Indiana University is an unlikely setting for a football team, nestled among fields of harvested corn and old barns fallen into odd shapes. It’s a place to sit on a plank fence and talk about farm implements or baling twine, or how the Hoosiers, so drab in style and so vacant in football tradition, have come to lead the Big Ten Conference this season.
The Hoosiers always have been an amiable people, a team of smiling defeatists who were 0-11 just four years ago and could be counted on not to upset the order of things. So what’s with the attitude lately? Fifth-year coach Bill Mallory slams his palm in his fist, uttering expletives. Running back Anthony Thompson is knocking over teams like some kind of hardbody Heisman Trophy candidate, second in the nation in rushing to lead an Indiana that is ranked No. 14 in the country and, at 5-0-1, one of only seven unbeaten teams.
The Hoosiers are tied for the conference lead with Illinois at 3-0, and last year came within one victory of the title before losing to Michigan State. In that 8-4 Peach Bowl season, they became the first Indiana team to beat Michigan and Ohio State, ending a 20-year losing streak against the Wolverines and a 36-year one against the Buckeyes.
“People say, ‘Oh, they probably got lucky,’ ” linebacker Willie Bates said. “Like, ‘What a cute little team.’ Well, it’s the second year in a row now, and here we are.”
This from a school that has made the Rose Bowl once, in 1968. So either the Hoosiers have gotten very good very quickly, or they are proving the Big Ten is what many have long suspected it to be, a ruined monument with an 11-19-1 record against nonleague opponents. The answer is some of each.
Indiana’s remarkable progress can be traced to 1983, when Sam Wyche brought in his two Super Bowl rings as an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers, and promised to build a lasting program. He left after just one 3-8 season to become head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, but he had made a crucial contribution: He talked the administration into building a dazzling $2.5 million football complex underneath the stadium. In ’84, Indiana hired Mallory, 53, who came with the recommendation of basketball coach Bobby Knight and was a former Woody Hayes assistant.
Mallory admittedly is a Big Ten classicist, a lifelong devotee of the conference and a midwesterner to his marrow, born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio. He has a somewhat gravelly voice with a slight nasal tone, like the rustling of dry straw and cornstalks. His slightly gnarled looks are those of a typical old-time Big Ten coach, the heavy features that will someday be suited for bronzing, with a cleft chin and a broad, somewhat bent nose.
He believes in short sentences and very long practices, and he commands total obedience and tiresome repetition. He believes in the simplest conjugations of blocking and tackling, and he believes in the running game. Only sometimes does he believe in throwing and catching.
“I believe in just kick-tail, lock-jaw hard work,” he said. “And no excuses.”
Mallory came to national attention at Colorado, where he was 35-21-1 in five years with an Orange Bowl appearance in 1976 and just one losing season. He was fired in 1978 and left as the school underwent an NCAA investigation for minor infractions, some of which occurred during his tenure. After an idle year in 1979, he took over at Northern Illinois and guided it to a 10-2 record and its first Mid-American Conference championship in his fourth season.
Mallory started at Indiana by redshirting all but one of his recruits, a class of 12 current fifth-year seniors like Bates who now make up the team’s core. Players were sent into the new weight room, where offensive linemen have developed like Tim Radtke, who has gained 34 pounds and bench presses 100 pounds more than he did as a freshman. Mallory also raced after more recruits, like Thompson, the junior from Terre Haute, Ind., who was pursued by Michigan, Ohio State and Florida State.
“The only thing I thought about Indiana was that they always had losing teams,” he said.
Mallory’s most difficult task was to undo a defeatist attitude. He accomplished it by screaming his way through his second season (4-7), and leading a 6-6 ’86 team that went to the All-American Bowl after losing to Ohio State by 24-22. “We had to pull at them to get them out of that attitude,” he said. He gave emotional speeches, his color rising, and used props like throwing down buckeyes and stomping on them.
Indiana emerged with the 31-10 victory over the Buckeyes that coach Earle Bruce, who was eventually fired, called “the darkest day in Ohio State history.” Perhaps the turning point came early in the second half of that game, when the Hoosiers were pinned at their 2-yard line, under a blanket of furious noise from Buckeyes fans. When quarterback Dave Schnell arrogantly turned to the stands and gestured for more noise, Mallory thought his work had been rewarded.
“I think we finally started flushing that attitude of moral victories, like we played them close and that’s great,” Mallory said. “That’s garbage, walking out and getting your picture taken when you’re seven points ahead. I don’t buy that jazz.”
In truth, the Hoosiers’ rise must also be attributed to Big Ten parity, and perhaps an overall down cycle in the conference. More often than not, the annual Rose Bowl Pacific-10 meeting has shown the Big Ten champion to be a lumbering and unimaginative one, losing six of the last seven, although Michigan State upset Southern Cal last season.
With Thompson and a veteran offensive line returning, the Hoosiers adhere to Mallory’s lifelong philosophy: Mash the other team into the ground. Weighing down the line are a pair of widebody guards in Don Shrader (6 feet 2, 282 pounds) and Radtke (6-2, 272), a pair of nearly identical fifth-year seniors who sometimes pose as each other and are referred to by the Hoosiers as Rader and Schradtke.
Behind them, Thompson has had room to do anything he wants, but the 6-0, 205-pound junior has created his own openings. He is not a dainty or a stylish back, and his 964 yards on 185 carries, including 17 touchdowns, largely have come from his philosophy of hit first, rather than get hit.
“When they think they got a good shot on you, they think they hurt you, you just bounce back up,” he said. “That makes them think you’re indestructible. You shake hands and pat their butt and go back to the huddle, and they’re intimidated.”
The result for Indiana has been a relentless, tiresome ball-control offense. They have gotten 108 of their 154 first downs by rushing, and possessed the ball for roughly 40 minutes longer than their opponents. It might not be exciting to watch, but it’s working, at least in the Big Ten.
Mallory concedes the Hoosiers still must prove a few things, since they tied lowly Missouri, and have Illinois remaining on the schedule as well as Michigan. But he says with certainty, “We’re coming.”