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BENNER: Here's my unpopular recommendation: Keep Lynch

November 27, 2010

In defense of the indefensible. That would be, of course, Indiana University football coach Bill Lynch.

Yes, I still support the man. Yes, I know. I may be one of only a few who does.

The wind of contrary public opinion is blowing like a gale among those for whom IU football actually matters and that, unfortunately, is also part of the problem: making IU football relevant to a significantly larger number of faithful who still give of their time and money to spend fall Saturdays in Memorial Stadium.

Indeed, it’s probably a good thing—even beyond the $3 million IU was paid to move the game—that Indiana’s home game with Penn State on Nov. 20 was hauled off to distant FedEx Field in Landover, Md., because in the wake of that 83-20 embarrassment at Wisconsin, the scene in Bloomington might not have been pretty.

Just so you know, this is being written in advance of the Old Oaken Bucket game at Purdue, but it’s difficult to imagine that a victory or loss to the Boilermakers would be the tipping point in determining Lynch’s future unless it was on the order of that 62-10 thrashing the Hoosiers absorbed two years ago in Ross-Ade Stadium.

In either case, welcome to big-time intercollegiate athletics, Fred Glass.

For sure, IU’s director of athletics has some awfully big decisions to make. Not long after taking the job almost two years ago, Glass said it was time for Indiana to start honoring contracts and end the oft-used practice of buying coaches out.

Then again, Glass also has said his top priority at IU is to fix football, so somewhere between honoring contracts and getting football right is a conundrum the size of Monroe County.

Again, many are adamant that if IU football is to be fixed, Lynch—who has another year on his contract—and his staff don’t have the tools to get it done.

Then again, many of those are the same folks who believe Lynch was under-qualified and never should have gotten the opportunity in the first place, even after taking over the program in the wake of Terry Hoeppner’s tragic death in 2007 and guiding the Hoosiers to their only winning season and bowl game since 1993.

I was among those then who believed Lynch had earned his chance—and with the chance should come enough time to prove, or disprove, he can do the job. The IU hierarchy and then-Athletics Director Rick Greenspan agreed, signing Lynch to a four-year contract.

You can’t sugarcoat the record since. Following the 2007 Insight Bowl team, the Hoosiers have gone 3-9, 4-8 and 4-7 heading into the Purdue game. In the Big Ten, the record has been an abysmal 2-21 the last three years, again ahead of the Purdue contest.

This year, without question, has been a major step backward, and it was Lynch himself who raised the expectations. But what we’ve seen are four wins over non-descript non-conference opponents, three major rump-kickings on the road (at Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin) and the inability to close the deal in narrow losses to Michigan, Northwestern and Iowa.

True, the Hoosiers have had another run of tough injuries, but those don’t compare with the injuries suffered at Purdue, which nonetheless scratched out two Big Ten wins and gave Michigan State a major scare on the road.

As much as I like Lynch for the person he is, for his character and integrity and because, well, he really is a nice guy, Indiana cannot be described as a well-coached team. Perhaps that’s on the assistants, but the overall responsibility stops at the head coach’s desk.

So how can I defend the indefensible? Because I do think Indiana should honor contracts. Because I believe by honoring that contract, Indiana will position itself as that rare institution that allows it to be guided by something other than the scoreboard. And because Lynch is a man of integrity and character, which ought to count for something.

I hear that all IU needs to do is throw money at a “big-name” coach and all will be solved. Sorry, but I am at a loss to identify any big name that would cast his lot in Bloomington and that includes basketball coach Tom Crean’s brother-in-law, Jim Harbaugh, now at Stanford.

According to the “experts,” Lynch has had two straight good recruiting classes with a third on the way. I say honor the contract. Sometimes you have to do what’s right, rather than what’s popular.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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