 1-3 in preparation for the Big Ten schedule which, given the schedule, they'll probably not win more than one game.
For someone who was at IU when they went to the Rose Bowl, it's a bit disconcerting to think that in over four decades they haven't returned there. But maybe Wilkinson was right. It appears to me that unless IU is serious about changing this 122-year atmosphere of failure by building a football program on which it can be proud, it might consider dropping out of the Big Ten and becoming a Division III team. At least at that point there's always the possibility of breaking even.