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SPORTS: With the football Hoosiers, it's one play at a time

November 12, 2007

I just got an e-mail from a good friend inquiring about where (his speculation was the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.) the Indiana Hoosiers would play their first bowl game since 1993.

I responded with the same line I've repeated often. When it comes to Indiana football, I never look further ahead than the next play.

It's a lesson I learned 40 years ago, in 1967. I was fresh out of high school. It always was my dream to go to IU-Bloomington, but finances dictated otherwise. I would have to spend my first two years of college in Indianapolis so I could save enough money to go to Bloomington my junior and senior years.

That didn't, however, prevent me from attaching myself to the IU teams, football in particular.

And, oh, what a season that was 40 years ago. The Hoosiers, coached by John Pont, ran off a 9-1 regular season. They claimed a share of the Big Ten championship, their first conference title since 1945. They defeated Purdue, 19-14, in an epic Old Oaken Bucket game.

Bob Collins, sports editor of The Indianapolis Star, nicknamed the team the "Happy Hooligans" for the seemingly carefree but also manic manner in which the Hoosiers managed to win. Indeed, eight of their victories were by a touchdown or less.

Quarterback Harry Gonso; tailback John (Punt, John, Punt) Isenbarger; fullback Terry Cole; flanker Jade Butcher; tight end Al Gage; offensive linemen Harold Mauro, Gary Cassells and Bill Russell; defensive linemen Doug Crusan and Cal Snowden; linebackers Brown Marks, Jim Sniadecki and Kenny Kaczmarek; cornerbacks Dave Kornowa, Mike Baughman and Nate Cunningham ... to me, those guys were absolutely larger than life.

I don't think I've ever been more passionate about a team although, granted, I had to don a cloak of objectivity during my sportswriting career with the local daily. But in 1967, I was just 18 years old, and there were no restrictions on my devotion to the Hoosiers.

Even though IU tied for the Big Ten title with Purdue and Minnesota, the Hoosiers were chosen to go to the Rose Bowl because the Boilers and Gophers had gone more recently. Ah, the Rose Bowl. Pasadena! Only a year before, my father had purchased our first color television, just in time to watch Purdue play in the Rose Bowl. It would have been a dream to watch my Hoosiers cavort on that hallowed turf.

Alas, money was scarce. A trip to California was out of the question. So I put the dream on hold. At the very least, the Hoosiers were a very young team. And I was a very young man. They would go back and, next time, I would go with them.

And now it's 40 years later.

Yes, I finally did make it to the Rose Bowl. Several, in fact. But it was to cover Michigan. Ohio State. Wisconsin. Purdue. And, egad, even Northwestern.

But no Hoosiers.

Now my life's well past halftime. In fact, even if all goes well, I'm looking at late third quarter, early fourth. Five years after that Rose Bowl, Pont was gone, replaced by Lee Corso, then Sam Wyche, Bill Mallory, Cam Cameron, Gerry DiNardo, the late Terry Hoeppner and now Bill Lynch.

Corso had one really good team (1979 Holiday Bowl champs). Mallory made the Hoosiers into a consistently competitive program but hit a plateau and fans and media-yep, I was among them-made the awful mistake of getting greedy and overreaching.

Which should be a lesson to you Purdue fans, by the way.

Cameron had the greatest offensive player in Big Ten history (Antwaan Randle El) and couldn't get him to a bowl. DiNardo was a DiSaster. Then came Hep, the right man at the right time with the moxie to display a bowl full of roses at his first press conference.

Only God, as it turned out, needed a coach.

When Hep came, and with my daily journalism career behind me, my wife and I bought into his boundless enthusiasm and purchased season tickets. In terms of passion for IU football, I'm 18 again. It is the one team in all of sports in which I make the most emotional investment. In fact, I'd much rather see IU football make it to the Rose Bowl than win the next three national championships in basketball. Seriously. Right now, though, I'd be giddy to see the Hoosiers in Detroit's Motor City Bowl. Wait. What was I thinking? Next play, Bill. Next play.



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. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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