Zach Osterman Indianapolis Star | November 21, 2020

BLOOMINGTON – Mitchell Paige figures Ohio State will go ahead early.

Paige, who over four seasons from 2013-16 tallied 1,330 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns at Indiana, was driving home one night earlier this week, thinking about his alma mater’s biggest game in years, when he finally settled on a prediction Saturday.

“I think it’s gonna be 38-35 Hoosiers,” Paige told IndyStar. “I think Ohio State gets out 14-0, and we fight back.

“This is the chance IU has needed. I wasn’t alive in 1967 but it’s the biggest game of my lifetime, biggest opportunity to show that we have turned the corner that we’ve been talking about.”

1967 references Indiana’s last and only trip to the Rose Bowl. In 1987, the Hoosiers played a de facto Big Ten title game at Michigan State. In the debate over biggest regular-season game in program history, Saturday pulls up alongside those two at the front of the line.

The Hoosiers’ 4-0 start — expected to be put to a stern test when No. 10 IU travels to Columbus to face No. 3 Ohio State — has excited the university’s fanbase nationwide. No subset more so than the myriad former players who have watched, near and far, with passionate interest as Indiana football fights to realize the national legitimacy their program has craved for so long.

“It’s outstanding,” said Terry Tallen, a captain on IU’s 1979 Holiday Bowl team.

Saturday will be IU’s first-ever regular-season top-10 matchup
Across interviews with players whose careers spanned six different decades of IU football, alumni traced threads running through their careers to the Hoosiers’ present success. They saw in this team some of the same energy that brought them success, be it a Rose Bowl berth, a Holiday Bowl win or a dramatic, emotional winning season for the coach who brought them together in the first place.

To a man, they are all thrilled watching their old team’s historic season unfold.

“I wear my IU gear to the gym every day,” said Marcus Thigpen, a running back on IU’s 2007 Insight Bowl team. “I’ve got something to brag about.”

In a program that hasn’t had many of these moments — Saturday will be the Hoosiers’ first-ever regular-season top-10 matchup — alumni can relate to the challenge of building success in one of college football’s toughest conferences.

Many see glimpses of the same obstacles they overcame in their careers. The team camaraderie on display in IU’s four wins, and the behind-the-scenes videos posted to social media, trigger memories of a similar togetherness that bred similar success.

“That’s what really hit home for me, just to see the way those kids respond on the field, in the locker room, with their coaches,” said Harry Gonso, an IU trustee who started at quarterback for the Hoosiers’ 1967-68 Rose Bowl team. “They just exhibit so much of the attitude and feeling of our athletes and coaches that year.”

That togetherness can breed collective confidence, and drive internal expectations up long before anyone outside the program can.

“It’s something we all talked about when we were back for the Holiday Bowl reunion last year and we got to spend some time with the team. We talked about expectations,” Tallen said. “We expected to get better every week, we expected to play well, we expected to win, and we expected to win a championship.”

For this IU team, that started before this season, the eight-win 2019 campaign affirming its potential long before any top-10 ranking would.

But in this strange, pandemic-hit season — with no fans in stands and the schedule disrupted by COVID-19 — the Hoosiers’ singular focus becomes crucial.

Paige admitted there were times in his career when IU’s fight to draw and keep fans in the stands might have affected him, especially in tight games against marquee opponents. Having watched the Hoosiers knock off Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State across the first half of the season, he’s not surprised the dramatically scaled-down crowds (family only) don’t seem to bother this group.

“It affected me a little bit, where you think, ‘What the heck, what do we have to do (to keep fans engaged)?’” he said. “I don’t think these guys care. They’ll play you in the parking lot. I know that’s a cliché, but they’ll play you in the parking lot, because that’s all they need.”

Living Terry Hoeppner’s dream
It’s been a decade and a half since Will Patterson stood in the center of a media scrum next to the groundbreaking ceremony for Memorial Stadium’s North End Zone facility.

That facility, the planned enclosure of Memorial Stadium’s north end, had been the dream and the promise of Terry Hoeppner almost from his first day on campus. Hoeppner pitched recruits on gleaming new weight room and training facilities, and brought players like Patterson — a standout linebacker at Lawrence North — to Bloomington on the dream of turning Indiana football around.

Hoeppner died June 19, 2007, the same day Indiana officially broke ground on the facility he’d helped make reality. It became a testament to his energy and enthusiasm for the program as it was built. It also marked the start of more than a decade spent committing to progressive investment in football at IU.

“I remember when they broke ground for the North End Zone facility, just to have that was huge for us,” said Patterson, now head coach at Lawrence Central. “It was like, man we’re really trying to change the game here.”

Patterson and his teammates see some of their success in the foundation of what IU is achieving today.

First under Hoeppner and then his successor, Bill Lynch, Indiana built itself from a perennial doormat to a seven-win team in 2007. Results would slump enough in the ensuing three years for Lynch to be let go, and replaced by Kevin Wilson. But the Hoosiers’ Insight Bowl season, coupled to new Athletics Director Fred Glass’ ambition, set the department on a course to getting more serious about football in the following decade.

“I definitely think the guys that came after me in the (Kevin) Wilson era and what coach Allen is doing right now, they’re definitely carrying the load,” Patterson said. “But for guys like me that came in the Hep era played for Bill there for a few years, I feel like that’s where it started. The vision of Fred Glass kind of coming in and taking over has really come to pass, what Indiana football could be, and what it should be.”

Since that day in 2007, Indiana has repeatedly doubled down on football, with investments big and small.

The department has enclosed the other end of Memorial Stadium as well. It’s increased spending on coaches’ salaries several times over, adding extra staff in areas like strength and conditioning, nutrition and athletic training. Glass granted more low-level requests, like covering one of IU’s practice fields in artificial turf to make it usable year-round. Just last year, thanks in part to a significant gift from Tallen, Indiana tore apart and renovated the locker room/team facility space that now bares Tallen’s name.

In total, according to figures from the Knight Commission, IU increased football-specific spending by 105 percent from 2009-18, 21 percent more than the Big Ten average. The result? Since 2013, Indiana has won at least five games in every season save one, with three bowl appearances in the past five years. The Hoosiers have won five of their last seven against Purdue, beaten Michigan State for the Old Brass Spittoon twice in that time and, now, achieved their first top-10 ranking in 51 years.

Glass retired from the AD’s chair over the summer, passing the job to his longtime deputy, Scott Dolson, who has publicly pledged to keep prioritizing football.

“We tease Scott that he’s the undefeated athletic director,” Tallen said. “Seeing the Hoosiers ranked ninth in the country, I get a chill up my spine.”

Tom Allen’s team: ‘more fun than any team in America’
Players of all eras interviewed for this story point to another unifying force behind IU’s growth in recent seasons: the Hoosiers’ head coach.

Glass placed ultimate faith in Allen when he elevated IU’s former defensive coordinator to his current job. After Wilson’s resignation following the 2016 regular season, Glass declined to open a coaching search. When he walked into the news conference meant to discuss Wilson’s departure, Allen walked in behind him, and Glass turned to introduce the head coach former Hoosiers now credit for elevating Indiana to a new level of success.

“I’m in a group text right now with a bunch of former players,” Paige said. “I can’t even remember who texted it, but it was just randomly during the Michigan State game, ‘Can you imagine playing for coach Allen?’ Do I have any eligibility left? Can I just walk-on and stand there? Because they look like they’re having more fun than any team in America.’”

After back-to-back 5-7 seasons to begin his tenure, Allen won eight games and a Gator Bowl berth last winter.

He’s improved Indiana’s recruiting baseline, bringing in players like Michael Penix, All-American defensive back Tiawan Mullen and others. Next year’s recruiting class currently includes a four-star receiver from Atlanta and one of the country’s top dual-threat quarterbacks, Donaven McCulley of Lawrence North.

But program alumni see something more fundamental driving Allen’s success. They love his energy and see his commitment to his team. The same enthusiasm that has cost Allen teeth in practice and ended with a cut on the cheek after he tackled Devon Matthews drives Indiana forward.

“You see those kids in the locker room and the way they play for Tom Allen, it’s cliché, but they’ll run through a wall for him,” said former Hoosier and 11-year NFL veteran Adewale Ogunleye. “And it may be the first time I’ve seen it, but a coach that will run through a wall for his players.”

They also embrace the authenticity behind Allen’s long-held mantra, “Love Each Other.”

Ogunleye saw it borne out last spring, when the country was wracked with tension and pain in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Allen was among the most-prominent figures in college football to speak up in those raw days, and he spent hours sitting with players struggling to come to terms with their emotions in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“Tom Allen’s message was spot on and came at the right time,” Ogunleye said. “At a time when people were being ripped and pulled to the extremes, he was able to have a message of LEO, which breaks down so many different barriers and restrictions on people. His message was the right message at the right time for Indiana, and sports in general.”

As Indiana prepares for its biggest game in decades, the alumni who once fought for these exact moments themselves place the same faith in Allen that Glass did.

Shades of Lee Corso in Tom Allen
“What better coach than Tom Allen for what they needed there?” said Tim Clifford, quarterback of that ’79 Holiday Bowl team and the 1979 Big Ten MVP. “The energy — I can’t believe I’m actually saying this — it’s like coach (Lee) Corso on Red Bull. He was crazy on the sidelines, up and down, up and down, very excitable, and I see that passion in coach Allen.”

So, Paige has his prediction. Clifford has, as he calls it, “my IU/Chicago Bears man cave,” where the big-screen TV will be tuned to Fox on Saturday. Tallen has a copy of James Michener’s “USA: The People and the Land” open to a spread on the Midwest that includes a picture of him lined up over an Ohio State center in the teams’ 1979 meeting.

Superstitions will be followed. Everyone will be careful, given the pandemic, though they of course wish they could be in the stands.

But they will be watching.

Already, this season has given them plenty of memories. Tallen and Clifford enjoyed the Michigan win, after being robbed of what would’ve been an important tie in Ann Arbor during the 1979 season. Thigpen, a Detroit native who wasn’t recruited by the Wolverines or Michigan State despite going on to play more than a decade of professional football, couldn’t help but enjoy the last two wins.

Patterson can trace threads that started during his IU career all the way up through what he sees his alma mater achieving today. Paige credits Wilson for laying a foundation for what Allen picked up, and Allen for sprinting forward with it these past four years.

They all see a team playing with confidence, togetherness and belief.

“You can just see the camaraderie and love that exists between teammates,” Gonso said.

Allen has been at pains this week to say this game won’t define these Hoosiers one way or another, that Ohio State is important because it’s the upcoming challenge, and that it’s just another step among many taken — most of them forward — over the past few years in Bloomington.

But among alumni, he has a fair few believers, not just in his methods, but in a big Saturday ahead.

“The way these guys fight for each other, love each other and are never out of it,” Paige said, “I think they find a way to get it done.”