SPORTS: Behind the 'rock': Confessions of an IU football fan

August 28, 2006

Ah, it's almost that time again. For the pomp. The pageantry. The Bloody Marys and brats in the parking lot.

There are few things I look forward to more than college football season. And that would include Indiana University's season.

Especially IU's season, in fact.

File it under perverse pleasure. Somehow, I find ecstasy in the continuing agony of IU football. Time and again you get punched in the gut only to respond, "Sir, can I have another?"

It's easy to follow the front-runners and favorites. Their bandwagons are fully loaded. Standing room only.

But the real fans, I submit, are the few, the proud and the persistent who hang in with the Hoosiers year after year.

Sure, I know the snappy reply when someone admits to being an IU football fan.

"Oh, so you're the one."

True, there aren't many, at least in terms relative to most other Big Ten and Division I-A institutions. IU football receives a somewhat lukewarm response even among IU grads, who are far more fervent about basketball. And the vast majority of Hoosier students couldn't care less ... they're either sleeping off hangovers or in the process of creating another in one of the party areas around Memorial Stadium.

Apathy is ingrained. It's easy to understand why.

Most everyone loves a winner and most everyone loathes a loser.

Yet, for some crazy reason, I care more about IU football than IU basketball. The feeling goes back to my freshman year, which just happened to be 1967.

The Year of the Roses.

I was working full time and not yet able to afford enrollment on the Bloomington campus, so I attended what was then known as the IU Indianapolis Extension, a nondescript collection of a few downtown office buildings that had been converted into classrooms, long before it combined with Purdue and morphed into the now-gleaming urban campus known as IUPUI.

Anyway, in 1967, John Pont coached the Hoosiers to a Big Ten co-championship and the 1968 Rose Bowl. There was no way I could pay the freight to Pasadena, but I figured the Hoosiers-then led by the sophomore trio of Harry Gonso, John Isenbarger and Jade Butcher-would soon return to the Rose Bowl.

A young man now turned old ... and still waiting.

Not long after that glorious season, Pont was gone and IU returned to its perpetual search for someone to bring respectability to the program. Bill Mallory came closest and it was a mistake (one I've admitted to in this column) for me to call for his dismissal-and worse for the IU administration to pull the trigger-after a couple of down seasons.

But that's IU football, and if you dwell on the history, well, it will just leave you depressed. Like Cubs fans, you've got to focus on next year.

And next year arrives Sept. 2, when the Hoosiers open at home against Western Michigan University.

Terry Hoeppner is the man in charge now, and you have to love a guy who would dare pronounce IU his "dream" job, the way others long for the University of Notre Dame or Ohio State University or the University of Texas. Last year, in his first season after coming from Miami University of Ohio, Hoeppner began to transform the Hoosiers in style if not-yet-in substance.

Some folks chuckle at the traditions he's begun: defending "the rock" that supposedly was a piece of limestone from the original Memorial Stadium construction, or the pregame "walk" of Hoeppner and his team through tailgating fans.

Personally, I'm for any tradition other than the well-established losing one.

Yes, artificial stimulation can't replace the numbers that go up on the scoreboard. Still, there was unquestionably more spring in everyone's step last autumn in Bloomington even as a 4-1 start dissipated into a 4-7 finish and another season-ending shellacking by Purdue.

I've used this space to harangue IU alums and students who don't support football, but I can't argue that what puts butts in the seats is consistent winning. Even the most prolific and one of the most exciting players in Big Ten history-Antwaan Randle El-couldn't attract crowds because the team around him was so mediocre.

In any case, the few, the proud and the persistent will be in Bloomington Sept. 2, hoping-or Hoepping-for more signs that a turnaround is in the offing.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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